Don’t Score the Debate Until SNL Does
Immediately after Monday night’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the cable networks will use pundits and flash polls to try to tell you who won. Don’t believe them. On Tuesday they will parade out campaign surrogates and online polls to tell you who won. Don’t believe them. On Wednesday and Thursday they will use newspaper editorials and major national polls to tell you who won. And you may think by then you know how it all played out.
But you still won’t.
Don’t score the first presidential debate until Saturday Night Live lampoons it when the show returns for its 42nd season on October 1, and the news media reacts to that event. Only then will you know who really came out on top.
Though it’s only a comedy show, SNL has set the national perception for presidential debates going back four decades. Political pundits can analyze and deconstruct the real matchup, but well-written satire almost always creates the more lasting – and damaging – impression.
In 1976, Chevy Chase’s biting caricature of a fumbling, stumbling Gerald Ford flailing for logic against Dan Ackroyd’s poised and counter-culture savvy Jimmy Carter ended up defining Ford in a way that no pundit analysis could. This particularly biting moment is still quoted to this day:
In 1980, SNL was going through a retooling period and didn’t start its season until after the presidential election. (One of many huge mistakes they made that year.) But another late-night sketch show, ABC’s “Fridays” (where I was a staff writer at the time), did a pretty good Reagan-Carter debate piece. Unfortunately, “Fridays” didn’t have a large enough viewership to make a national impact.
Similarly, SNL in ’84 (where I also wrote) was still striving for a relevancy comeback and we never even attempted a Reagan-Mondale debate sketch. Harry Shearer, who did the show’s Reagan impression that season, wrote one dark and rambling 13-minute debate sketch that was so God-awful, the producers refused to air it. Too bad, because cast member Gary Kroeger did such a spot-on Walter Mondale, it might have given the hapless Minnesota senator a shot turning a few more states blue…or at least, a little less red.
In 1988 the SNL debates between Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush and Jon Lovtiz’s Michael Dukakis became a national topic again and were equally as devastating for Dukakis. While Carvey did a dead-on Bush, his impression was loving and upbeat while Lovtiz’s impression of the diminutive, morose Greek governor came off as swarthy and doomed. (Which he was.)
Four years later, the late, great Phil Hartman played Bill Clinton with cool confidence and an impish smile, while Carvey did double duty as both the doddering Bush and the weaselly unctuous Ross Perrot, making both men seem grating compared to the smiling, rascally Clinton.
In 1996, SNL never did an actual debate sketch, choosing instead to do one in which GOP candidate Bob Dole prepares for the debates dressed in his pj’s. Cast member Norm MacDonald created the lasting caricature of Dole by constantly speaking about himself in the third person (“That sounds good to Bob Dole!”) as he barked insane orders at everyone in sight. That single impression of Dole, performed only a few times, created the national cartoon image of Dole that, like the nonagenarian former senator, survives to this day.
But probably no series of SNL debate sketches had as much impact as those in 2000, when Darryl Hammond turned the Al Gore talking point “lockbox” into a national punchline. True, Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush painted a tongue-tied buffoon, but there was something endearing about Ferrell’s impersonation that worked for Bush. It solidified the national meme that Bush was the one you’d want to have a beer with. Against the sighing, squeaky monotone of Hammond’s Gore, it was no contest.
The clear takeaway from those debate sketches is that it’s not necessarily the candidate who is painted smarter than his opponent that comes out the victor. Likability is by far the more potent ingredient…even if its the likability of the performer to which we are subconsciously responding.
Of course, in 2008 it was the vice presidential debate sketch that got the most attention, when Tina Fey’s devastatingly spot-on Sarah Palin torpedoed an already capsized GOP ticket. And in 2012, Jay Pharoah’s Obama mic drop against Jason Sudeikis’ unctuous Mitt Romney put an exclamation point on who took won those debates.
This year, it won’t necessarily be Hammond’s Trump or Kate McKinnon’s Clinton that defines the debate, as both have been seen for years. Rather, it will be a line or a moment that from the real debate gets magnified by satire. If Trump or Clinton give their SNL doppelgängers a hook to mock and ridicule – one that catches on in the zeitgeist – that could become a defining moment in the campaign.
And from this comedy pundit’s perspective, it’s been Mckinnon’s Clinton that has done the candidate the most harm this year. Hammond’s Trump is dead-on, but it lacks the mean-spiritedness or bite of McKinnon’s Clinton. Hammond generally doesn’t go for the jugular, while McKinnon’s impression swims in it. If she can take a moment or image and magnify it, that could be chum for the media sharks who love to pick Clinton’s every hiccup apart. I can envision Trump campaign manager Kellyann Conway referring to the moment ad nauseam in every interview she does.
So whatever the polls or the pols tell you about Monday night, you’ll need to wait seven more days for the real returns to come in. Because whoever becomes the comic bumper on morning talk shows and cable news that week may see their presidential hopes crumble in a single, snickering hashtag.
Kevin Kelton is a former “Saturday Night Live” writer and co-host of the “A More Perfect Union” podcast. He is also the founder of the Facebook political debate group, Open Fire.