Life imitating art

The evolution of parody

Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” In some respects, that is an exaggeration, but anyone who saw last week’s presidential debate knows that statement can be all too true, especially in 2020. Watching two old, white men hurl insults and interrupt each other every five seconds did not inspire much pride for American democracy.

 Unsurprisingly, the comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live (SNL) opened its season premiere with a parody of the debate. President Trump was once again portrayed by Alec Baldwin. His portrayal has been an SNL regular since 2016, winning him a Primetime Emmy in 2017 and another nomination the following year. Former Vice President Joe Biden was portrayed by actor Jim Carrey for the first time. Moderator Chris Wallace was played by regular SNL cast member, Beck Bennett.

 The sketch starts with a disclaimer about the debate that ends with “It was pretty funny to watch. As long as you don’t live in America.” From there, Chris Wallace (Bennett) looks to the camera and says “Good evening, I’m your moderator Chris Wallace and I think I’m gonna do a really, really good job tonight.” The sketch pokes fun at many aspects of the candidates’ behavior during the debate, such as President Trump’s constant interrupting and Biden’s closing statement in which he talks directly to the camera and says “the American people,” which followed him literally “pausing” President Trump with a remote control.

 While Baldwin and Carrey’s impressions were very funny, they still managed to conduct themselves with more respect and subtlety than the candidates they were portraying. For example, the sketch made no mention of Trump’s attack on Biden’s son Beau, a remark many people felt crossed the line. Wallace’s performance as a moderator, however, was more effective in the parody than in the real debate.

Any longtime viewers of Saturday Night Live know that presidential debates have been a cornerstone of SNL’s episodes during election years. I recently watched their sketch parodying the 1988 presidential debate between Governor Michael Dukakis (played by Jon Lovitz) and former President George H.W. Bush (played by Dana Carvey.)

I was shocked to see how different this sketch was from the Biden/Trump one. While both candidates were mocked for their idiosyncrasies, it was far, far, FAR less dramatic than the trainwreck we witnessed at this year’s debate. There was no interrupting from either candidate nor were there personal attacks on the other’s family. The most off-color line was Bush responding to a question about his involvement in Iran-Contra, to which he replied “First of all, I didn’t know the Iran sale was going to the Contras, I was told the money was going for the bombing of abortion clinics.” While that joke might have seemed offensive in 1988, it would have been little more than an afterthought if we heard Alec Baldwin say it, especially considering in the actual debate the president was asked point-blank to denounce white supremacy, and wouldn’t do so.

The stark contrast between these two debates illustrates how much America has changed in the last 32 years. We have become much more reactionary and intellectually indifferent, and the SNL debates are a microcosm of that. While shows like Saturday Night Live provide some much needed humor, we can’t ignore the fact that parody is supposed to be a caricature of real life, not an understatement.