More than any other Democrat-leaning entity, Saturday Night Live deserves much of the credit for defanging McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin. In the weeks since her elevation to the public stage, SNL has drawn record audiences through its hilarious and deceptively accurate parodies of the Alaska governor, and if polling data on McCain’s VP is right, its underlying message is paying off in spades.

As partisan as any side’s campaign ad, the SNL skits have succeeded in lowering the nation’s overall perception of Palin, but the brilliance comes from how it’s done rather than the message itself. Every time Tina Fey has bunned her hair and adopted a Northern accent to play Palin, the comedic point hammered home to viewers is the dual themes of building up one aspect of the candidate (her looks and affect) to satirical heights and simultaneously savagely distorting another (her intelligence and ability to answer a question). Not coincidentally, the former has no bearing whatsoever on Palin’s fitness for office, while the latter cuts to the core of it. When the McCain campaign first broke the news of Palin’s selection following the Democratic National Convention, Americans had nearly as many questions about “who was Sarah Palin” as they did about Barack Obama. Into this informational vacuum stepped an eager and partisan Saturday Night Live, and by focusing on Palin’s beauty as much as her inexperience, audiences bought NBC’s message far more than if the show had come across as simply disparaging her. This is evident when you compare SNL’s mockery of Sarah Palin to the similarly brutal, but far less effective, hatchetry it uses to take down John McCain. No attempt is made to disguise the show’s intentions, painting the GOP candidate as old, out of touch, cronyistic, and in this latest sketch following the third presidential debate, actually insane. But rather than maintaining an insidious balance between Sarah Palin’s looks and brains, the only counterpoint to McCain that audiences see is a cool-headed Barack Obama look-alike, realistically impersonated more than parodied, especially in comparison to its circus clown rendition of McCain. This makes for an obvious partisan message — both portrayals have probably wormed their dubious messages into the national consciousness, but Tina Fey’s Palin has actually become a sensation!

All this should make for an interesting encounter this weekend, when the real Sarah Palin is set to make a guest appearance on the show. Her presence will make it more difficult for the show to pigeonhole her, but don’t expect them not to try. The reason SNL’s parody worked so well is that it attacked her in ways that count, without making it look like the show was on the warpath. Smart as the real Palin is, NBC could still make her look like a fool by simply pulling the rug out from under her when the show goes live, ask her some questions that weren’t in the script, rehearse things one way and change them up at showtime. This might work, but it also risks spoiling the illusion of Fey’s parody, and the last thing they want McCain’s running mate to garner is sympathy.

That being said, Sarah Palin will be entering a real den of wolves on Oct. 18, filled with professional’s whose entire livelihood is in wearing a mask other than their own. Even if NBC should wisely decide against publicly humiliating her, mark my words come this Saturday: SNL’s goal will be to make Sarah Palin’s appearance hugely successful and not overtly partisan in the slightest, but in a way that also dovetails ever so slightly with the Palin that Tina Fey has been introducing us to for past six weeks.

Update: DAMN, was I wrong. It wasn’t funny in the slightest! Interesting though that Josh Brolin, star of “W”, hosted the show that night and followed up Palin’s sketch with a non-stop “comedy” rant against Bush and McCain.

Prediction: The election’s already over.

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