Enough, Already, with the 'Surprise' Cameos on Saturday Night Live
Nothing ruins Saturday Night Live more than a "surprise" walk-on. Oh, sure, bad writing and a bad host can doom an individual episode, but nothing kills the spirit of what SNL is trying to accomplish more than a walk-on by a formerly mocked subject -- and the ramifications can last well beyond the episode in which it airs. Enough, already!
You'll recall this past week, when real-life Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance in the monologue with host Jesse Eisenberg and Andy Samberg -- the former of whom play Zuckerberg in The Social Network and the latter of whom plays him on SNL. I suppose, in a way, this meeting was culturally significant. But something crucial happens anytime a real person shows up as him or herself on SNL: They no longer are the joke, but rather become part of the joke. Unfortunately, something is always lost and it's painfully awkward -- not in a good way. What follows is usually an uncomfortable exchange between the cast-member and the one being parodied, "Oh, hey, it's you! What ... a ... surprise" -- uncomfortable because, most of the time, either one of them wishes that that they were doing anything else other than this sketch. Moreover, the sketch itself is usually subpar because no one wants to use his or her best or most scathing material when it's going to be overshadowed by a "surprise" cameo.
In fairness, Zuckerberg's appearance was uncomfortable but, for the most part, harmless. When this becomes really problematic is when it involves politicians. Now, I'm not saying that political figures shouldn't host SNL, but they should never come face-to-face with their cast-member counterparts in character. Ultimately, it's more fun to watch politicians poke fun of themselves; it's not fun to watch politicians destroy any semblance of a harsh parody by appearing on-screen with her doppelganger for political gain, as Sarah Palin did on the Oct. 18, 2008, broadcast.
Not getting into a political debate here, but what made Tina Fey's portrayal of Palin so great (other than the uncanny physical and vocal resemblance, of course) is that Fey pulled no punches and was downright sinister in her portrayal. Fey has since gone on record numerous times to acknowledge her disdain of Palin; as recently as November, while accepting her Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Fey said of Palin: "And, you know, politics aside, the success of Sarah Palin and women like her is good for all women... unless you're a gay woman who wants to marry your partner of 20 years. Whatever. But for most women, the success of conservative women is good for all of us. Unless you believe in evolution."
As far as Fey is concerned, Palin is certainly not in on her joke, but the perception of that changed in 2008 when Palin was trotted onstage -- with Fey dressed as Palin. Palin's cameo undercut Fey's portrayal, though it hardly undercut the viewership; the Palin show remains the highest rated episode of Saturday Night Live since 1995 and a milestone in a tradition that also includes Bob Dole meeting Norm MacDonald, Alex Trebek meeting Will Ferrell, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci meeting Jim Breuer and Alec Baldwin, David Paterson meeting Fred Armisen, and Mark Wahlberg meeting Andy Samberg. For Christ's sake, even the real Joey Buttafuoco made a cameo in 1994, prompting then cast-member Chris Elliott to say, "That was the lowest point for me at SNL".
We all get it: The people being mocked want to defuse the mockery by "being a good sport" and participating. But even if it's funny (which it never actually is), the entire purpose of the joke in the first place is lost. Do you want to know why Will Ferrell's George W. Bush impression still holds up relevantly? It's because George W. Bush never made a walk-on cameo while Ferrell did his impression. Hopefully this Saturday night, with Dana Carvey hosting, there will be no surprise appearance by George H.W. Bush. In Zuckerberg's case, his appearance wasn't even a surprise; news of his cameo was leaked a couple of days before the live show. It's become so commonplace that it's become almost the way to retire an impression.
I have no idea if it's planned that way, but once the subject is in on the joke, there's nothing left to do but retire it. I've got a better idea: Retire the cameos instead.
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