Saturday Night Live and the Production of Political Truth
Foucault Explains the Danger of Late Night Comedy
Kimberly S. Engels
Saturday Night Live has become a staple of each political season. Viewers delight as their favorite cast members or guest celebrities impersonate major political candidates. Sometimes the candidates themselves get in on the act, appearing as guest stars on the show. In recent years, though, late night comedy has taken on a role that goes beyond entertainment and comedic relief. Many viewers interpret the comedy as reflecting a level of truth about the candidates and as revealing shortcomings in the coverage of traditional news programs. This was especially true in 2016. To make sense of this phenomenon, let’s look to the philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984).
Foucault famously argued that truth and knowledge are neither static nor objective. In his view, what can be considered true and what can be considered knowledge emerge in a historical context amidst a set of contingent power relations. Bodies of knowledge do not reflect inherent or timeless truths about the world, rather they emerge in relation to existing knowledge fields, institutions, and authorities. What is considered true in a specific historical and geographic context is produced by frameworks of rules governing what can be spoken about and in what ways. These frameworks include “authorities of delimination,” the individuals and institutions in a given historical context who are trusted to define the boundaries of what is true and false regarding a particular subject.
In this chapter, we’ll see how late night comedy programs such as Saturday Night Live have joined traditional TV news programs as authorities of delimination for defining the boundaries of political truth in our historical epoch. In the spirit of Foucault’s work, I will not argue whether or not Saturday Night Live ought to serve as an authority of delimination, but instead uncover its effects. In short, we’ll see that SNL’s authority is not necessarily bad, but it is potentially dangerous.
Read the rest of this chapter from Saturday Night Live and Philosophy here.