Trolling the Web on Sunday afternoon, I came across a peculiar headline in Yahoo’s news box. It read: “It’s starting to feel like Tina Fey is running for vice President.” Even though I had missed the previous Thursday night debate between John McCain’s running mate from Alaska and Senator Joe Biden, and even though I had likewise missed the Saturday Night Live sketch two nights later that parodied the debate, I knew precisely what the headline was getting at—and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole ordeal. So I went to Hulu and watched half of the equation (the funny half)—and I still feel kind of peculiar.
When Palin was tapped for the veep spot in early September, Lorne Michaels must have wet himself. The Alaskan governor’s resemblance to Fey—or at least her resemblance to a caricature of Fey doing a caricature of a politician—was almost too good to be true. It was comedy gold, a fusion of entertainment and reality that seemed divinely preordained, as though the gods of comedy took pity on us all and said, “Here you go America. You’re in for forty miles of bad road, but we’re gonna let you have some fun along the way.” I can even imagine legions of conspiracy theorists having a field day with this one, concocting theses that McCain chose Palin for little else besides her resemblance to Fey, knowing how much play his campaign would get on the parody circuit if he gave her the nod. That’s how eerily obvious the Palin-Fey connection is.
To be sure, Fey’s Palin is dead on. Not only does she have the looks to play the part (and the trendy glasses), but she also has a brilliant gift for imitation that takes the gag out of the kitsch gutter and into the realm of historically significant satire. It’s a blast to watch. It really is. But after sitting through all eleven minutes of the SNL vice presidential debate sendup, I felt a strange sense of discomfort, which I am only now realizing stems from the fact that Fey’s Palin is actually too good.
For my money, no Presidential parody is as enjoyable to watch as Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush. Not Dan Aykroyd doing Nixon. Not Darrel Hammond doing Clinton. Not even Dana Carvey doing Bush Senior. It’s probably become a cliche, but Ferrell is a master at portraying the arrested development man-child, a hapless chap with good intentions gone awry by way of his (endearing?) buffoonery. It was this precise talent that made his Dubya so watchable. He wasn’t trying to portray Bush as he actually is, but instead as so many of us saw him during our most critical moments of his presidency.
But this is where I fear the Fey impression misses the mark. Her Palin has too much Palin and not enough Fey. She is so good at mimicking the governor’s every mannerism, her every quirk and wink, that we might as well just be watching the “real thing.” In other words, what’s the point of Fey pointing out the already obvious? This became most apparent to me while watching the satirical SNL debate. Whenever the audience applauded a particularly absurd moment in Fey’s performance, I found it odd that the audience was cheering on Tina Fey but in doing so was simultaneously deriding Sarah Palin, for her impression was so spot on that it was hard to believe the people watching from the stands weren’t actually, in some way, cheering for Palin herself.
What hyper-meta machines we have become…