Live from New York: Should candidates get in on the joke?

May 18, 2012 at 12:52 PM ET

From left, Jason Sudeikis plays Romney, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do their best Palin/Clinton and Fred Armisen takes on Obama.

Election year politics is fertile ground for comedic skits. But savvy politicos know that it is better to join in on the joke — and that there's a lot more than funny business at play.

Just ask Sarah Palin, who gamely played along with actress Tina Fey’s "Saturday Night Live" depiction — and appeared in an episode as herself — during the 2008 elections.

She even raised the roof while actress Amy Poehler rapped “All the mavericks in the house put your hands up! All the plumbers in the house pull your pants up!”

Dana Edelson / NBC /
Alec Baldwin, as Rick Perry, squared off against Sudeikis' Romney and Andy Samberg, as Rick Santorum in a debate sketch.

So far, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has demurred on making an appearance on the show, but that hasn’t stopped the writers from taking their shots. "SNL" comedian Jason Sudeikis plays Romney as a flavorless, perfectly coiffed waffler whose political stances fluctuate depending on the audience.

Barack Obama is also fair game, depicted by Fred Armisen, a white actor in dark makeup, as a commander-in-chief who speaks in exaggerated, halting sentences and uses the word “look” far too much. Earlier in May, the show reportedly decided not to air a planned skit that would have shown the actor playing Obama wishing viewers a joyous “Killing Osama bin Laden” day.

Comedy “has an important role in politics and campaigns,” said Diana Owen, director of Georgetown University's American program. “There’s a good portion of the electorate that will tune out to hardcore info but will tune in to humorous portrayals and will take away information. 'Saturday Night Live' has been a valuable source of information in that regard."

Saturday, when Mick Jagger hosts, the show will wrap a season that sent up the bizarre twists and turns of the 2012 campaign thus far and the once-cluttered GOP presidential field. Those who fell by the wayside in the Republican showdown even sang an ode to their campaign experiences set to Green Day’s “Time of Your Life." The next season kicks off just as the election really heats up — in September.

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“There’s a long history of political humor. It goes back to cartoon drawings of candidates in newspapers,” Owen said. "A lot of it has become more lighthearted.”

Dana Edelson / NBC /
Kristin Wiig does her best Michele Bachmann on the show.

And politically satirical skits often alert some less news-inclined voters to stances they might have missed. There’s a lot of power behind the jokes, starting with how the candidates are portrayed.

Actor Chevy Chase’s imitation of former president Gerald Ford on "Saturday Night Live" as clumsy likely hurt him in 1976, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Comedian Dana Carvey’s depiction of former president George H. Bush WASP-ish “wouldn’t be prudent” catchphrase and actor Phil Hartman as former President Bill Clinton wolfing down burgers and ogling ladies at McDonald’s became ingrained in the public consciousness.

Such depictions “define the candidates to a certain degree,” Sabato said. “How they are portrayed has an impact on public opinion.”

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