How SNL can be relevant again... briefly

Reported by: James Eppler
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Updated: 9/17/2012 11:13 am

On Twitter: @JamesEppler

There are too many problems with "Saturday Night Live" to list in one blog, and besides, what would be the point? The show is very set in its ways, from how the show is put together to the length of the broadcast itself to ever find ways to truly grow.

Talented cast members come and go, and every now and then you get a sketch you remember Monday morning.

SNL was as relevant as it has ever been during the 2008 Presidential election. It played a big role in exposing Sarah Palin, and each week the political sketches were anticipated. The writers consistently lived up to the hype and knocked the ball out of the park with pointed political satire that resonated all across the country.

As we approach the upcoming debates and the election in November, SNL has the chance to be great again. But Saturday's season premiere shows there's some work to do.

The show's Executive Producer, Lorne Michaels, made a good decision to start this new season by transferring the Obama role from Fred Armisen over to Jay Pharoah. This was a good move for a couple reasons: first, I was always a little uneasy with a white actor in dark makeup playing the first black President, and second, Pharoah is a much better impressionist.

In the opening sketch Saturday night, Pharoah demonstrated his skill at impersonating the President's speaking patterns and gestures. We also saw Mitt Romney as played by Jason Sudeikis and Paul Ryan performed by Taran Killam. Sudeikis does more than you'd expect with the vanilla Romney, and Killam has Ryan's voice and mannerisms down.

All of these were apt performances, but the sketch itself came off as blunted and obvious. The joke was that Obama's secret weapon for winning a second term is Romney himself because he's such an awkward square. Ryan's recent fib about his marathon time (he shaved an hour off for some reason) was also played upon.

But this is easy stuff - there's nothing cutting here for either side. For political satire to truly resonate, there needs to be more than just a good impression of a guy we see on TV. It's important that the writers give these impressionists more meat.

And there's plenty to feast on for both Republicans and Democrats.

SNL's writers have done this before with success. Referring again to the 2008 campaign, the writers often used Sarah Palin's exact words against her, but in the mouth of Tina Fey it sounded like brilliant comedy writing. Will Ferrell's George W. Bush became a peacock-swaggering, confident rube. Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton was an over-the-top horn-dog after Phil Hartman had already done great work as the same President, portraying him as a country boy who'd hit it big.

Obama has been a little harder for some comedians to peg, but there are definitely multiple sides of the man to work with. There's the smooth, confident man, and then there are times we see him looking like a man on the brink of being forever haggard.  He can't always be smooth and patient. What's he like behind the scenes? Is he really the Hitler-esque tyrant some on the far right claim he is?

The question the SNL writers have to ask themselves is, what are the American people's attitudes toward these candidates? What are the suppositions, either true or false, about each man that they can use as ammunition?

There was a good bit of writing Saturday night that mocked an Obama super pac ad against Romney accusing him of being a wife killer. What's equally sad and devastatingly funny about the sketch was that it wasn't all that far off from the actual ad.

So make no mistake - there's plenty of good material to satirize in this campaign. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert manage to find it every night.

Can the writers of the longest comedy series on TV not do the same?

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