Pop Culture or Political Riff: Presidential Imagery on ...

Pop Culture or Political Riff: Presidential Imagery on Saturday Night Live Joe Cutbirth Columbia University 2003

Saturday Night Live Weekend Update w/ Colin Quinn A frightening moment this week for First Lady Hillary Clinton Her plane, en route to the former Soviet Union, was forced to make

an emergency landing when it was discovered that a frayed wire in the engine was causing serious malfunctions The president was said to be furious and demanded an immediate investigation of what went wrong with

OPERATION FRAYED WIRE Research Question What was it about the Clintons marriage and for that matter the personalities of all our presidents and their families that captures the public interest? Is it really their marriage and/ or other specific

events or details about them, or is something else at work? Hypothesis Private conversations, speculation by the national press, and details about the lives of our presidents, which become fodder for a seemingly endless parade of jokes, skits and

narrative on late-night television are actually a way for a curious public to process their relationship with someone they feel a unique and personal kinship for: the person they elected president. Methodology Academic Coordinates

Content Analysis Secondary Survey Data Archival Research (Oral History) Academic Coordinates Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922 Jeffrey Scheuer, The Sound Bite Society, 2001

Lippmann Great men, even during their lifetime, are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality. - Public Opinion

Scheuer All politics is no longer simply local; most politics and most popular culture is televisual. - Sound Bite Society

Text For Study: Saturday Night Live Tea had been around for centuries, after all, but the notion of throwing mass quantities of it into

Boston Harbor, that was new. That was revolutionary. And so was Saturday Night Live. - Tom Shales and James Miller

Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter Chevy Chase & Dan Aykroyd Ronald Reagan Phil Hartman George H. W. Bush

Dana Carvey Bill Clinton Phil Hartman George W. Bush Will Ferrell

X-Presidents By Robert Smigel Research Content Analysis Archival Research Content Analysis

Presidential characters (nominees of a major party) appeared 293 times in skits on Saturday Night Live from the shows inception in 1975-6 though the 2002-3 seasons. Thats an average of 10.5 per characters per season. The most frequent presidential character was Bill Clinton (70 times). Others were: George H.W. Bush (38 times), Ronald Reagan (37 times), Jimmy Carter and G. W. Bush (28 times), Bob Dole (25 Times), Gerald Ford (17 times), Al Gore (15 times), Ross Perot (11 Times), Richard Nixon (10 times). Presidential characters appeared most frequently during the 1996 and 2000 seasons (39

times). Other years were: 1992 (17); 1998 and 1995 (16); 1976 and 2001 (15); 1989 (12); and 1975 (10). There is a noticeable drop in the average number of presidential characters during most of the 1980s. From 1980-7 there was an average of just 5.3 characters per season, and no season featured more than seven characters. This changed with the 1988 presidential campaign and during the 1990s. During the 198891seasons the average number of presidential characters per season was 9.5. The trend continued upward during the 1990s. During the 1992-9 seasons the average number of presidential characters per seasons was 14.6.

Archival Research Shales & Miller Presidential parody on Saturday Night Live appears to have ebbed and flowed during the early years with the perceived popularity of a presidential character, most notably Ronald Reagan. SNL was less willing to satirize Reagan during his early presidency (when he was shot) or in the wake of his landslide re-election, but that changed by 1987 as the IranContra scandal unfolded.

Reagans election set the tone. There was a kind of impending doom hanging over the country, and there was palpably a move toward conservatism at the network, said Barry Blaustein, a head writer and supervising producer during the early 1980s. The nervousness network officials felt about parodying a popular president vanished with the 1988 election. There was no incumbent for the first time in 28 years, and network executives were beginning to see presidential humor on the show as an end to itself. Even if all other attempts at livening up the show have failed, (since 1988) it was almost guaranteed a new burst of energy every four years when election time came around,

according to Shales and Miller. Discussion/ Conclusions How do most citizens relate to the president? The analyst of public opinion (the shows writers and cast) must begin by recognizing the triangular relationship between the scene of action (the skit), the human picture of that scene (stereotypes imbedded in the audiences

mind by mainstream media), and the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene of the action (audience reaction) - Lippmann Discussion/ Conclusions cont. How does television mediate this relationship?

It is not the political arguments or strategies but the underlying values and visions that are simpler and more complex (on television). And those core values of simplicity and complexity cannot be peremptorily disqualified. - Scheuer

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