I missed the latest Saturday Night Live, but by the next morning I had received an email from a concerned citizen about the content of its "cold open," in which Fred Armisen, as President Barack Obama, is assailed by Will Forte's Hu Jintao over America owing China money. The emailer was angry at Saturday Night Live for reinforcing flawed media narratives to the effect that the stimulus package has not created any jobs and that health care reform will not save any money -- and overall getting facts wrong. "This is really the wrong time for SNL to be getting basic facts so sorely wrong."
WATCH the sketch in question:
Does anyone actually expect Saturday Night Live to get its facts straight? Well, yes! Very recently, the show ran another sketch that featured Armisen as Obama running down a list of achievements -- and finding that none had been accomplished. This actually led to CNN factchecking the show:
CNN's judgment was subsequently skewered by The Daily Show:
Now, I am basically of the mind that holding Saturday Night Live up to some high level of fact-check scrutiny is more than a little absurd. The traction point of this Saturday's cold open was simply that lots of people joke about China holding so much of our debt. The writers basically take this fundamentally oversimplified idea to give the Jintao character room to complain about how America is spending money to ameliorate social problems and bail out banks while China has an outstanding IOU. I suppose that Armisen could have launched into a lengthy analysis of how the stimulus package is rolling out, or delivered a treatise on how reforming health care could keep people out of crippling debt, allowing them to purchase more Chinese exports, but doing so would commit the comedy crime of "negating the premise" -- the premise being that America is literally screwing China. This whole sketch is nothing more than a vehicle for the comedians to make a broad anal sex joke. They even follow the "rule of three," to maximize it's accessibility.
I'm not sure that we want to go down the road where we factcheck Saturday Night Live every Sunday afternoon. But for what it's worth, comedian Andy Cobb offered me some food for thought, via Twitter on this matter, saying, "I actually think it's fair to factcheck comics doing topical bits. Otherwise Limbaugh gets a pass, yknow?" and "I mean, you can't factcheck a joke or a punchline, but you might factcheck a premise and a setup."
All of which is true, I suppose. But it's worth pointing out that the sort of comedy Cobb makes is a unique animal. Cobb's Public Service Administration produces hilarious satire, but it's comedy that hinges on being well informed about a topic. For instance, their take on Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza's "Mouthpiece Theatre" is fantastic, but wouldn't work with an audience unfamiliar with the two reporters' callow belief that their journalistic perch makes them funny, or the Washington Post's struggles with creating a web-based brand identity. I suspect this joke would not play well on NBC's affiliate in Des Moines:
On top of that, Cobb often lends his considerable talents to advocacy. His comedic premises account for facts because he is in the business of "making the case" for things. That's what's on display in this spot for Health Care For America Now, sending up the way insurance companies arbitrarily change the rules on their consumers:
Of course, the mass consumption version of this comedic ethos is seen on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both of which do a great job of informing their viewers because their stock in trade is penetrating and demystifying media narratives and laying them bare.
Everything I've read from SNL writers describing how their comedic sausage gets made indicates that they do not feel any sort of higher obligation to "making the case" for one particular point of view. Similarly, they don't often apply themselves to decoding media narratives -- because that would get in the way of the anal sex jokes. We could argue whether SNL is passing on the chance to create a better or more trenchant or more "dangerous" brand of sketch comedy, but I think what's unavoidable is that Saturday Night Live has its own unique set of priorities, and they include preparing a show that puts their guest host to his or her best use and putting the talents of their own character-driven comedians on display. (I think if we were to fact-check Kristen Wiig's "Penelope" character, many of her claims would not hold up to scrutiny. Still, LET'S NOT GET WOLF BLITZER INVOLVED, OKAY?)
Nevertheless, I think that going forward, we're going to see the factcheck fetish continue to be applied to Saturday Night Live. There are two things that are driving this. First and foremost, legitimate news organizations are, more and more, repurposing SNL's content as a cheap way to kill a few minutes every hour. For example, ABC News's This Week devotes a whole portion of its weekly broadcast to the antics of late-night comedians. By the end of today, MSNBC might well show that cold open three or four times, unless their prudishness gets the better of them. No one intends SNL's content to stand in as the literal truth, but as long as comedy is appearing on the same platform as news, people are going to treat it as fair game for high levels of scrutiny.
The other reason new outlets are likely to fact-check comedy shows is that it makes them look tough, at a time when the public does not have a lot of faith that they are capable of holding anyone accountable anymore. Organizations such as Politifact and FactCheck.org have risen to fill that gap. And now, we're often treated to the spectacle of news organizations citing these outside political factcheckers, which always makes me wonder what's wrong with their own stable of journalists! Watching a spokesman for Politifact come on teevee to talk about what's true and what's not is a lot like walking into a Starbucks and finding out that they've outsourced the boiling of water to a contractor.
That might be a pretty good premise for a joke actually, but I'm not sure it would play all that well at 11:30pm, live from New York.