Satirical knives ready to carve up presidential candidates
I was feeling pretty bad about the state of political satire on TV until I saw Kate McKinnon of "Saturday Night Live" mock Hillary Clinton last week on the eve of the former secretary of state's presidential announcement.
Practicing her announcement in front of a smartphone on the advice of an aide, McKinnon's Clinton looked into the lens with a mad glint in her eyes and said in a forced and scary voice, "Citizens, you will elect me — I will be your leader."
And that was supposed to be the new, friendlier Hillary showing that she understood she had to connect on a personal level with "everyday people" and "earn" the nomination one vote at a time in 2016
By the time Clinton's real, feel-good campaign-launch video debuted some 18 hours later, it was already undercut for millions of viewers who had seen "Saturday Night Live" — or the YouTube version of McKinnon's takedown of the candidate posted online or in social media.
Team Clinton should be afraid of McKinnon's Hillary — very afraid. And we viewers and citizens should be very grateful. McKinnon has already done more than any traditional or digital press outlet to deconstruct the best-image-money-can-buy, media version of the New Hillary Clinton that her campaign is trying to sell.
Just as Tina Fey's Sarah Palin caricature on "SNL" in 2008 exposed the GOP vice presidential candidate in ways the legacy press never could, so might McKinnon's expose Clinton, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars her campaign will spend in the next 18 months in an effort to win the White House.
Team Clinton can dismiss conservative criticism of the former first lady as part of that "vast right-wing conspiracy." And it can use all its backstage, inside-the-beltway coziness with the mainstream press to try and get favorable coverage — as it did on the eve of the launch with dinners hosted by top Clinton insiders like John Podesta. But it can't stop "SNL" and McKinnon from making us laugh at Clinton and their efforts to rebrand her like a new version of Coca-Cola. I know I'll be tuning in to "SNL" each week hoping to see McKinnon's robotlike, entitled, narcissistic Clinton.
We in the media are more than happy to talk about how important a free and robust press is to democracy, but we often overlook the similarly important role of political satire — particularly in presidential election years.
With Jon Stewart leaving "The Daily Show" in the Twitter-challenged hands of Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert already departed from "The Colbert Report" for the mainstream showbiz land of CBS late night, it was starting to feel as if a changing of the guard was taking place and the conversation of democracy might be the poorer for it.
"I'm actually one of those people who is crazy enough to think satire truly is saving our political process, and mostly because the political process itself is already such a mess," said Pennsylvania State University Professor Sophia A. McClennen, co-author of "Is Satire Saving Our Nation?: Mockery and American Politics."
"But the point is that satire has played a really big role, and with those two guys out as the elections gear up, there's a lot to be concerned about," she added in a Baltimore Sun interview. "We've got other people who are emerging on the scene. … But I really have a lot of concern about what this [loss] could mean."
Compounding the departure of Stewart and Colbert from prime time at Comedy Central, HBO announced this month that Armando Iannucci was leaving "Veep," the series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as vice president (now president) of the United States that he created and produced for four seasons. Stewart, Colbert and "Saturday Night Live" notwithstanding, there was nothing on TV in recent years to compare in breadth or depth with the withering critique of Washington politics that Iannucci rendered.
While HBO has already named a replacement for Iannucci in David Mandel, of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," as showrunner on "Veep," there is no replacement for his satire. The Oxford-educated Scotsman is one of a kind. He will be missed this election cycle, even though, as he told me last week, he stayed away from satirizing specific politicians.
And as much as I dislike Stewart's political selectivity in who gets satirized, his daily presence will be missed as well. I don't think he's the Mark Twain some of my colleagues do, but he did reinvent and make late-night comedy political in a way no comedian had ever done. And, in so doing, he changed the culture.
But I was so buoyed by McKinnon's performance that I went back last week to spend some time with Larry Wilmore and "The Nightly Show," Comedy Central's replacement for "The Colbert Report." I wanted to see what he did with Clinton and the less widely known GOP candidates who have been popping up on the campaign trail like whack-a-moles recently — Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.
More good news. He came out firing on all cylinders Monday night and took on the Clinton announcement in a funnier and far more illuminating way than anything anyone else on Comedy Central did last week.
"Whoo, big day in politics yesterday," he said in opening the show. "The most powerful woman in politics returned to the scene in a big way, y'all. We have been expecting to hear from her, and, wow, man, she really came out strong."
The screen then filled with the image of Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen from HBO's "Game of Thrones," who says haughtily, "I'm not a politician. I'm a queen."
"OK, OK," Wilmore said, quieting the audience's laughter. "That's Khaleesi from 'Game of Thrones.' But Hillary Clinton also came out yesterday saying she's seeking the crown."
After video of her announcement, Wilmore started ticking off similarities between the two. It began with video of Khaleesi, eyes looking absolutely crazed, saying, "I will take what is mine. With fire and blood, I will take it."
"I smell a campaign slogan," Wilmore said, as the screen filled with the much-discussed and dissed "H" logo of Clinton's campaign and the printed version of Khaleesi's words.
Wilmore was skillfully doing the same kind of wrecking-ball number that McKinnon did on the idealized "New Hillary" image that appeared in her launch video. He was taking on a perceived sense of entitlement to the nomination and blasting away at the imperious tone she took before a congressional hearing on Benghazi and during a March news conference on what she did with her emails from her time as secretary of state.
He then went on and tore up her video almost frame by frame, analyzing and often mocking images — like one of a dog whose owners say their current goal is to train the animal not to eat their household garbage. In questioning such images, he exposed the emotional "logic" of Madison Avenue that was driving the video.
And instead of a five-minute video on "SNL," he kept the heat on her through the entire show with round-table interviews and conversations featuring comics Miles Thompson and Ricky Velez, along with CNN senior political correspondent Nia-Malika Henderson and actress Debi Mazar.
Few journalistic operations did a better job of trying to take viewers inside the Clinton announcement. And several of the so-called journalists did a lot worse.
Vox, for example, offered an analysis piece that characterized Clinton's announcement as groundbreaking work that could change the way political campaigning is done in years to come.
Except it wasn't groundbreaking or even original. It borrowed from a 2009 American Express ad series called "Small Business Anthem," which had borrowed from Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" ads.
With deep-pocketed, dynastic candidates like Clinton and Bush, who can buy all the image-makers and media time they want, we are going to need all the honest journalism and keen-eyed social satire we can get in 2016.
Losing Stewart, Colbert and Iannucci is a blow — no doubt about it. But as the media campaigns start to arrive, the work of McKinnon and Wilmore is encouraging. Mix in the promise of John Oliver on HBO's "Last Week Tonight," and there's hope that this changing of the guard might not be as painful, and leave us as vulnerable in 2016, as I initially feared.