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In Defense of a Performance That Needs No Defense: Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin Impression

Revisionist History host Malcolm Gladwell has called Fey’s viral performance “toothless”—which is entirely at odds with how social scientists and the polls view it eight years later.
There’s a small, pre-existing body of research arguing that, contrary to Gladwell’s opinion, Fey’s impressions had real bite.

There’s a small, pre-existing body of research arguing that, contrary to Gladwell’s opinion, Fey’s impressions had real bite.

Can a beloved comedian’s impressions be too funny to have any real political effect? In the tenth and final installment of his immensely popular Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell asks whether satire can make a political difference, in the process throwing shade on Tina Fey’s viral 2008 impressions of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. Fey’s performance correlated with a 49 percent rise in ratings for the show, while, in 2008, 33 percent of Independent voters reported that her satire was hurting the McCain-Palin ticket—yet, eight years later, Gladwell concludes that Fey’s impressions were “toothless.” “I can’t help but think that her comic genius is actually a problem,” Gladwell says, after briefly incorporating a social science study and an essay by a literature professor.

On Thursday, snarky journalists took exception: How was that supposed to be a critique? Even when taken totally in context, Gladwell’s logic telegraphs as kind of ridiculous.

Gladwell’s argument depends on testimony from Temple University associate professor of media and communication Heather LaMarre, who has written about the perils of satire’s ambiguity: As viewers spend intellectual bandwidth interpreting what a comedic performance intends to do, they spend less of it critically examining the content. Gladwell also quotes Jonathan Coe, a professor of 18th-century literature who has written that the political power of satire is further undermined by the fact that it makes us laugh; laughter, Coe says, offers a substitute to deriving solutions, rather than pointing toward them. Gladwell did not consult any scholars, however, about his opinions on Fey, whose performance he critiques on the basis of a subjective interpretation of an October 2008 Late Show With David Letterman appearance: She and Letterman, he notes, focused on the “mechanics” of the comedy in that episode, rather than the serious, upcoming election at hand.

Fey needs no defenders; her performance was so popular and revered during the 2008 election that media organizations suggested she had produced a “Fey Effect.” And yes, she and Letterman talked about pulling off Palin’s accent and why we should make fun of female politicians as much as male politicians—they are both comedians, it’s probably what they’re most interested in chatting about. That said, Gladwell’s adversarial comments could benefit from some further scientific context: There’s a small, pre-existing body of research holding that, contra Gladwell, Fey’s impressions had real bite, perhaps changing the characteristics potential voters noticed in Palin, and tanking Palin’s favorability ratings—suggesting that American satire isn’t so soft after all.

Social scientists have long noted that the opinions of people who aren’t very knowledgeable or interested in politics can change after seeing political satire. But, after 2008, they found some pretty major effects of Fey’s performance across the board. Take this 2012 study by two Ohio State University researchers, concluding that the so-called “Fey Effect” did exist: Seeing Fey’s parody did make participants in their study—university students with varying political views—more likely to focus on the specific characteristics that the satire lampooned. “Results did in fact support our hypothesis that exposure to the parody increased the salience of constructs associated with her intelligence, competence, experience and rural background,” the researchers wrote. (Attention to rural background was particularly pronounced: Fey’s take on “I can see Russia from my house!” seems to have had a real effect.) The CBS interview produced the same effect, suggesting to the researchers that Fey’s performance and Palin’s real attitudes had a kind of mutually strengthening effect. “Perhaps the underlying trend would be more accurately described as a ‘Palin Effect,’” they wrote.

If the influence and, yes, funny factor of Fey’s performance drew energy from her subject, the comedian proved to be brutally effective in driving down public approval of Palin. Also in 2012, researchers at East Carolina University linked Fey’s impersonation to a drop in favorability ratings—less among Democrats, whose opinions on Palin were perhaps already solidified, but especially among Republican and Independent voters. (Those who watched an SNL clip of Fey, indeed, had a 45.4 percent probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain.) Viewing a spoof featuring Barack Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden (played by Jason Sudeikis), was associated with an uptick in favorability ratings among the study sample.

Overall, this effect wasn’t surprising to the political researchers who conducted the study. It seems that Fey and her comedian peers — such as Samantha Bee on TBS, or John Oliver at HBO—often have a good chance at swaying voters with their satire, especially traditionally disinterested voters.

“The bottom line is that he’s wrong,” says Jody Baumgartner, an associate professor of political science at East Carolina University and one of the authors of the ECU study. “There is plenty of experimental research out there that shows that [political satire] does move public opinion.” Baumgartner noted that 15 years of research has borne out his point (with the caveats that studies measure short-term effects, and that the more people already have an opinion about someone, the less a comedian tends to change it).

And while Baumgartner and his research partner, associate professor of politics Jonathan Morris, did not significantly influence their sample’s voting decisions, they noted that vice-presidential candidates don’t typically make much of a difference in Americans’ voting decisions anyway. So it’s perhaps a little unfair, and a little straw-mannish, of Gladwell to pick on Fey as someone who could have induced change and didn’t—the polling odds were stacked against her.

Gladwell’s critique, ultimately, is a move to implicate contemporary American satire as soft compared to other countries’—he particularly champions the Israeli show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), a leftist program that lampoons politicians, often to the point of endangering its satirists. Gladwell ends with a detailed description of an episode featuring kindergarteners learning about “peace”—actually, repeating Israeli right-wing rhetoric regarding ongoing conflict with the Palestinians—and concludes that SNL with Palin is, relatively speaking, “comedy with no courage at all.”

That “nothing of consequence gets accomplished without courage” is the theme of his podcast, he adds. Here, though, Gladwell is comparing two entirely different political contexts, one having to do with a country involved in near-constant, very present and proximate conflicts, another with the world’s unchallenged superpower; and he’s conflating comedy that goes down smooth with comedy that produces no end results. Fifteen years of research on comedy shows in the West seems to negate that notion—just because Fey’s impression is SFW doesn’t mean it didn’t sway voters.