BAKER: Political comedy’s uniting power: Bringing us together one SNL skit at a time

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Photo by Courtesy of www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/

Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon pose as Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton in SNL’s debate sketches.

The biggest October audience for “Saturday Night Live” since 2008 tuned in to this weekend’s episode. Host Tom Hanks, acting as Chris Wallace of Fox News, moderated the final presidential debate between Donald Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, and Hillary Clinton, played by Kate McKinnon. With the 2016 campaign season’s frontrunners acting more and more like caricatures on a stage than worthy government leaders every day, the late-night comedy show didn’t have to stray far from reality to spur audience laughter. A few mentions of “bad hombre,” “nasty woman” and “Trumped-up trickle down economics”— yes, all Trump or Clinton originals — were the highlights.

Then, Hanks delivered a lighthearted, funny and even touching monologue that addressed the underlying fear that the ridiculousness of this election season has instilled in the American people. Dubbed “America’s dad” by Esquire last month, Hanks said, “America is feeling a little nervous these days, and I’m a responsible father, so I thought maybe it’s time we had a little chat.” He sat down, looked into the camera, cracked a few dad jokes and proved that this country, like a depressed and confused teenager, needs laughter now more than ever.

Since 1975 when Chevy Chase played President Gerald Ford in SNL’s first season, to the iconic duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Clinton in 2008, the NBC show has always found its biggest success in political humor. By using comedy TV — a strong uniting force — to address politics — a strong divisive force — SNL has a unique ability to bring Americans together, all in the name of laughter.

During presidential election seasons especially, the American public craves this form of entertainment, and not just on late-night television shows. We see it in newspapers, in political cartoons, and in 2016, we see it on social media in memes, tweets and videos.

Both Trump and Clinton’s approval ratings are embarrassingly low, with far more people viewing them as unfavorable than favorable potential presidents, and the hatred, vitriol, petty insults, lies and divisiveness are both saddening and maddening. It’s unlike any election Americans today have ever seen and for this reason exactly, humor is more important than ever.

When Alec Baldwin gets into his Trump character, pursing his lips and styling a “yuge” yellow hairdo, we’re all on the same team. Both Clinton and Trump haters alike laugh at the “Hillary Shimmy Song,” a YouTube video with over two million views. The public is not so divided on laughing at the candidates as they are on the issues they support and values they represent. Unlike the 2016 rallies, debates and media coverage, there is no room for mean-spirited interruptions and yelling on the comedy stage.

Accentuating and exaggerating quirks and flaws of powerful politicians both criticizes and humanizes them, bringing a very separated pool of voters together, even if it is just for a second, under the spell of humor. When our politics and politicians seem too big to grasp, we find we still have some sort of control in laughing at their ridiculousness together as the ones who aren’t in the limelight.

In an article about political humor, Indiana University journalism and political communication professor Jason Peifer writes political comedy “can defuse harsh discourse in society by making palatable what is hard to swallow.” By dissipating tension, humor fosters understanding and peace. Trump and Clinton are both like pills “hard to swallow” for the American public, but our timeless talent to enjoy jokes that make light of any political circumstance proves true what Tom Hanks assured us in his monologue: “You’re scared about what’s gonna happen next. Well, you are gonna be fine.”

Late on Saturday nights, at the end of a long week, America turns on its TVs. Laughing out loud at irreverent, bold, raw and classic humor with family and friends is the best kind of relaxation. So as we approach the eleventh hour of this long and tiring election season, amidst the anger, frustration and fear we may feel, let’s not forget to keep laughing.