Parody v. Mockery

This weekend, Fred Armisen parodied Governor David Paterson of New York on Saturday Night Live.  I thought Armisen’s depiction of Paterson’s mannerisms and speaking style were pretty dead on, but, as I’m sure many felt when they watched, the stunt was taken a bit too far when Armisen wandered around aimlessly — twice blocking the camera.

Paterson’s office criticized the sketch, rightly questioning how far Armisen went to mock Paterson’s disability. From the New York Times:

The governor’s communications director, Risa B. Heller, said on Sunday that the skit amounted to nothing more than cheap ridicule — a surprisingly strong reaction considering that the governor is well known for making light of his vision problems.

“The governor engages in humor all the time, and he can certainly take a joke,” Ms. Heller said in a statement. “However, this particular ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit unfortunately chose to ridicule people with physical disabilities and imply that disabled people are incapable of having jobs with serious responsibilities.

The National Federation of the Blind also made a statement condemning the broad generalizations of those who suffer from blindness.

Thomas Schaller at Salon’s War Room makes an excellent point, which I tend to agree with:

I’m honestly of two minds about this. All politicians are parodied, and most deserve exactly what they get. When they are mocked for being duplicitous or criminal or just criminally stupid, that’s undoubtedly fair game. Their personal tics — Hillary Clinton’s laugh by Amy Poehler or her husband’s thumb-and-lower lip-bite gesture by Darrell Hammond, e.g. — are also fair game.

But a disability? On the one hand, that just seems out of bounds — period. But to avoid Patterson’s blindness (or, say, Max Cleland’s wheelchair) is to treat him differently from his own political peers and, in an odd and even unintended way, therefore accentuate his disability, doesn’t it?

I think Dave put it better than Schaller, though.  He pointed out that the bit got offensive when Armisen stopped making fun of Paterson as a governor and began to make fun of him as a blind person.  If Paterson had exhibited the kinds of characteristics (holding charts upside down, wandering around aimlessly) that Armisen presented, perhaps the joke would have been more appropriate.

We run into tough territory here, because Paterson has been in the news a lot and its only fitting that he be parodied on SNL — but his physical disabilities present a challenge that a clever writing team and comedien should be able to overcome without resorting to outplayed mockery.

Frankly, Saturday Night Live doesn’t seem to possess either of those qualities anymore and it doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t manage to come up with a Paterson parody that was semi-tasteful, funny and spot-on.


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