Is it possible that Tina Fey’s killer Sarah Palin impersonation is actually bad for Saturday Night Live? Fey’s channeling of Palin is certainly uncanny — it ain’t just the glasses; it’s the body language, the impeccable grammar mangling, the near-verbatim quotes given just enough of a twist to send them into a realm of political satire that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have owned until now. Fey’s Palin caricature is so dead-on, the ultimate counterstrike compliment may get paid: It’s reported that Palin herself would like to appear on SNL to demonstrate she also enjoys tellin’, ya know, a joke or two.
And Fey — like Palin, a working mom juggling jobs (30 Rock returns Oct. 30) — is benefiting from the windfall. The SNL grad, 38, has sold a book of comic essays to Little, Brown in a deal that’s undoubtedly richer than it might have been just a few pre-Palin weeks ago. So three cheers for Emmy-winning Tina.
By contrast, the benefit to SNL is, you’ll excuse the expression, debatable. Its ratings have shot up for Fey’s Palin appearances. But after Fey pulls the big crowd into the tent, SNL is exposed as having a pretty lame season thus far. Michael Phelps didn’t tarnish his gold medals hosting Sept. 13, but the cast didn’t surround him with great sketches, either. And one of the first bits on Oct. 4 was a jaw-dropping skewering of…Lawrence Welk, the ”champagne music” bandleader whose popularity peaked in the ’50s and ’60s. I’d admire the sheer absurdist gutsiness of this idea had Fred Armisen’s accent come even close to Welk’s German-inflected speech, and that’s a fine point I suspect only Lorne Michaels and I would even notice.
Elsewhere on SNL, the once-vaunted ”Digital Shorts” have devolved into Andy Samberg making scrunchy faces during tedious physical shtick like ”Extreme Activities Competition.” And ”Weekend Update” is buoyed mostly by Amy Poehler’s endearing energy — but, oops, she’ll be gone soon. (She has said she’s leaving SNL after the birth of her baby to focus on her new NBC sitcom.)
Sure, sure, critics say every season that SNL has lost its edge. But now it’s being edged out by new media: The Fey-Palin SNL clips have gone mega-viral on the Web. If lots of people are getting their Fey-Palin fix via NBC.com, Hulu, and other sites, what does this mean for the network broadcast? As it’s proved over the decades, SNL uses its 90 minutes of throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-catches-on to come up with phenomena ranging from Eddie Murphy’s angry Gumby to Fey’s Palin. But now more than ever, it needs more hit bits that can be sliced and posted everywhere, instantly, to maintain cultural significance.