Everyone was happy to see Tina Fey take the wheel at the sinking ship Saturday Night Live with her impersonation of America's Top Politician Sarah Palin. But no one has posed the essential question: who profits? Who profits from this comedy and the unavoidable talent behind it?
What we know of Tina Fey from the profiles written of her in The New Yorker and more recently Vanity Fair is that she is a relatively shrewd and sharp square who is impatient with people who aren’t squares. She hates strippers but loves to make fun of them. She fears terrorists with anthrax as much as or more than she hates George W. Bush. She recoils at the word “cunt” but gave a new life to the words “whore” and “bitch” during her tutelage as SNL head writer.
Both her humor and morality come from the interior world of a white woman. Not, to paraphrase Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that, but there is certainly no political humor left in this world of highly personalized affectations and prejudices. The clever Tina Fey may engage in gender humor, but there’s no political content—just language games that grow out of personal identity and the social anxiety that comes from being surrounded by a multiplicity of other identities. A major source of humor on Fey's primetime TV show 30 Rock is the bewilderment of Fey’s and our alter ego Liz Lemon in a multicultural world—someone is always around to ruin our day by getting offended at an innocent remark, which we didn’t mean that way (like mixing up the names of the two black people who work on your set), or not matching a stereotype that we were perfectly rational in believing (like that quiet Arab men are generally planning terrorist attacks).
So does Tina Fey show us the real stupidity of Sarah Palin? Or does Sarah Palin reveal the hidden conservatism of Tina Fey? When Fey defended Hilary Clinton on SNL, declaring that “bitch is the new black,” she summed up the roots of today’s cynical comedy and politics. Mainstream has been out for a long time, and an endless rotation of marginalities is in. “Black” isn’t an identity so much as a signifier of “outsideness,” of difference, and that’s what sells—so, for a successful white person, your personal quirks and particularities may be your ticket to politically incorrect privilege. Everyone can be The New Black, whether they are teddy-bear Republicans like Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock, or edgy, career-driven post-feminists like Tina Fey.
Fortunately, there are oppositional tendencies within the contemporary comedy world. I am always dismayed when I watch 30 Rock by what seems to be Tina Fey’s hatred of Indians—the only Indians in her world are annoying convenience-store owners, hot dog salesmen, or Jonathan, the sniveling, overachieving personal assistant to Jack Donoghy—but I am filled with renewed optimism when I remember the glorious Kevin G., from Tina Fey's most progressive (and funniest) project, Mean Girls. Here what could have been a nasty joke became a liberatory force in the hands of a talented young actor.
On 30 Rock itself, the virtuosic performances of Tracy Morgan manifest the sheer force of cultural icons that come from the outside. His character is utterly incomprehensible to the rationality of the show—he embodies every imaginable stereotype so completely that we are no longer able to pin him down to an acceptable multicultural category. When Morgan appeared on SNL to defend Obama in response to Tina Fey’s political declarations, he represented the appropriate response to the anxieties of mainstream America. The cultural forces coming from the margins of American society are not just threats to mainstream identities, they have already destroyed them; Obama just drove the point home.
The Sarah Palins of television had better move over, because it’s time to celebrate a new mainstream. Black is the new America.