Live… from California, it’s Kamala Harris

The junior senator from the Golden State entered the political spotlight and America’s consciousness as the lone black female in the U.S. Senate and then as the lone black female in a deep pool of Democratic presidential hopefuls. The national notoriety pushed “Kamala Harris” further into the limelight on TV’s Saturday Night Live (SNL).

Played for laughs (and an Emmy) by Maya Rudolph, the persona of Harris during the presidential primary season ranged from sexy and in vogue, complete with pop culture references, to the self-proclaimed “smooth-talking lawyer lady” delivering one-liners, embodying stereotypical sass, i.e. a sharp tongue and a lightning-quick ability to dress down verbal adversaries. Rudolph as Harris at the 2019 DNC Town Hall: “I’m America’s cool aunt. A fun aunt. I call that Funt. The kind of funt that will give you weed, but then arrest you for having weed. Can I win the presidency? Probably not. I don’t know. Can I successfully seduce a much younger man? You better funting believe it.”

The description of political parodies, such as that of Harris on SNL, is represented on a spectrum of accurate evaluations to brutal takedowns. Parodies spoof subjects by means of satiric imitation. Caricatures are built from consistent gestures and movements. Speech, both what was said and how it was said, is often targeted. Harris’s iconic “I’m speaking” declaration to an interrupting Vice President Mike Pence during the vice-presidential debate was recreated to great comic effect by Rudolph.

Left almost completely out of the SNL’s comedic takeoff is Harris’s diverse background, a Jamaican father and a mother from South Asia. The jokes aren’t found in those areas. The relevance of Harris’s life and her moment in the spotlight, however, is not completely ignored as a parody relies on social significance. So, the show’s writers clearly knew that Harris represented a number of historic firsts as a daughter of immigrants and a black (and Indian) woman vice president. It also would not be surprising if mentions of a Harris presidency had been thrown around the writing table. After all, it’s plausible that the aging Biden will serve only one term, leaving Harris as a front-runner for the 2024 nomination.

For the most part, the jokes involving Harris are not rooted in monumental political outcomes. The funny stuff is mined from Rudolph presenting the politician as America’s cool aunt whose reaction faces are meme-worthy and who isn’t afraid to be seen with a martini glass. Leading up to Election Day, the character of Kamala Harris appeared regularly with jokes touching on race and racial realities in the United States. For example, this line from Rudolph as Harris at the 2020 vice presidential debate: “Now I’d like to hear the vice president’s response, and while he speaks, I’m going to smile at him like I’m at TJ Maxx and a white lady asks me if I work here.”

Harris’s blackness is front and center as a matter of fact and as context for parody. The faces, the body language, and the pointed takedowns all fall in line with widespread representations of black women in entertainment media. Rudolph’s portrayal of Harris has garnered praise and overwhelming support as the former regular only returns to SNL to play characters for which she has a special affinity and, in this case, a similar look. Rudolph is also biracial. No claims of problematic stereotyping have been cast at SNL or Rudolph. Using the lens of race to view SNL’s parody of Harris, however, is an area that raises questions of intent and impact. If social commentary leading to public awareness is the intended impact, it would be difficult to say that SNL missed the mark. It is in the show’s DNA to make America look at and evaluate its leaders like Harris. Neither could you call Rudolph’s portrayal anything but a success, if belly laughs and memorable lines to repeat and to post on social media was the goal.

Does the parody of the first black female vice president have significant influences on the black community? While Harris’s pick as Biden’s running mate was at least partially meant to engender favor with minority voters, the use of her as target of humor and social commentary was not a nod to the black community. It simply seems meant to acknowledge Harris as a presence on the national stage and give a favorite SNL actress a chance to get laughs. In terms of representation, a black woman has reached a level of political power and fame that few others have or will. Even as the show has caricatured the senator’s manner, it has mostly portrayed her in a positive light. For some, it will be aspirational, feuling daydreams and bolstering hope. SNL still captures America’s attention, setting the agenda for public discourse. In this way, the profile of America’s fun and cool black aunt has certainly been boosted.