How 'Saturday Night Live' Shapes Our Politics

Now in its 45th season, Saturday Night Live has been a staple of American culture since the 1970s.

Countless celebrities and comedians have visited the SNL stage, creating iconic characters and segments that have remarkably long-lasting impacts.

In its current iteration, SNL has made a comeback from a few years of poor critical reception to take on the Trump era with intention.

The show’s political satire has brought a new energy and some amazing new impressions: Melissa McCarthy’s shrieking Sean Spicer, Alec Baldwin’s Trump-y Donald Trump, Kate McKinnon’s chill AF Elizabeth Warren and newcomer Chloe Fineman’s loony, spot-on Marianne Williamson.

Presidential election cycles provide incredibly fruitful comedy material, as they highlight the ridiculousness of American politics and play on the shared experiences we all have with our system.

A select few of SNL’s political impressions have become the stuff of legends and actually feed our impressions of politicians in a very fundamental way.

Basically, it’s easier to understand political figures in short and watchable impressions, where the comedian has basically done the analysis for you.

George W. Bush & Al Gore

Longtime SNL writer and later senator Al Franken has noticed this phenomenon.

One famous sketch during the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore likely helped bring Bush his narrow victory.

In an article for The Washington Post, Franken writes, “Will Ferrell's George W. Bush hilariously captured what everyone already thought about Bush - inarticulate, not particularly bright. Darrell Hammond's Al Gore, as written by Downey, unfortunately crystallized what some voters hadn't noticed - a tendency to be wonkish and somewhat supercilious.”

SNL cast member Darrell Hammond made a sharp analysis of Gore’s personality and mannerisms and then dialed each one up to create a comedy impression.

Compounded by the fact that many people, even today, don’t watch presidential debates and get their understanding of the substance afterwards from news and television analysis, Hammond’s detailed impression of Gore had a huge impact.

In comparison, this sketch made Ferrell’s Bush seem likable and down-to-earth. Franken later continues, “I wish that Downey hadn't written this because it may have changed 500 votes in Florida.”

Sarah Palin

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was satirized on SNL by Tina Fey during the 2008 election. Palin was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee alongside John McCain.

By almost all accounts, Palin lacked basic knowledge of U.S. policy and would have been completely unprepared for the job of president, had something happened to 72-year-old John McCain.

Tina Fey’s SNL impression of Palin centered around her extremely unpolished speech style and tendency to make up for a lack of basic information by telling cheesy stories and jokes.

One incredible sketch poked fun at an awkward and poorly informed interview Palin did with CBS News.

Spoiler: Palin can’t name a single newspaper she’s read.

The impression resonated with an audience that already had reservations about Palin.

The association with Sarah Palin did serious damage to McCain’s campaign, resulting in a significant loss to Barack Obama during that election.

Hillary Clinton

SNL’s impression of ill-fated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was biting and sharply observed, especially when compared to Alec Baldwin’s over-the-top impersonation of Donald Trump.

Kate McKinnon satirized Clinton’s awkwardness and ambition, creating a slightly robotic character who was desperate to be president.

This impression resonated with voters who, for many reasons, saw Clinton as disingenuous.

In the sketch imitating the first presidential debate, Clinton’s cheesy one-liners, overconfidence and detached persona rounded out the impersonation, playing on Clinton’s weaknesses. Her election loss in 2016 can be blamed on a lot of factors, but her SNL mirror undoubtedly had an impact.

SNL holds a lot of power for the next election. We can look forward to honest, observant comedy that helps us cope with the day-to-day ridiculousness of election season in the Trump era, while also calling out politicians with satire when they abuse their platforms.

SNL is a staple of American politics in a way that few television shows have ever been -- and we should all expect that they keep speaking truth to power.