In comedy, there’s something called the “rule of three,” which states that a concept, thrice repeated in slightly different form, creates an effective climax on the third beat.
This weekend, “Saturday Night Live” had its third post-strike show, and for the third consecutive week poked Barack Obama and propped up a Hillary Clinton campaign meme. The most recent effort extended Clinton’s now-famous “3 a.m.” ad — the one that suggested Obama’s too green to be commander in chief — to 3:02 a.m., when a swearing, smoking President Obama desperately calls his former rival to receive her specific instructions on handling a foreign-policy crisis (and relighting a balky White House furnace).
The usual political japery? Perhaps — except some news organizations credit SNL for shaming the media into tougher coverage of Obama. That achievement followed SNL’s first pro-Clinton salvo — a lacerating Feb. 23 debate parody in which reporters declare themselves so “totally in the tank” for the Illinois senator that one asks if he’s “comfortable and needs another pillow.” The sketch undergirded a key Clinton complaint — and she explicitly referenced SNL’s work in a real debate three days later.
Obama: dominant in news
Over the next seven days, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) calculated that Obama was a dominant or significant factor in 69 percent of news stories — a campaign-season high — many of them negative. The epitome: the New York Times’ Feb. 29 headline: “Are the media giving Obama a free ride?”
At its societal best, comedy is the jester telling the truth in the king’s court, ennobling humorists from Mark Twain to Mort Sahl to Jon Stewart. Obama’s résumé, his lofty rise and the media’s foibles are all rich targets. But SNL’s one-sided drumbeat — including former head writer Tina Fey’s stemwinding March 1 feminist rallying cry — has many Dems wondering what’s gotten into the Rockefeller Center water — or more precisely, why the show is carrying Clinton’s water. “Why is Saturday Night Live Shilling for Hillary Clinton’s Campaign?” fumed the leftie Huffington Post. Some have taken to referring to the show as “Hillary Night Live” and, of course, there’s a parody video containing that punchline.
Who gives what to whom?
Let’s accept for a moment that a 33-year-old past-its-peak comedy show matters. (Six million people watched the Feb. 23 debate episode, a 12-month high.) If SNL is — however temporarily — acting as an advocate, perhaps we should investigate its giving like any contributor’s.
Have SNL’s executives and talent made any real-dollar political contributions? Why, yes they have.
The show’s creator and longtime Svengali, Lorne Michaels, has a lengthy political rap sheet, according to the Federal Elections Commission. He hasn’t donated to Clinton or Obama, but given repeatedly to the other beneficiary of the Obama takedown: John McCain. Michaels gave $1,000 to McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, and in 2007 donated the statutory limit, $2,300. For good measure, Michaels donated $1,000 in 2006 to the Arizona senator’s political action committee, Straight Talk America, which regifted the money to Republicans nationally to build up McCain chits. (Straight Talk America’s website redirects you to McCain’s presidential site — which of course contains the disclaimer “not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”)
Now, to be fair, McCain represents Michaels’ only GOP donation in the past 10-plus years; the remaining $45,900 of his $51,200 total went to Democrats such as Chris Dodd, Charles Schumer, John Kerry and our own Al Franken. Michaels has a professional link to Franken — and to McCain, whose daughter Meghan was an SNL intern in 2004. (By the way, she voted that year for Kerry.)
Another McCain fan is Robert Wright, the chairman and CEO of SNL’s owners, NBC-Universal. Like Michaels, Wright donated to Straight Talk America — $2,000 in October 2005. But Wright is hedging; he gave $2,300 to Obama in May 2007 and $2,300 to Hillary Clinton four months later; he hasn’t helped McCain’s formal presidential bid. NBC’s owner, General Electric, has contributed $1.3 million in the 2008 election cycle through its PAC; 53 percent to Democrats, and none to presidential candidates or their PACs.
According to the FEC, SNL’s most blatant Clintonista co-conspirators — Fey and her husband, Jeff Richmond, and the show’s Hillary impersonator, Amy Poehler, and her husband, Will Arnett — have given nothing. In fact, the only SNL employee listed as a Clinton donor is director James Signorelli, who gave $1,000 last summer. The man who wrote the pro-Clinton sketches — longtime SNL scribe James Downey — made no contributions, though Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales identified him in 2007 as a “conservative Republican” and ex-SNL writer Adam McKay calls his former colleague an “Ann Coulter pal” who is now “spinning primaries.”
Enough of a McCain-Clinton axis for conspiracy theorists? Perhaps, though there’s one other data point. The FEC lists a single cast member who’s a presidential donor: Seth Meyers. Meyers gave $1,000 to Obama in January — just six weeks before the recent Clinton fusillade. Meyers isn’t just any cast member: He succeeded Fey as head writer, so he’s technically Downey’s boss (though under Michaels’ thumb).
If you feel you’ve fallen too far down the rabbit hole, here’s a simpler alternative theory: Like a well-trained comic, SNL is getting an insane amount of press each week it ups the Clinton ante. Perhaps at some point, Obamans boycott, but right now the outraged and the curious are scurrying to watch the videos on nbc.com, a turnout any candidate would envy.
David Brauer covers media, Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County politics. He can be reached at dbrauer [at] minnpost [dot] com.