campaign desk

Palin, Fey, Palin…Stop

Why the parody shouldn’t become the news
October 7, 2008

Here’s a suggestion for the networks: stop allotting so much tube time to Tina Fey. As the skilled impersonator of one Sarah Palin, Fey is getting some primo treatment during broadcast political coverage. Fey-as-Palin clips have blossomed, framed by real Palin clips on the campaign trail; we’re also being treated to Palin’s own response to the spoofs, and speculation that she will appear on “Saturday Night Live” herself. But as fascinating as the representational mash-ups are, the fact remains that it’s ridiculous to continue to play the Fey-as-Palin clips on news shows just because the juxtaposition is funny.

I’m the last person to deny parody a place in the media landscape when it says something that straight reporting and analysis wouldn’t be able to say. But as far as the Fey-Palin phenomenon goes, the SNL sketches aren’t informative; they’re just culturally current, which makes them fun to watch.

In an election cycle that’s already suffered the detrimental effects of the virally forwarded sound bite, is it too much to ask that the sound bites be real? “Gee whiz, that really does sounds like Palin” does not constitute a story. So Chris Matthews “can’t tell them apart.” Great point. Now let’s move on, because by appearing so frequently in the news lineup itself, Fey’s parody obfuscates the significance of the news it lampoons.

There’s something incredibly surreal in the constant replaying of the Fey clips. It’s as though Palin’s star, initially so bright as to seem garish, has dimmed enough that the (wished-for) reincarnation is the more sprightly—one might even say more Palin-esque—Fey. Alternate universe? Where all politicians are played (more skillfully) by likeable actors? Never mind that the election isn’t settled yet; I’m there. (So is David Letterman. Last week, while previewing Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, he queried: “Can we just get Tina Fey to do it?”)

Palin has climbed aboard the Palin-Fey funny, ha, ha bandwagon herself, joking that she was “just trying to keep Tina Fey in business” (this, a reference to her not-so-hot interviews with Katie Couric). While Palin may be attempting to be good-natured about her weaknesses and preemptively staunch the next mocking sketch, the press should resist the impulse to cast this hall of mirrors as another stop on the Palin Coverage Wild Ride. The SNL sketches, and the cultural impact of same, are only indirectly relevant to the election. And to keep giving them so much attention enables the falsified, faux-catty duel between Real and Fake Palin to persist on center stage.

Mark Leibovich, in a New York Times piece about the symbiotic relationship between comedians and politicans, writes that “presidents are inevitably caricatured but not totally defined by their comic canon-fodder value.” He cites Dick Cheney, Al Gore and both Clintons as politicians that will go down in history as significant figures despite being interminably mocked, because they have substance. Dan Quayle, on the other hand, will always be remembered for his gaffes as vice president. With Palin, he says, it’s too soon to tell.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

That’s the problem that characterizes the Palin-Fey nexus. It’s not really a nexus. Palin’s reputation, which may be quickly becoming a joke, isn’t even fully formed enough to stand on its own without the punch lines. Palin is probably happy that she’s relevant enough to be spoofed; for a candidate who is trading so heavily on her image, any memory is probably a helpful one. (And SNL writer Seth Meyers helpfully guesses that Fey’s impersonation of Palin will go down as one of the best-known in the show’s history.) But the ostensible newsworthiness of this very effective parody is a press creation born of repeated juxtaposition—and a distracting one, considering we’ve entered the four-week countdown.

In other words, leave the SNL clips mocking the Palin-Couric interview or last Thursday’s debate with Biden to the YouTube or Hulu cycles. They’ll have (very) long lives there.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.