This past weekend Saturday Night Live started its 41st year on the air, which means it's reached the point in its life when a more insecure show might buy a sports car, get an age-inappropriate haircut, and start dating a woman half its age. Instead it's taken up with an older woman, bringing on Hillary Clinton to lightly spoof herself in what amounted to a late-night campaign ad:
Saturday Night Live has a lot of experience inserting visiting pols into the show. The tricky part of such segments, at least in those years when SNL aspires to be funny, is that most political figures are not gifted comedians. Even Bob Dole, a bona fide witty guy, wasn't much of a sketch performer: Rewatching his SNL cameo from 1996, it's hard not to notice that he had trouble keeping a straight face. There are occasional exceptions—Jesse Jackson turned out to be genuinely funny, and Ron Nessen was, if nothing else, a pretty good straight man to Chevy Chase's Gerald Ford. But on the whole, you're not going to be able to count on a candidate or a political flunky to be a good comic. So the program is more likely to treat its guest as a comic prop: not a funny person, but a person it's funny to see there.
The Hillary sketch followed one tried-and-true formula for doing this: Stick the politician on camera with the cast member who's been playing the pol. They did it with Dole, they did it with Sarah Palin, they did it with Hillary Clinton back in 2008, and now they've done it with Clinton again. This does the guests the favor of letting them show (or at least pretend) that they don't mind the joke; it also offers a contrast between the caricature and the image the politician would prefer to project. In this case, Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to turn in a better Hillary Clinton impression than her impersonator.
The Republicans in my Twitter feed have been complaining that SNL just planted a big wet kiss on the Clinton campaign's cheek. This is true, but it's also true that if Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush asked, he could probably get a similarly royal treatment. And if Donald Trump decided he wanted the world to think he can take a joke, the show would surely oblige him. The real scandal of these political guest turns on SNL isn't that the program favors one side more than the other; it's that they're so toothless. If they weren't toothless, most of the guests wouldn't agree to participate. There may have been a time when going on Saturday Night Live could be a risky move for a politician, but those days are long past.
So let's wrap this up with a rare case when a sitting official—in this case, a Georgia state senator—was willing to risk crossing, in his own words, "the fine line between comedy and poor taste." From 1977, here's the late Julian Bond: