This Week in Political Comedy: SNL and the Sheeba-Shabba Dance

“You’re just jealous that you weren’t on Saturday Night Live.”

Christine O’Donnell, who has never been on Saturday Night Live

A good political impression can change our perceptions of a candidate in real life. Ten years ago Dana Carvey went on the talk show circuit and discussed how bad his impressions were. In an appearance with Conan O’Brien, he made fun of his own Ross Perot, trying to demonstrate just how unlike the former presidential candidate it was. To prove his point, he stood up and did an enthusiastic jig while singing “Sheeba-Shabba-Sheeba-Shabba-Sheeba-Shabba,” a wordless dance that looked like nothing any political candidate had ever done. The audience broke into wild applause. He told Conan, “And I have people going, ‘Your Perot is so accurate. My God. You sound just like him.’”

For most of us, Dana Carvey’s Ross Perot has replaced Perot himself in our memory. The caricature became more real than the candidate, and how Perot might actually behave makes no difference anymore. This is true for many Saturday Night Live impressions of political figures (Will Ferrell’s Bush is another example). The exaggerations that make an impression great, what you could call the comedian’s Sheeba-Shabba dance, work not because they’re accurate, but because they show the candidate distilled. They feel like how the true candidate would act in his ideal state, which we naturally assume would mean when he is at his most unhinged.

Political impressions were the center of SNL’s comeback season in 2008. Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton managed to hit on aspects of the candidate that seemed truer than what we saw of her on TV—the real Hillary Clinton may never have ripped off the top of the podium during a press conference, but when Poehler did it, it felt natural and true, and still likeable. Lorne Michaels credited Tina Fey’s impression of a certain Vice Presidential candidate (whose name I promised never to utter again in this column) that drove the season. Coming when so few Americans knew what to make of this brand new candidate from nowhere, Fey didn’t just capture her, she defined her for us.

Then there was last weekend’s Saturday Night Live, the third episode in a season that still seems to be finding its legs. Since we are stuck in a time warp and Christine O’Donnell jokes will never go away, it’s forgivable that SNL would make her the basis of yet another sketch. Kristen Wiig’s O’Donnell impersonations have been just quiet, unconvincing versions of Kristen Wiig. It doesn’t seem like she is trying at all, confident that mentions of things witches do will carry the load. The impression has no Sheeba-Shabba, and the real O’Donnell, who has been called a dead ringer for Elaine from Seinfeld, has as much Sheeba-Shabba as any candidate to come along since, well, that certain former Vice Presidential candidate who’s been acting as O’Donnell’s mentor.

In her debate performance this week, O’Donnell told her opponent, “You’re just jealous you weren’t on Saturday Night Live.” O’Donnell has never been on Saturday Night Live. Clearly she meant that her opponent was jealous he had never been made fun of on Saturday Night Live, but she could be forgiven for, like us, confusing the caricature and the candidate.

If we are going to be stuck listening to jokes about Christine O’Donnell, we can be grateful this debate may at least give comedians something besides witches to joke about. Colbert caught how O’Donnell’s major flub—her inability to name a single Supreme Court case—was the same question that flummoxed her mentor in 2008, and they both used the same advisors to prepare for the debates.

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Transitive Property of Christine O’Donnell
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Obama Humor

The SNL character that still glaringly lacks Sheeba-Shabba is Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama. Our hopes that Jay Pharoah would take over Obama duties has so far proven unfulfilled, so we are stuck after three years with an impression that’s just boring. Boring has been Armisen’s deliberate take on the President’s character, and Obama’s almost magical real-life ability to bore people has been turned into great comedy on The Daily Show. But Armisen’s Obama still hasn’t captured that secret “Barack Obama Unhinged” quality that would give the audience a handle on the president’s true character. (And no, The Rock Obama doesn’t count.) That’s something SNL has done successfully with every president since Ford, and it’s something Obama, and Americans, could really use right now.

The Colossal Donut Index

This week’s CDI is 4, an uptick of 33% over last week’s low. As with last week, the CDI remains depressed due to competition from the soaring CO’DI, or Christine O’Donnell Index. (Read about the Colossal Donut Index.)

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

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