On Feb. 6, Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, following in the footsteps of many political candidates and public office holders. Though not always “Live from New York”, candidates on both sides of the aisle — and the border — have had a rich history of showing off their lighter side. Since the inception of mass media, particularly television, there has been a growing strain of politicians willing to let their hair down outside the box of canned speeches or news interviews.
In the Canadian tradition of comedic satire, the CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes has stood since the 1990’s as the leader in engaging politicians with tongues firmly in cheek. As former Prime Minister Jean Chretien put it, “Very often you make the joke at your expense. These are the best – when you can laugh of yourself is because you’re comfortable with your personality.”
Seeing leaders like Chretien make light of the Shawinigan handshake, or having 22 Minutes character Marg Delahunty (played by Mary Walsh) dressed as Xena kiss Stephen Harper, gives a glimpse into the personalities of the often well-guarded political figures. In 2013, Justin Trudeau had an infamous run-in with 22 Minutes over the Liberal Party’s platform on legalizing marijuana, having to stop interviewer Mark Critch from lighting up a joint in his office. It is perhaps the first time a Canadian politician has had to say “You’re not going to hotbox my office”. Other popular Canadian comedic hotspots have been Royal Canadian Air Farce, The Rick Mercer Report, and Wayne & Shuster. It’s not just about showing your lighter side to the “serious” voter, it’s also about gaining exposure with those who aren’t as politically engaged — those who take their morning coffee with Sportscentre or Kelly and Michael instead of CNN or the CBC.
South of the border, Saturday Night Live is still one of the greatest attention-getters for political candidates. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, George McGovern, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Gerald Ford have all at one time cameoed or hosted the late night sketch show. Even Donald Trump has hosted both before and after he became a politician, and current Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) was once an actor and writer for the show.
SNL has had a long history of skewering politics, and for some politicians it’s a chance to get in on the joke with their impersonators. For Senator Sanders, SNL has used Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm mogul Larry David with particular accuracy. Tina Fey has garnered much admiration and laughs for her impersonation of Sarah Palin, while Hillary Clinton has been parodied by no less than seven cast members or guest hosts, most notably by Amy Poehler.
For the generation before SNL, shows like Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In” and the Dean Martin roasts would also bring in the odd politician such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It’s a boost for politicians who can be loose and funny, and an embarrassment to be avoided for those who can’t. Candidates are going to have enough embarrassing moments on the campaign trail as it is. Just ask Howard Dean in 2008 after his “Yarrr!/Yahoo!” moment, or Rick Perry after his 2012 debate “Oops” moment, when Governor Perry couldn’t name the departments he would cut from the federal government under his own plan.
President Obama has broken new ground in terms of the depths he has gone to be interviewed in alternative media, including comedic-based ones like Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” or Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Obama also capitalized on new media to reach out to younger citizens through mediums like Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything/AMA” dialogues.
The late night talk show circuit is a safer bet for politicians, but not without its perils. The bar on funny is set much lower for an interview than a comedy sketch, but at the same time leaves openings for charm and wit. It’s very host-dependent though, and the world of comedians is not without their political wonks who can be very challenging to politicians. I would point to Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Colbert Report-era Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore and even David Letterman as very tough interviewers who used their humour and knowledge of the issues to make a point or call out a politician’s contradictions.
The White House Correspondents’ dinner is somewhat of a holy grail for politicians and politically-minded comedians. It’s a politician’s holy grail because they only get to do it when they have already won the presidency, and it’s a comedian’s accomplishment in getting to basically roast the Washington and media elite. Though the majority of people will generally only see some snippets here and there from the annual dinner, watching both the featured comedian and the president at the podium borders on hilarious. I recommend checking out past dinners on YouTube or other streaming services – to be fair, it’s the only time C-SPAN is deliberately funny.