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Gosh Darnit! Fey's Palin Impersonations No Laughing Matter for McCain

By Maggie Barrett

Tina Fey’s humorous impersonations of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (SNL) may be no laughing matter for Palin’s running mate, Senator John McCain, says Lauren Feldman, an American University expert on the political effects of late-night comedy.

“When audiences are exposed to political humor or satire, they are less likely to oppose the information in the message or question whether it is fair or accurate,” says Feldman, an assistant professor at AU’s School of Communication. “Relative to more traditional direct attacks in political ads, political jokes and other comedic portrayals that paint candidates in a negative light present greater opportunity for negative information to seep into the audiences’ consciousness. Ultimately, it can affect the perceptions of a candidate.”

Because Fey’s sketches accentuate Palin’s folksy persona, her interview and debate performances, and her g-dropping, “gosh darnit” speaking style, they are likely to make Palin’s negative traits and image characteristics more top-of-mind for viewers.  This, Feldman says, can indirectly contribute to a more unfavorable rating of the McCain-Palin ticket. 

“The potential for this will only increase as the volume of exposure to these types of parodies and caricatures increases,” Feldman says. “This is important to consider given that SNL will be airing a series of prime-time specials during the next few weeks.”

So, will SNL swing the election? According to Feldman, probably not.

“It is also important to remember that the audience for SNL is not necessarily interested in politics, though much of the show’s recent boost in ratings is likely helped by political junkies tuning-in to see the latest Fey impersonation,” Feldman says.  “At the very least, by making the campaign front-and-center in its sketches, SNL might help raise attention to the campaign among viewers who otherwise would ignore it.”

Palin has tried to capitalize on the attention being drawn to her by Fey's impersonations, arguing at rallies that her media interview performances were an attempt to provide Fey with ample material.  Palin has suggested she would enjoy  making a cameo SNL appearance.  Rumor has it she might turn up in an upcoming episode.

“It is not clear this would help Palin in the polls,” says Feldman, also a political communication expert. “Appearances on late-night comedy shows are useful for candidates as a means to project their non-political personas, to make them seem more ‘human’ and in-touch with voters. Palin is not necessarily lacking in these areas.  She would benefit more from a strong, substantive performance in a more serious setting.” 

Feldman is the coauthor of the forthcoming article “Late-Night Comedy as a Gateway to Traditional News: An Analysis of Time Trends in News Attention among Late-Night Comedy Viewers During the 2004 Presidential Primaries” which will be published in the journal Political Communication.