Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

SNL's Influence on Politics is No Joke

Since 1975, comedians have been poking fun at important figures from America and abroad on Saturday Night Live. Now a staple of late-night entertainment, SNL is unafraid to express the shared frustrations of its actors, writers, and producers in a way that resonates with its audience. Often though, the show’s portrayal of current events and politicians ends up not just reflecting public opinion but actually shaping it. Now, the 2020 presidential election is a topic of discussion on almost every platform, including SNL

In the early years of SNL, viewers might have watched the news before the show started on NBC. Nowadays, viewers can choose from a dizzying number of different programs to stay up to date on the news, both on TV and through online streaming services and websites like YouTube. While accessibility to news has improved, people aren’t necessarily better informed because of it. On the contrary, much of SNL’s audience likely receives information about current events for the first time through its sketches.

SNL is notorious for being painfully honest, and at worst, a celebrity’s feelings might get hurt as a result. Now that SNL serves not only as comedic relief but also as a source of news, though, the stakes are higher. If the audience learns something for the first time from SNL, they might not hear the whole story, leading to the formation of an opinion that is hard to correct once it’s taken root in their minds. In fact, SNL and other comedy shows may actually have a greater power than traditional news outlets in impacting its viewers because humor makes a story more likely to be remembered.

Leading up to the last presidential election in 2016, SNL began to mock the candidates heavily, especially Donald Trump. In the past, Trump was a businessman with a reputation for being egotistical and overly flirtatious, and he had no problem with that. Once the election was in progress, Alec Baldwin took over his impersonations, representing Trump in an especially negative light—something Trump did not take kindly. Not only did this present issues with how the public gathered information about the candidates, but it also polarized how different audiences felt about SNL

While it can be funny to mock the presidential candidates, such a light-hearted treatment of something as important as politics could distract viewers from facts that might influence their vote and general opinions about policy and America’s leaders. In fact, liberal audiences are not the only ones affected by the skits reinforcing their beliefs. According to the study “Political Impersonations on Saturday Night Live during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election” done by Outi J. Hakola, the ridicule aimed at Trump on SNL may have reinforced support for him as well. 

This time around, by mocking President Trump SNL might unknowingly be making an in-group of his supporters who are offended by what they perceive as a misrepresentation of their beliefs and their chosen candidate. The sketches could be garnering sympathy and support for President Trump’s feelings, possibly promoting an "us against them" mentality among voting-age conservatives. While most voters seemed to have their minds made up about this election already, many were still undecided, and both the issues of incorrect or partially incorrect information and sympathy for being made fun of could have played into their voting decision.

Although Saturday Night Live is not required to be factually accurate, its representation of news stories could be influencing the audience beyond just giving them a laugh. For people who agree with SNL’s writers, they could be learning things which might not be entirely true. For people who defend President Trump, SNL’s views could serve to reinforce their decision to vote for his reelection. While it’s meant to be humorous, SNL could be driving a deeper division among Americans during this election cycle, pushing each political party even farther towards opposite ends of the spectrum.