Poking Fun at Palin

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Gov. Sarah Palin arrives at the vice presidential debate tonight as a near-overnight celebrity. But with her interviews few and far between, a lot of what we know about her – or what we think about her – has been supplied by comedians. WNYC’s Siddhartha Mitter takes a look at the Sarah Palin comedy boom.

REPORTER: By now the resemblance between Gov. Palin and her impersonation by comedian Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live" has gotten so close that people may be confused as to which one they’re seeing. All the more so because the "SNL" writers slipped some of Palin’s actual replies to Katie Couric into the script of the parody interview.

But Tina Fey’s command performance is just the tip of the iceberg. In the short time since John McCain made Sarah Palin a national figure, poking fun at the Alaska governor has become a comedy staple -- with nightly witticisms on Leno and Letterman.

Meanwhile, according to a tracking service called Viral Video Chart, three of the top 10 most circulated videos in the past seven days are clips of the real Sarah Palin stumbling in the Couric interview.

THURSTON: Isn’t she her own best joke?

REPORTER: Baratunde Thurston is the Web editor of the parody newspaper The Onion, and a stand-up comic himself.

THURSTON: We actually have a lot of Palin material, to the point where it was like, maybe we should lighten up a little bit.

REPORTER: Thurston says some of the best Palin humor isn’t coming from the late night shows -- but from a whole cottage industry that’s bubbling up on the internet.

THURSTON: You look online, and there’s fake Sarah Palin blogs, fake Sarah Palin Facebook profiles, fake Sarah Palin Twitter accounts, so people are really expanding the media of what impersonation means, to try to get all angles on this person.

KLAUSNER: I think she’s sort of dwarfed whatever material people had for the people who are actually running for president.

REPORTER: New York writer and comedian Julie Klausner says Palin’s arrival on the scene has freshened up the race.

KLAUSNER: There’s only a certain amount of old-guy jokes that we can recycle from Bob Dole, and Obama is really tough, unless you’re doing like, Messiah kind of material. But then this aw-shucks, beauty-pageantess from this obscure state came along and all the references are just flowing.

REPORTER: One Palin impression that’s caught on is by a New York comedian Sara Benincasa. With her comedy partner Diana Saez, she’s done a series of improvised videos that show the Palin character usually venting to a fictitious cousin.

Benincasa says she’s been surprised by the viral success of her videos on YouTube – so much that they’ve been picked up by 236.com, a comedy site connected to the liberal website, Huffington Post. She says Palin offers endless material:

BENINCASA: She’s just so exaggerated and so wild in her content and in her delivery that she is just a comedian’s dream come true.

REPORTER: But Benincasa says for her the real appeal of these performances has gone well beyond making fun of Palin in particular, and turned into more of a social commentary.

BENINCASA: Initially, it was just to work out my liberal rage. But as time went on, it became a way to work out our feelings about mean girls. About girls who climb to the top using only their looks and their absolute disregard for ethics. She’s really to us a high school character. So we take the different elements of her wacky life and use that to kind of inform this weird character that we’ve created to work out our own issues.

REPORTER: Plenty of Palin humor out there has a nasty edge. A lot of jokes have fallen flat, and some of the wisecracking has been overtly sexist. Diana Saez points out that the crude stuff tends to backfire.

SAEZ: When they were pasting Sarah Palin’s face on the bikini, stuff like that is unnecessary, and it does get away from substantial arguments against her.

REPORTER: But these comedians say you can be vigilant against sexism, and still see Palin as an acceptable target. They say she’s made herself fair game:

SAEZ: Any misgivings I might have had, that speech she gave at the RNC where she clearly was not afraid to have at it and to poke fun and to sneer and to mock other people, clearly she likes being snarky. So it’s on.

REPORTER: Journalists have sparred with the McCain campaign over the limited access it’s giving them to Palin. But Baratunde Thurston says comedians don’t have that problem.

THURSTON: When there is an absence of information we’ll create it. As a society and as satirists you’ll create it. And it’s more credible, because you don’t have anything to check it against. You’re like well, who knows if it’s unrealistic?

REPORTER: Tonight a more realistic Palin may emerge from under the caricature. On the other hand the debate might just give comedians a whole bunch of new material to mine for laughs. For WNYC I’m Siddhartha Mitter

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