The 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States expresses that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This led to lengthy quarrels as to the length at which citizens can sufficiently critique their civic leaders. Members of the press, the theater, and artists have long utilized their voices to address their grievances by satirically mocking members of Congress and the President. In more recent history, television shows like Saturday Night Live have utilized comedy and satire to mock the President and the government. Different Presidents since the show's creators have had different reactions to responding to Presidential mockery and humor. While some have shown great restraint and respect for the protection of speech under satire, Presidents like Donald Trump have challenged verbally the right of SNL to mock him and his administration. In this essay, I will illustrate the evolving public persona of the Presidency and how it has helped satirists and comedians. I then will discuss the importance of American satire and how it has evolved in our modern times. Next, we will analyze how different Presidents have responded to satire and utilized it themselves for political support by looking at election data. Finally, we will understand how President Trump has responded to satire and critiques from Saturday Night Live and what his attitude means for our democracy.
To begin, we must understand the evolution of the American Presidency to one that has become more public with the development of social media and the internet. The visibility of the President at our current time is unlike any other. As a result of this, so too has the development of satire and parodies of the President's actions because the President has become a phenomenon similar to that of celebrities in which we follow their every move and how they spend their days. Presidents have utilized the media to gain public support for their causes by putting themselves out there in press conferences, speeches, and talks that have been televised to the American public. As David Gergen points out in Richard Ellis’ “The Development of the American Presidency”, “there is no weapon more powerful than persuasion by speech” (120). Ellis then points out that “Presidents have expressed great faith that they could boost public support for their policies or themselves through their rhetoric” (120). Through the development of the radio, television, and social media, presidents are constantly attempting to reach wider audiences of the American public by placing themselves in spaces in which they are largely visible and able to be heard. ABC News released a report that found that “On many days, some US news networks devote more than 50 percent of their airtime to talking about the President”. They found that on an average day MSNBC talks about President Trump about 67% of the day, CNN 66%, and Fox News 31%. The media has a growing obsession with President Trump because they know and understand that news about the president increases ratings. We rarely hear about national news without some reference to the Trump administration.
The problem with this is that with Presidents being so public and broadcasting themselves on a daily basis, it has led to the opportunity for incredibly funny slip-ups to occur which comedians and programs like Saturday Night Live quickly exploit. One can remember fondly the many word flubs of President George W. Bush such as “is our children learning” or getting a shoe thrown at him on live television. These moments and speeches, like the rallies of candidate Donald Trump, quickly become mocked and satirized and become viral online. Comedian Alec Baldwin has become President Trump’s impersonator on Saturday Night Live and is routinely featured. Will Ferrell impersonating George W. Bush, Dana Carvey as Bush 1, Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton, and Chevy Chase as President Ford are just some examples of the ways in which Presidential parody has become an essential aspect of our American culture. We can remember the Presidents just as easily as we can remember their main impersonators on television. Whoever the President is at the time, we expect comedians and programs like SNL to closely watch what they say and do and find reasons to poke fun at the highest office in the world. The other problem with increased media exposure is that political polarization has turned the public presidency into greater harm than good for the President’s image. In his essay “The Public Presidency and Disciplinary Presumptions” Lawrence Jacobs explains the evolution of the public Presidency and the ways in which it has shaped Presidential popularity and accomplishments. He expresses:
The communication revolution-cable stations and social media networking as well as online news sites and news-aggregating services have atomized the shared public sphere into numerous, disconnected cubbyholes that reinforce existing perceptions and attitudes and resist presidential appeals (25).
This fractured nature of our public sphere has allowed satirists and comedians to create content that is catered to specific audiences that are in favor of satire and the mockery of power. It has given satirists and comedians the power to have incredible amounts of access to the lives of the President, much more than ever considered possible under the early days of our republic. It has also made satire more difficult in which rather than changing people’s opinions and educating the public, it has become an avenue for self-fulfilled audiences that watch certain programs based on their political views. For example, those that are unhappy with the job performance of Trump are probably much more likely to watch SNL and Presidential satire than those that support the President.
We must now understand the power of satire in American politics and how it has evolved over time to our current state. The history of American political satire, as Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times expresses, can be traced back to “Benjamin Franklin, who once wrote a sarcastic treatise about the British government titled 'Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One,'. Satire is often used to challenge the ways in which our country is operating and inform the public. Comedy is often a form of education in this country that has begun to attract more viewership than cable or network news. The Pew Research center 2014 reported on adults that watched “The Colbert Report” and found that “One in ten (10%) online adults said they got news from the show in the previous week, on par with such sources as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today”. In addition, according to a study by the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication in regards to the altering of net neutrality rules in 2014, “viewers of satirical shows such as John Oliver's Last Week Tonight and The Colbert Report are far more aware of the issue than consumers of traditional news sources”. Moreover, viewers of the program “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” were reported to be the most aware of the changes to net neutrality rules, with 29% of his audience reporting that they “heard a lot” while just 7% of Fox News audiences had “heard a lot”. What was once fringe comedians poking fun at U.S. administrations has slowly become one of the singular ways in which people in this country have become informed. This has created new problems for Presidents as Americans largely believe entirely different things depending on where they are receiving their news. The institutions and journalists that the country has long trusted have been challenged and debated as candidates around the country and the President himself talks of “Fake News” and references the press as “the enemy of the people”.
Moving forward, let’s see how different Presidents since Gerald Ford have reacted to criticism and parody from Saturday Night Live. For example, President Ford, portrayed by Chevy Chase was often portrayed as a clutz who was always falling and hurting himself. They also played him as highly unintelligent. The famous skit of the 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, played by Dan Aykroyd, featured Ford mistakenly thinking he was on a gameshow and upon the playing of the national anthem, hit the buzzer to guess the name of the song. According to Steve Hendrix in his piece in the Chicago Tribune, while in private it “bothered him to be portrayed as a clutz...in public, Ford's reaction to the 'Saturday Night' send-ups was very different: He laughed.” Hendrix also points out that “Chase was the featured comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 1976, Ford embraced the shtick, scattering papers and silverware across the dais, mostly on Chase's lap.” The timing of President Ford’s ascension to the office of president is important because in following Nixon, he expressed the importance as Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen explains, 'It was a strange time,' Nessen recalled. 'It was just after Watergate, the Vietnam War was still going on, inflation was a problem. There was a general feeling in the White House that we didn't want to spend a lot of time on this.'
President Ford set a precedent of letting Saturday Night Live and comedians engage in comedic acts making fun of his administration in order to prevent backlash. As Nessen points out, with so much of the late mid to late 70s focused on distrust of the White House, it was best not to intervene and make a public reaction to it.
While Presidents Carter and Reagan largely left SNL with little to no public comments about parodies, George H.W. Bush was largely vocal in the parodying of himself. As Hendrix points out in his piece in the Chicago Tribune, he “appeared so often with Dana Carvey on television and at charity events” and “The two became and remained friends well after Bush was defeated in 1992. The Bushes invited Carvey and his wife to the White House soon after his defeat”. This is an example of a President that did not just accept satire in the media, rather, he embraced it and recognized its importance for the country at large to make fun of civic leaders. The ability to take criticism and face parody on national television preserves the importance of the 1st amendment in giving citizens the right to speak freely about elected officials. In terms of optics, it illustrates that the President should be above these satirical programs and instead focus their attention on the different tasks that must be addressed in order to run the country. However, at our moment in history, we are now faced with a President that feels the need to intervene and respond to criticism in the press and on Saturday Night Live in particular.
In response to Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Donald Trump on SNL, the President tweeted “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!”, referencing that he feels the media is liberally biased and attempting to delegitimize his presidency. What was most startling was the President’s use of the word “retribution”. Many questions what this means in terms of the protection of the freedom of speech and actor Alec Baldwin expressed that he “feared for his safety”. President Trump often responds to jokes or satire with an ego the size of a skyscraper. As Michael Nelson expresses in his book “Trump’s First Year”, Trump was incredibly upset at the reaction to “defend the indefensible, such as the president easily refuted assertion that the crowd at his inauguration was larger than the crowd at Obama’s first inauguration” (111). This of course inspired a large host of responses from comedians and inspired the now famous Melissa Mccarthy impersonation of Sean Spicer.
President Trump has shown clear disdain for mockery and slander. In his piece, “The First Amendment in the Era of Trump”, Erwin Chemerinsky expresses in regards to defamation and libel law that candidate Trump said, “that if he became President, the law of libel and slander would be revised to make it much easier for plaintiffs to succeed” (563). Donald Trump has proven in his presidency that he has difficulty receiving criticism on the job. In fact, members of his own party have shown weariness at the President's need to respond to criticism through Twitter. As Michael Nelson points out in his book, “Trump’s First Year”, Republican senator Ben Sasse, in response to the President’s multiple Twitter rants, said, “Please just stop” and pointed out that “This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office” (107). A large part of being president of the United States is having the ability to contain one’s outrage and emotion in order to appear stoic and unbiased. However, Trump seems to get offended or belittled by jokes in the press and on programs like Saturday Night Live. He has illustrated an ego that is much more fragile than his predecessors who knew when to keep quiet and let comedians perform their craft. President Trump threatens the civil rights of artists who seek to question him by posting threats or rants on Twitter that call to question our rights to satirize and mock the president of our nation.
Above all, the important thing to remember is the freedom that our constitution has granted citizens in protecting their right to satirize and make fun of our elected officials. The United States is uniquely rooted in its founding, as a nation that questioned and challenged authority in an effort to preserve the individual freedoms that we hold close to our hearts. It is important that leaders understand this importance and recognize the artistic institutions that we have created and their legitimacy in entertaining and educating the public. At the White House Correspondents dinner in 2016, President Obama said that “Eight years ago, I was a young man full of idealism and vigor. And look at me now, I am gray, grizzled, and just counting down the days to my death panel” making fun of his own ambition and ability to get things done. It represents a certain humility in the office of the President. Allowing a President to be properly satirized or made fun of, illustrates the strength of our democracy by showing that our leaders are not esteemed kings, queens, or aristocracy. Rather, they are citizens that are held to the same laws that all American citizens are. Finally, in a national tracking poll by Morning Consultant, a majority of Americans surveyed on Saturday Night Live said responded yes to “I have enjoyed the impersonations of the members of President Trump's administration and I would like to see more of them”. This illustrates the importance of satire and comedy in our political age and how they can healthily influence a democracy by challenging power and bringing America together in dark times with the power of laughter and healing. Satire and political mockery must be preserved for the health of a democracy and the preservation of the 1st amendment.
- National Tracking Poll. 2017, morningconsult.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170205_topline_Brands_v3_AG_SNL.pdf.
- Jacobs, Lawrence R. “The Public Presidency and Disciplinary Presumptions.” The Free Library, www.thefreelibrary.com/The public presidency, and disciplinary presumptions.-a0320732039.
- “Christmas Ceremony for White House Staff.” C-SPAN.org, www.c-span.org/video/?35618-1/christmas-ceremony-white-house-staff.
- Tilley, Cristen, et al. “See If You Can Guess Which US TV Network Mentions Trump the Least.” ABC News, 13 Dec. 2017, www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-13/donald-trump-news-media-coverage/9125810.
- “‘The President's Speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/05/01/president-s-speech-white-house-correspondents-dinner.
- Morning Consult. “National Tracking Poll.” Morning Consult, 17 Feb. 2017, morningconsult.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170205_topline_Brands_v3_AG_SNL.pdf.
- US Census Bureau. “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2008 .” Census.gov, www.census.gov/history/pdf/2008presidential_election-32018.pdf
- Miranda, Carolina A. “Ridiculing of Leaders through Satire Has a Long History.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 16 Jan. 2015, www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-satire-miranda-20150115-column.htm
- Jones, Chris. “Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump's Skin.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 July 2017, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/05/alec-baldwin-gets-under-trumps-skin/521433/.
- Hendrix, Steve. “'SNL' Has Skewered Every President since Ford, and All of Them Reacted the Same Way - until Now.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 14 Oct. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/tv/ct-ent-snl-presidents-20181014-story.html
- Ellis, Richard. The Development of the American Presidency. Third ed., Routledge, 2018
- Holm, Nicholas. “The Political (Un)Consciousness of Contemporary American Satire.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 52, no. 03, 2018, pp. 642–651., doi:10.1017/s0021875818000920.
- Rollins, Peter C., and John E. O'Connor. Hollywood’s White House: the American Presidency in Film and History. University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
- Chemerinsky, Erwin. “THE FIRST AMENDMENT IN THE ERA OF PRESIDENT TRUMP.” Denver Law Review, 1 Oct. 2017, web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=9e3288b4-fa36-475b-bea1-abb18ae3ea75@pdc-v-sessmgr01.
- Gottfried, Jeffrey, et al. “For Some, the Satiric 'Colbert Report' Is a Trusted Source of Political News.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 Dec. 2014, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/for-some-the-satiric-colbert-report-is-a-trusted-source-of-political-news/.