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Creative knives come out for election

'SNL,' celeb videos walk political mean streets

When “Saturday Night Live” skewered congressional hearings on the financial crisis during its Oct. 4 broadcast, it used a graphic to identify subprime lenders Herb and Marion Sandler thusly: “people who should be shot.”

The Sandlers were not amused, and an Internet flap ensued when NBC removed the Web video, edited out the Chyron label and put the sketch back up again. An apologetic Lorne Michaels told the Los Angeles Times that the skit’s writer, Jim Downey, thought the sketch was a “fair hit.”

With the financial system teetering, everyone is worried. But the scathing comment also reflects a presidential campaign in its final throes — increasingly hostile, angry and negative, with Hollywood responding in kind.

Earlier in the year the industry’s politically minded creative types came up with Web projects like Will.i.am’s inspirational, pro-Barack Obama “Yes, We Can” video. More likely to strike a chord these days are biting online videos such as “McCain’s Rage,” producer Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films’ roundup of the Arizona senator’s temperament.

Stars have taken on a negative tone in response to attacks on “celebrity” and the “elite” from the John McCain side, with Barbra Streisand calling it the “politics of hypocrisy, distraction and blame,” and Madonna banning Sarah Palin from her concerts. On his video blog, P. Diddy could barely contain himself in a response to McCain’s calling Obama “that one” in their second presidential debate.

“Now the blogs are real dangerous,” Diddy says on his video entry. “I could say something real crazy about ‘that one.’ ”

Palin in particular has struck a nerve. Typically biting on his show, Jon Stewart couldn’t resist when he appeared at a Project ALS benefit in New York last week. According to the New York Daily News, he told the crowd, Palin “is like Jodie Foster in the movie ‘Nell.’ They just found her, and she was speaking her own special language.”

Even normally sedate and neutral get-out-the-vote ads, loaded with celebrities, are taking on a harder edge to draw attention in a caustic environment. Leonardo DiCaprio’s “5 Friends Uncensored,” with more than 1.4 million hits on YouTube, uses reverse psychology and plenty of expletives to try to get young people to the polls. Sarah Silverman’s “The Great Schlep” video aims to get Jewish voters to prod their Florida grandparents into voting for Obama. “Vote for Obama, gonna visit grand mama. Vote for McCain, to me you’re a shit stain,” she says in typical audaciousness.

It’s not just the industry’s left-skewing partisans who are throwing out zingers. David Zucker’s “An American Carol,” which opened Oct. 3, is a feature-length skewering of the left, with Michael Moore its figurative and literal punching bag.

It wasn’t too long ago that Hollywood Democrats were more apt to stay out of the fray, perhaps mindful of 2004, when the GOP lambasted John Kerry for cavorting with liberal entertainment elites. At this year’s Democratic National Convention, the entertainment figures who mingled among party leaders were markedly subdued. Ben Affleck wouldn’t say anything even remotely political beyond urging folks to get out the vote.

That quickly changed after Labor Day, when McCain’s poll numbers started to creep up and many of Obama’s donors fretted that the candidate just wasn’t being forceful enough.

To that end, Web video, be it snippets of comedy shows or self-produced attack spots, is proving to be an influential tool. More than campaign contributions, more than stump speeches and endorsements, these viral videos may end up being Hollywood’s greatest influence in this year’s presidential contest.

One of Greenwald’s recent Web videos, asking why McCain won’t release his medical records, was excerpted in a 30-second spot by Brave New PAC and Democracy for America accentuating aspects of McCain’s face where he had melanomas removed. Bill O’Reilly called the spot “perhaps the most vicious political ad of the campaign,” and it ran briefly on MSNBC before the network dropped it.

But the spot gained big exposure with pieces shown on “The Daily Show” and CNN last week. All told, Greenwald says, his company’s series of McCain videos have generated about 11 million views throughout the year, and more are planned in the coming weeks.

To Greenwald, it’s not so much about going negative as it is trying to drive home a story that hasn’t been pursued by the mainstream media.

That’s why Oliver Stone’s “W.,” to be released Oct. 17, is a bit incongruous. It’s scathing about the Bush years, but compared to what’s being said in Hollywood these days, the movie is actually kind of tame.