In the 10th and final installment of the first season of Malcolm Gladwell’s incredibly popular Revisionist History podcast, the author and host pulls no punches when it comes to a comedic portrayal that has received nothing but praise over the past eight years.
Yes, Gladwell, a writer who has always shown a willingness to present unpopular opinions or upend expectations in best-selling books such as Blink and Outliers, takes direct aim at the iconic performance that is Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.
As with all episodes of his podcast, which now consistently sits atop the iTunes charts alongside This American Life, this week’s installment, titled “The Satire Paradox,” revisits a “forgotten and misunderstood” story from our collective past. One popular episode delved into why Wilt Chamberlain refused to shoot free throws underhand, even though it might have made him the best basketball player of all time.
The initial focus of this episode is British comedian Harry Enfield, who created a character named “Loadsamoney” as a vehicle to satirize Margaret Thatcher’s England. But it is during Gladwell’s examination of satire on Saturday Night Live that he unleashes some truly brutal criticism of Fey.
But first, he examines what he views as the only slightly more successful satire of Stephen Colbert. Gladwell was a frequent guest on The Colbert Report, which may explain why he is not so fond of that show’s fictionalized host, “Stephen Colbert.” While he calls Colbert’s brutal treatment of President George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner a moment of “comedic genius,” he finds fault with the “ambiguous” nature of the comedian’s satire.
Recalling his own experiences seated across the table from “Stephen Colbert,” Gladwell describes himself as a “deer in headlights,” saying it doesn’t “feel like a parody” when the host is “jabbing his finger” in your face and demanding that you defend your “think pieces” in The New Yorker. “It’s terrifying,” he admits. “Every time I went on I swore I’d never go on again.”
“Am I in on the joke or the butt of it?” Gladwell asks after playing a clip of one contentious appearance. “I don’t know.” As he proceeds to point out, social scientists have discovered that when you show the “Stephen Colbert” character to people on either side of the political spectrum, both groups are inclined to believe he’s on their side. Essentially, Republicans think he’s making fun of liberals and Democrats think he’s making fun of conservatives.
Or, as Gladwell puts it, “The more liberal you are, the more you see Colbert as a liberal skewering conservatives. But the more conservative you are, the more you see Stephen Colbert as a conservative skewing liberals.” While some may find this feat “extraordinary,” Gladwell has a contrary take. “If you think he’s somehow winning an ideological battle, you’re wrong,” he declares.
Which brings us back to the summer of 2008, when the country was first introduced to Sarah Palin and collectively thought, “Hey, that lady looks like Tina Fey.”
“Who do you remember now?” Gladwell asks. “Sarah Palin herself? Or Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin?” While he says he finds the Palin impression “brilliant” and personally “loves” the sketches themselves, he explains, “I can’t help but think her comic genius is actually a problem.”
SNL’s intentions may have been noble—a “sense of outrage that someone this unqualified was running for higher office”—but looking back, Gladwell says he doesn’t think it “worked.” For contrast, Gladwell points to SNL’s “ruthless” portrayal of Hillary Clinton as “humorless” and “severe,” a perception that could conceivably serve to hurt the candidate in the fall—but most likely won’t because of who she’s up against.
Why doesn’t the Palin satire work? “Because Tina Fey is too busy being funny.” This is the same theory that posits Will Ferrell helped elect George W. Bush because his portrayal was more fun than Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore. Despite coining the word “strategery,” which became synonymous with Bush in the same way “I can see Russia from my house” is still believed by many to be an actual Palin quote, Ferrell has said he believes he successfully humanized Bush in a way that could have put him over the top in such a close election. Hammond’s stiff, robotic Gore may have had the exact opposite effect.
Just a few days before the 2008 election, Fey went on The Late Show with David Letterman. “You would think, with the vote looming, Fey and Letterman would want to talk about the subject of her satire, or the intention of her satire,” Gladwell says. “But they don’t.” Instead, they focus entirely on the “mechanics” of the impression. To Gladwell, this was a major missed opportunity. “They want the laugh, so they make fun of the way she talks,” he says. “But the way she talks is not the problem.” He also hits Fey for calling her impression a “goof.”
“Goof!” he exclaims. “Like the role of the satirist is to the sit on the front porch and crack wise. Why doesn’t Tina Fey just come out and admit that her satire is completely toothless?” Gladwell is even more outraged by the fact that the very next day SNL “let Sarah Palin in on the joke” by inviting her to make a cameo on the show. “You’re left with one of the most charming and winning and hilarious comics of her generation letting her charisma wash over her ostensible target.”
While someone like Harry Enfield was “at least trying to take a bite” out of the powers that be, Gladwell says, “Saturday Night Live has taken out its dentures and it’s sipping the political situation through a straw. Lord help us if some other even less qualified and more frightening political figure comes along.”