Amid Campaign, 'SNL' Must-See Status Returns

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When it comes to life imitating snark, there's nothing better than Saturday Night Live.

In the first fake presidential debate, Republican John McCain, played by Darrell Hammond, dismissed Democrat Barack Obama as too inexperienced for the job.

The mock Obama, portrayed by Fred Armisen, had a ready reply:

"That's interesting, John, coming from the guy who sang 'Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.'"

Ten days later, during this week's actual debate, the real Obama similarly warded off a similar critique from McCain: "Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, 'bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.'"

Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton tells NPR the skit had nothing to do with Obama's remarks. Still, a lot of people saw them first on Saturday Night Live.

The show is riding high on the basis of its intense political satire — none cutting closer to the bone than Tina Fey's impersonation of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. In one memorable debate re-creation, she batted away questions by citing how "mavericky" she and McCain would be.

Ratings for SNL have hit highs not experienced for years, and the show's influence can be seen throughout this presidential race. NBC is giving SNL three primetime specials geared toward the election — the first of which will air Thursday night.

During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton's campaign complained that Obama was getting a free pass from the press. But Clinton loyalists say it took an SNL caricature of debate moderators as Obama sycophants to hammer the point home. A few days later, Clinton cited the sketch publicly — and in some quarters, the accusation became accepted wisdom.

"It's almost as if a neutral third party has made a ruling and said, 'You know what, there is something to this,'" says Philippe Reines, a senior Clinton adviser. "Saturday Night Live, in terms of their political humor, is most on the money when they are tapping something you already knew."

Going back more than three decades to Saturday Night Live's first season, Chevy Chase depicted President Gerald Ford as a klutz. It stuck, even though, despite stumbling a few times, Ford was an impressive athlete going back to his days as a football star at the University of Michigan.

These days, Tina Fey is defining the unfamiliar Palin for many viewers.

In one SNL skit, which re-created the Alaska governor's rocky interviews with Katie Couric of CBS News, Fey responded, "Katie, I'd like to use one of my lifelines."

Saturday Night Live is hitting all kinds of targets, but movie director David Zucker argues it hasn't quite nailed down Obama.

Zucker is one of the forces behind Airplane and the Naked Gun movies. His latest, An American Carol, mocks liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. And he says that Saturday Night Live has a responsibility to be fair to all sides.

"This is a show that it is the satire show for the whole country," Zucker says. But he says he sees signs the show is trying. "They exploit what they perceive as Palin's lack of understanding of the issues, and then ... it's wonderful what they do with Hillary — Hillary is so angry at the pure charisma of this woman — that's funny."

There do not appear to be many sacred cows. Hillary Clinton was depicted as ambitious. Capitol Hill Democrats were mocked for being craven and hypocritical after the big bailout. And some of those struggling, sainted homeowners from Main Street were shown as greedy on a smaller scale, too.

Reines says the satire is funny because it hits on a larger truth: "This is just one crazy way to elect the most important job in the world," he says.

Palin has said she thinks Fey's impression is funny. But it may come at a slight cost. If you believe a national study released Thursday by HCD Research and the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, voters' opinions of Palin dipped — a bit — after they watched the Fey impersonation.

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