Tuned In

Let's Be Franken: Did SNL Cross a Line?

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Politico reports that Al Franken—whom you may know as Stuart Smalley, or as the Democratic nominee for Senate from Minnesota—had a hand in this weekend’s Saturday Night Live spoof of negative ads from John McCain:

Should SNL have accepted input from a Democratic Senate candidate? Dollars to doughnuts this will become a cause celebre among conservatives arguing that NBC as a whole is biased—the ultimate aim being to pressure NBC News to “balance” its coverage to the right. But while I’m sure this is a headache General Electric would rather not have, to me it’s a distinction without a difference.

Yes, Franken is a liberal Democratic Senate candidate. Before which, he was a liberal Democratic comedy writer [Update: who was with SNL from 1975–80 and 1985–95]. And guess what: there’s a fairly solid chance that in a New York or L.A. comedy writers’ room, you’re going to find, oh, one or two liberal Democrats. And even without Franken’s involvement, the sketch wouldn’t be a bit surprising coming from SNL.

Would SNL be calling McCain out on his ads because its staff leans liberal? Or because it actually believes his ads are father over the line than Obama’s? Or is it both: that they are more attuned to see candidates crossing the line when a conservative does it?

People can and should argue all that to their hearts’ content, but the fact that SNL doesn’t feel obligated to balance every sketch like the PBS Newshour—finding an equivalent trangression by Obama for balance no matter how hard they have to look—is precisely what has made it one of the most compelling commenters on this election. (In the primary, remember, SNL was regularly hammering Obama, or his perceived supporters in the media, in favor of Hillary Clinton.)

Comedy doesn’t have to be balanced; it has to be funny. It needs to have a point of view, in this case, that McCain’s ads have been more egregiously misleading and negative. (I would agree with this, at least as far as the candidates’ mass-audience advertising is concerned. You can certainly disagree, but comedy’s point of view is not supposed to be unexceptionable or inarguable.) And it has to be fair, in the sense of not being phony and not merely serving an agenda; if SNL seems to be making up Republican transgressions to carry water for Obama, it risks losing the audience. But that’s different from striving for constant, moment-to-moment balance.

Now maybe I just believe that because I’m an Obama-besotted columnist, but I don’t see the issue as long as Al Franken isn’t collaborating on story angles with Brian Williams. I certainly expect to hear the argument that this amounts to the same thing, though.

Oh, by the way—is the sketch funny? Like a lot of SNL sketches, it would have been twice as funny a third as long. One McCain-doesn’t get-teh-technology joke would have been plenty, and the “two black babies” gag—which satirizes the kind of stuff that comes from anonymous smear artists, not official campaigns—is a reach next to the brilliant “‘universal’ health care” word twisting. Do you realize how many expensive MRI tests those shiftless Martians would order up?