Saturday Night Fever

Al Sharpton shimmies to James Brown on SNL.

Will the real Al Sharpton please stand up?

He should have quit after the monologue. This weekend, on Saturday Night Live, the Rev. Al Sharpton put in an appearance. Normally the monologue is a source of dread, even in the hands of professionals, but this episode’s opener was a treat, with Sharpton and Tracy Morgan appearing on stage together as Sharptons past and present. The good reverend’s outfit was almost funereal while Morgan came out with big hair, a big gut, and dressed in a garish “Lord Crumley Brothers” velour track suit. The two bantered aimlessly for a bit, and then, suddenly, a spark. Morgan mentioned that Sharpton was once the road manager for James Brown, which prompted the candidate to bust out a rendition of Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Sharpton’s interpretation, a rather presidential one, avoided the carnality of Brown’s, but his voice was strong, and he shimmied with the best of the them while Morgan’s impression of the “old” Sharpton made you feel that despite any past transgressions, at least the “new” Sharpton had a good sense of humor about himself.

For the rest of the night, however, Sharpton was distant and tentative, a star who for some reason decided to write himself out of his own show. Considering it headlined a figure as complicated as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the episode was shockingly generic. There were two skits making fun of the Jacksons (only Tito was spared), a swipe at racism in old Hollywood movies, and a holiday bit that recast the three wise men as black only to make a ponderous point about racial profiling. To be fair, Sharpton’s leaden presence was not as embarrassing as Sen. John Edwards’ ass-kissing appearance on The Daily Show, nor as bizarre as Sen. John Kerry’s turn on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno as a hot-roddin’ motorcycle mamma. Of all the Democratic hopefuls, only Gov. Howard Dean, who did a passable James Carville impression on the first episode of HBO’s K Street, has had a shred of success as a politainer. I think we have traveled too far down a road that perhaps wasn’t as well-marked as we thought.

The conventional wisdom is that former President Bill Clinton changed politics forever by playing the sax on Arsenio and answering the question “boxers or briefs?” on MTV, but what made those moments remarkable was not the quality or content of the performance, or its content, or even the fact that he was reaching out to young voters, but the element of surprise. Today, almost all the lines have been crossed, and simply showing up and being a good sport is no longer nearly enough. Candidates’ usually meager comic gifts cannot possibly surmount expectation, and the shows themselves suffer—unless they can add that element of surprise back in. (Personally I would love to see Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld bring his fractured poetry  to SNL.) If anything, given the Bush administration’s affinity for flight-deck stage craft, I would think a candidate could make some political headway as an antishowman, but I doubt this will happen soon. The comedy stop is now a permanent part of the campaign trail. The pols are going to keep on coming, and despite their best intentions, they will most likely be greeted as Al Sharpton was Saturday night, with polite laughter and a smattering of applause.