Opinion

Don’t read too much into Clinton’s ‘SNL’ sketch

In this Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, photo provided by NBC, Kate McKinnon, left, portraying Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, portraying Val, appear during the "Bar Talk" sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Most political candidates play themselves on "SNL," often for just a cameo in a sketch or to declare the show's famous tag line, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" Seldom do they play a character in a sketch, as did Clinton.
In this Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, photo provided by NBC, Kate McKinnon, left, portraying Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, portraying Val, appear during the "Bar Talk" sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Most political candidates play themselves on "SNL," often for just a cameo in a sketch or to declare the show's famous tag line, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" Seldom do they play a character in a sketch, as did Clinton. NBC via AP

The first thing worth pointing out about Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live” is that she is a decent actor. Jimmy Fallon, who was on the show for seven seasons, would find something he did at a funeral funny. But Clinton, the amateur, delivered her lines cleanly and with a straight face and good timing.

Yes, she read the cue cards, but then Fallon did that, too. Clinton’s Donald Trump impression wasn’t quite as good as Fallon’s, but it was decent.

The second thing we have to point out herehere at a political blog of The Washington Post is the political issues that made the cut. We'll have to wait for the eventual Rolling Stone article or cast tell-all to know how the script for the bit evolved, with Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton chatting up Hillary Clinton’s Val the Empathetic Bartender. But Clinton got to make a few points that probably pleased her campaign’s communications team.

First, Clinton-as-bartender-Val joked about opposing the Keystone XL pipeline - something that is a recent addition to her political repertoire.

Later, Clinton offered a bit of a mea culpa for another issue on which she was later than her party’s base, supporting gay marriage. Beyond the cameo from Darrell Hammond-as-Bill Clinton, this was one of the best moments, with McKinnon-as-Clinton admitting that she could have shown her support for it earlier. After Clinton-as-Val assured her that she’d done so in a timely manner, McKinnon-as-Clinton replied, after a beat, “Could have been sooner.” “Fair point,” Clinton-as-Val replied.

We probably don’t need to dive too deep into this, do we? Clinton’s getting hammered among self-identified liberal voters, folks who are by far the most likely to demand opposition to Keystone. The gay marriage bit seemed almost like “SNL” rapping her knuckles on behalf of frustrated Democrats more than anything.

The third topic that was covered was unstated and overarching: that Clinton is approachable and appealing. That’s the whole point of the thing, of course, the point of her appearing on live television at midnight (with the full understanding that the critical audience will watch it streaming the next day). But the bit couldn’t help but point it out explicitly, as when McKinnon-as-Clinton told Clinton-as-Val that she was “easy to talk to,” prompting Clinton-as-Val to say, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that.”

The conceit of the bit - which, you’ve seen by now, I assume - is that McKinnon-as-Clinton is only imagining the conversation with Clinton-as-Val. Cecily Strong, playing Huma Abedin, enters after a brief (bad) song interlude to point out that there is no “Val.”

“No,” McKinnon replies. “She was real. And smart, and really nice in person.”

The most important point to make here, though, is probably that this appearance will be included for years in reminiscences of the 2016 election. But by itself, it will not tilt the scales in one direction or the other. If you see someone say to you, Wow, that Hillary appearance probably really helped/hurt her, you have my permission to report them to the authorities.

We'll be the first to admit that political writers read too much into these things. We’re like ancient Roman augurs that don’t perform any elaborate rituals but instead just rip out the entrails of everything around us to try and divine the future. It was an amusing sketch in which Clinton performed well and landed a few talking points.

As far as political appearances go, it was about as good as you can get. (Except the singing part which was really awkward, and I didn’t want to say that because it seems inconsequential, but I just couldn’t help it after all so I buried it down here.) Done and done.

As soon as the sketch was over, strong performance in-hand, Clinton had to return to the grim drudgery of the normal campaign trail, feigning enthusiasm for terrible things because it is demanded of her. But, she had a job to do and she did it. She walked out on stage and delivered her line.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Miley Cyrus!”

It was her least authentic moment of the night.

Philip Bump writes about politics at The Washington Post’s The Fix blog. He is based in New York City.

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