In September of 2008, Saturday Night Live included a skit starring Tina Fey as Republican Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin in the season premiere. Tina Fey’s parody of Palin was so effective that SNL saw its best ratings in 14 years (Gough). For Tina Fey, it is more than the script or her appearance, but her perfected talent and precise presentation that makes her performances effective and entertaining.
When imitating Sarah Palin, Fey was able to get so into character that she could deceive the public. It became evident that a majority of the public did not know what Tina Fey’s Palin had said or done compared to what the real Sarah Palin had said and done. What was fact and what was fiction? For example, it became evident that many people thought Sarah Palin actually said “I can see Russia from my house” regarding foreign policy in an interview (Wilmouth). Though Palin did mention the proximity of Russia to Alaska, this line was actually delivered by Tina Fey while impersonating Palin. Other times, she used exact quotes from Sarah Palin mixed in with her own dialogue. Fey did another skit on SNL parodying Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric. In this skit, it’s hard to imagine that her ditzy behavior and meandering answers had any trace of fact in them; however, some of her lines were taken directly from the actual Couric-Palin interview (Poniewozik).
Image Credit: Video fom NBC.com
What made Tina Fey’s commentary so effective was the precise replication of her subject’s mannerisms, gestures, accent, and appearance in her SNL skits. Fey perfected the Palin hair, the Palin smile; she accomplished the Palin Alaskan/Midwestern accent, the ditzy gestures, the tacky wink; Tina Fey became Sarah Palin (Ibid). It helped that Tina Fey had a striking resemblance to Palin, but it was the delivery that really made Fey “become” Palin. It would take more than appearance to have a nation enthralled by the impersonation. In fact, when Sarah Palin tried to impersonate Tina Fey, the effect was not the same. Palin herself helped prove that it was Fey’s talent in her delivery and presentation that made the parody so effective.
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It can also be argued that Tina Fey’s impression is only successful because her subject is a huge public figure. Amy Poehler, for example, is “more famous for the people she’s played than she is for being herself” (Alston). However this argument lacks legitimacy based on the increased ratings that SNL experienced because of the Palin skits, the affect on Palin’s public approval, and the public reaction to Tina Fey. Amy Poehler and other past impersonators did not have this affect on their subject or the public.
Some also question the legitimacy of Tina Fey as an effective comedian and entertainer. Some argue that Tina Fey was only an effective Sarah Palin because of her looks. Others claim that Fey was merely bashing the undefended politician (Van Meter). It is reasonable to question Tina Fey’s talent, given how much she resembles Sarah Palin. However, her ability to parody other people or effectively portray a character proves that it is more than just appearance. For Tina Fey, it is also an art and a science to match inflection, accent, mannerisms, and gestures to the point of perfection. Also, there have been many people on SNL to impersonate presidential candidates. Dana Carvey did a very successful George H.W. Bush impression, but the response was much different than that which Fey has received (Cava). There is a reason for the public hype revolving around Tina Fey: she is incredibly talented and effective.
While the Republican Party tried to portray Palin as a smart, tough, folksy “maverick”, Fey was able to successfully portray her as a hypocritical, falsely confident, hapless politician through the SNL skits (Poniewozik). Fey did this by taking Palin’s own words and actions and putting them in a new light, highlighting Palin’s incompetency. Fey, using nearly identical speeches as Palin, was able to completely change Palin’s image. Time Magazine explained that Tina Fey defined Governor Sarah Palin in the public eye before the governor could define herself (“10 People”). Fey managed to highlight the hypocrisy and ignorance of this political figure without bluntly defaming her character in an interview or report, but by using Palin’s actual words and actions as her material. Tina Fey was able to use her talents as an entertainer to impact politics on a large scale, whether intentionally or not.
Fey may have actually been too good at impersonating this important public figure. While Fey was simply trying to do her job as a comedic actress, the parody had an unintended political backlash. People began projecting politics onto Tina Fey, assuming Fey’s parody was a personal attack on Palin, and sending her hate mail (Van Meter). However, all along Fey did not intend for her parody to spark a political controversy (Armstrong). She was not trying to convey her own political message; her parents are actually Republicans and she is an Independent (Van Meter). But the fact that some viewers can become so defensive and critical because of this impersonation is a testament to Fey’s power. The accuracy of her delivery and presentation resulted in a misinterpretation of a political message where there was none.
Proof of how effective Tina Fey has become is evident in the way that she is changing entertainment. Time International Magazine named her one of the 10 People Who Mattered in 2008 (“10 People”). Time acknowledges that Fey as demonstrated that comedy can have serious political influence (Ibid). Also, many people learned about Palin through the actress Tina Fey, rather than Sarah Palin herself. NBC.com had 27.7 million views of Fey’s Palin act, and other popular sites (such as YouTube) had 68 million views (Gough). Not only did Tina Fey bring validity to comedy, but she impacted a national political election. This is an important point for politicians to notice. Though the skits of Palin are over (for now), we can look back and realize how influential Fey was. SNL is beginning to have the ability to change the public’s opinion, not just amplify it. People are/were quoting Tina Fey’s Palin more than the real Palin. Tina Fey brought SNL political leverage, and politicians should recognize this.
Along with her SNL appearances, Fey’s recent movie Baby Mama was another acting opportunity to use presentation to make a successful character. As a comedy movie, Baby Mama was not filled with insightful dialogue, but witty lines only effective with that proper presentation. Fey’s inflection at the right time along with her presentation and appearance saved the character from its dull fate. Like her SNL skits, her presentation (not substantive dialogue or a pretty face) produced a successful character. Also, on her show “30 Rock”, Fey did a Steve Jobs parody for one of the clips. Using some of his similar lines and matching his outfit almost identically, Fey once again perfected another parody. Identical blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a black turtle neck perfected her appearance, but the imitated hand gestures and mimicked smell-stepped pacing made Tina Fey “a dead ringer” for Steve Jobs (“Tina Fey”).
Image Credit: Screenshot from Screen Grabs.com
If people think that Tina Fey was only an effective comedian because she resembled Sarah Palin, this skit proved that looks are not the only important qualities in impersonation. Because she can effectively bring a character to life as well as imitate a person who she doesn’t resemble, it is clearly her unique delivery of her presentations that make them so effective.
Tina Fey is not just effective because her parodies are incredibly precise, but because her fictitious character becomes a real being. Her parody of Palin made people wonder if art imitates life, or if life imitates art (Poniewozik). Blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction is an incredible feat for an actress and impersonator. Being able to make an impersonation come to life and shape others beliefs is a powerful ability. From the reaction of the public and her increasing success, it is obvious that Tina Fey is effective as an entertainer.
Although some may criticism Tina Fey and her excessive media coverage, she is clearly an icon in the public eye. She is recognized by 6 out of 10 Americans (Gough). It is likely that she affected poling of political candidates. This makes it clear that she is an important figure in our entertainment and culture. Her rise to stardom is attributed to her talent as a comedian because she is unique and stands out in her style. Tina Fey uses her talent to capture the essence of an individual by matching minute characteristics that compose the person. It is the combination of her appearance, delivery, and overall presentation that makes her an effective performer, and she continues to have an unprecedented impact on contemporary culture.
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Armstrong, Jennifer. "Tina Fey: Entertainer of the Decade." Entertainment Weekly. 1079/1080 (2009): 46-48. 5 March 2010
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Gough, Paul J. "Palin-Biden Spoof Keeps SNL Ratings on a Roll." Hollywood Reporter. 406.42 (2008): 3. EBSCO. U of Texas Lib., Austin. 4 March 2010 http://metalib.lib.utexas.edu/V/JE7713TLA1Q92UYFGT78E2FB92CHP5GS9UEformat=002&set_number=006609&set_entry=000004&format=999.
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Van Meter, Jonathan. "Miss Tina Regrets." Vogue. March 2010. 6 March 2010 http://www/ew/com/ew/article/0,.20324126.00.html.
Wilmouth, Brad. "ABC Brings Up 'I Can See Russia from My Backyard' in Palin Interview." NewsBusters. 18 Nov. 2009.Media Research Center. 5 March 2010 http://newsbusters.org/blogs/brad-wilmouth/2009/11/18/abc-brings-i-can-see-russia-my-backyard-palin-interview.