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That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore!

April 18, 2011

So what do Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have in common? Other than that they both star on NBC sitcoms that in my humble opinion aren’t very funny, of course. Well, if you think a few years back, both got their start on an even more unfunny (unfunnier?) thing on NBC—Saturday Night Live. And, as part of their tenure on SNL, they portrayed Sarah Palin and Katie Couric (or, depending on the sketch, Hillary Clinton), respectively, in a number of skits caricaturing Palin’s seeming lack of knowledge of just about everything.

In her new memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey revisits the event and its aftermath, responding to accusations that the whole thing was a plot to boost the ratings of 30 Rock. This doesn’t make much sense to me, seeing as how if it were a ratings ploy for any show I’d think it’d be SNL, especially since executive producer Lorne Michaels will seemingly do things to get attention even if they contradict his earlier decrees. But it did remind me of the way that Palin and the McCain campaign got all huffy about the impersonations at the time, and this got me thinking about the rhetorical power of humor.

So, quick refresher course: Fey portrays Palin in sketches that hit a little close to home for the then-governor, in part because their humor seems to stem from how little Fey has to alter things Palin actually says. Then, shortly before the election, Palin does a guest appearance on the show (the SNL clip starts at the 50-second mark) playing the perennial good sport and yukking it up with the cast in classic white chicks and gang signs fashion as Poehler raps about Alaska and Andy Samberg jumps around in a costume like a horse’s ass, as is Andy Samberg’s wont.

If you actually listen to the Fox News sycophants instead of skipping them on that video, you can get a sense of what this whole appearance was supposed to do, from Palin’s perspective at least—make her look like she was in on the joke all along. But, after the election, Palin didn’t act like she was in on much of anything, instead accusing Fey and SNL of “exploiting” of her and her family, and the media in general of being just so gosh darn nasty. More like the MEANstream MEANdia, am I right?

And maybe that’s just bitterness over losing the election, maybe it’s because Fey’s impression hit a little too close to home, but whatever in-on-the-jokeiness Palin gained by her appearance on the show is lost by, well, positioning herself as outside of the joke all along. All of this points to how humor, specifically humor that makes apparent in-group/out-group distinctions, works. It’s a point I’ve briefly made on this here blog before, but this kind of humor is often a means of policing group boundaries and reaffirming solidarity. Simultaneously, it’s a means of negatively evaluating outsiders.

Case in point: if we act like Sarah Palin and make our portrayal seem uninformed and twee, we are saying that it’s not good—so not good that it’s actually laughable, in fact—for political candidates to be uninformed and twee. It reaffirms solidarity among those that don’t like Sarah Palin, and by drawing attention to the characteristics that are undesirable in a candidate, it indirectly makes a case for what characteristics are desirable. Candidates like Sarah Palin, by this interpretation, are funny to the intended audience because they’re such bad examples of candidate-like behavior that we can’t help but laugh.

But, if Palin is in on the joke, if she’s the person that the joke is being played on, not the person that the joke is about, then that’s a different story. Said another way, if she’s the butt of the joke (a more passive role—the joke is being played on her and she’s a good sport about it) and not the reason it’s funny in the first place, then this positions her differently. It also constructs audience boundaries differently. If Palin is in on the joke, then it’s not as critical of her and there are two other possible interpretations. The first is that it’s just a well-meaning send-up, like when you make fun of your friends. It’s still a critique, but it’s a toothless one. The second is that the joke is actually about something else—that the critique isn’t of Palin’s behavior, but of people who think that such behavior is problematic in the first place. By being “in on” the joke, whoever was responsible for Palin’s appearance on her end probably hoped to force one of these interpretations and undo some of the joke’s damage. But the fact that this didn’t really work, and Palin’s bitterness afterwards, reminds us of humor’s ability to reaffirm boundaries and criticize outsiders.

If you want to know more:

  • For an in-depth analysis of how humor can position the joker and the butt of the joke while commenting on and evaluating in-group/out-group behavior, check out Keith Basso’s Portraits of ‘The Whiteman’: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache.
  • I tried to find all the Fey as Palin sketches on the NBC site, but they’re apparently not there anymore. I didn’t even bother to check YouTube, because I know NBC polices that sort of thing pretty vigilantly and even if I found a link, it’d probably be gone pretty quickly. Which is kinda dumb when it comes to stuff you can’t watch on their site anymore. Regardless, I’m pretty sure the links that I posted are safe because they use the SNL footage in commentary and news, which I’m pretty sure is allowed.
  • Except for the Beastie Boys/Elvis Costello thing, which is a nod that SNL made in its 25th anniversary episode to how Elvis Costello got “banned” from the show in 1977 after changing his mind at the last second about which song he’d play. You can read about it on Wikipedia here.
  • In keeping with my reference to the above incident (because it’s one of the last awesome things I can remember hearing about as far as live music on SNL is concerned), I tried to think of an Elvis Costello song to name the post after. Maybe “Clowntime is Over,” but it’s only a b-side and it didn’t really fit, so I named the post after a Smiths song instead. At least they’re both from the UK, right?
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