Hillary on SNL: Why do we want our politicians to seem funny?
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appeared on Saturday Night Live this week, continuing a long relationship between politicians and late night comedy.
(Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Last night, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton guest-starred in the 41st-season premiere of Saturday Night Live.
This sketch follows a string of light-hearted media appearances by the former first lady, senator, and secretary of State. In September, Ms. Clinton appeared on both The Ellen DeGeneres show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Clinton used her time on The Tonight Show to redirect attention to her platform, The Christian Science Monitor reported. During the interview, she addressed critical topics such as gender equality, student debt, and a strengthening competition with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
But because the former Clinton did not play herself in the SNL appearance, the presidential candidate had a chance to show off her acting chops. In the skit, Clinton portrays a bartender named Val who chats with "Hillary Clinton," played by SNL cast member Kate McKinnon.
“So Hillary, what brings you here tonight?” Clinton asks McKinnon.
“Well, I needed to blow off some steam. I’ve had a hard couple of 22 years.” McKinnon-as-Clinton responds.
And Clinton proves she can hold her own on the Emmy-award-winning late night show. She continues to hold character as McKinnon jokes about her own late opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and slow support for gay marriage.
“Well you did it pretty soon?” Clinton the bartender reassures McKinnon.
“Eh, it could have been sooner.” McKinnon regretfully responds.
But with the campaign field narrowing down and the first Democratic debate soon approaching, why would Clinton take the time to appear on SNL?
There is a long history of presidential candidates and late-night TV hosts using each other in a symbiotic relationship to bump up ratings on both sides. For the show's producers, the reason is simple: It draws viewers.
And as for the politicians, “It gives [the candidates] a chance to humanize themselves and put themselves in a more relaxed setting,” John Greer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University told Fortune. “The audience here for these shows isn’t just the voters that might be watching. It’s the community of pundits that can comment on them as well so they have an afterlife.”
The first major presidential candidate to appear on late-night television was John F. Kennedy, who appeared on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar as a candidate in the 1960 presidential election. But the modern era of late-night politicking can be said to have begun with Bill Clinton’s appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, in which the Arkansas governor played "Heartbreak Hotel" on saxophone.
For presidential candidates, a late-night appearance offers few downsides: answer softball questions, and in return, earn an easy image boost.
This seems to be exactly the strategy being used by Clinton, who has often struggled to prove herself "relatable" – an issue that McKinnon’s Hillary couldn’t help but point out in the skit.
When McKinnon tells Clinton’s character Val that she is “easy to talk to,” Clinton responds, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that.”
And when McKinnon can’t find Val at the end of the skit, she says to aide Huma Abedin (played by fellow SNL cast member Cecily Strong), “She was real and smart, and really nice and personable!”
So yes, an "approachable and appealing Hillary" was hammered home throughout the skit – an impression that is likely to work in Clinton's favor.