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Critic's Notebook: Tina Fey gets her Palin on for 'Saturday Night Live'

April 11, 2010 |  8:35 am

Tina Fey returned Saturday night to "Saturday Night Live," preceded by the widely reported news, or "news," that she would be putting on her Sarah Palin suit again for the first time in a year and a half. Fey won an Emmy for a clutch of such appearances back during the 2008 election. One of those episodes, with Palin herself on board, won the show its best ratings in 14 years.

The two women share a few things besides their resemblance, which is to say past Fey's ability to mimic Palin -- it doesn't really work the other way around. Both are working mothers, each more successful now than the last time they appeared on the show, in person or impersonated. Palin was the first female governor of Alaska, Fey the first female head writer for "Saturday Night Live." Both have been interviewed by Oprah. And both are now in the entertainment business -- and both working, I would go so far as to say, as professional comedians, though where Fey is dry and self-skewering, Palin is a rabble-rouser who only looks outward.

Although Palin maintains a political profile on the back of the Cinderella moment that thrust her into the limelight two years ago, she has at least temporarily left actual politics -- resigning her governorship midterm to become a media personality, a job that pays better and affords her more, and better managed, exposure. Having recently hosted an "inspirational" Fox News special, "Real American Stories," she is moving on to "Sarah Palin's Alaska," an eight-part series for TLC, home of "Little Chocolatiers," "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant," "19 Kids and Counting" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive." (And what is actually the most inspirational show on television, "What Not to Wear.")

As regards the body politic, or impolitic, she's of a kind with Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck -- who recently told Forbes magazine he cared nothing about the political process: "We're an entertainment company" -- an energetic noisemaker who resonates not only within the ranks but also with a mainstream media only too happy to amplify her for fun and profit.

Just now she is part of a fake argument with President Obama, taking place on television and midwifed by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, over the START treaty. That she has either misread it or not read it at all doesn't matter because what Palin does is really a kind of agitprop stand-up that, like most comedy, only needs to seem true. Like Fey's "30 Rock," it works, if it works on you, by making you forget the logic of the real world and pulling you into its own warped trajectory.

As a celebrated alumna of the series, Fey was of course bringing more to "SNL" than just a Palin imitation -- which she certainly would not have been allowed to leave at home -- and as far as I can recall she was present in every sketch. But apart from her Weekend Update guest spot and a faux-mercial for a man-shaped, man-sized "Brownie Husband," it was the Palin sketch that gave her most of her best moments. It played off of Palin's new adventures in television, with a nod to Oprah Winfrey's creation of a network in her own image. Here we were given a look at a new Sarah Palin Network -- "all Palin all the time until 2012 when I still haven't decided what I'm going to do but [sotto voce] I'm probably gonna run for president."

Its shows would include "Tea Party Wheel of Fortune" ("OBAMAR IS A TERRIST" reads the puzzle), "Are You Smarter than a Half-Term Governor?" ("I think you'll be surprised by the answer, I know I was") and "30 Main Street," about a woman "so focused on her career that she's in her late 30s and still doesn't have grandchildren." There were also "Hey, Journalist, I Gotcha!" in which Palin edited her old interviews, and interviewers, "to make it look like they were the ones who were woefully unprepared"; and the original movie, "My Daughter Only Sprained Her Ankle, They Can't Seriously Be Considering Euthanizing Her." ("Oh, that one's got a hidden message.") The asides were the heart of the routine, because that's where the person was; there is some affection in the portrayal. She does not play her as dumb so much as fatally chirpy.

As a major-network institution playing to a broad audience, "SNL" is usually more silly than satirical -- "South Park" on an off day is more devastating -- and the humor is mild enough that back in 2008 John McCain appeared on the show alongside Fey in her Palinwear. (Fey has described Palin as "a perfectly nice lady," "very strong" and "not bothered or threatened by any of this, nor should she be.")

Saturday's episode was less hard on Palin than it was on Tiger Woods, the subject of a long sketch -- like most "SNL" sketches, too long at least by half and dreadfully paced -- that included the phrase "filthy Ambien zombie sex"; on Tiki Barber; and on Bombshell McGee. "When your body looks like a dirtbag's binder from seventh-grade metal shop," said Fey in her "Weekend Update" Woman's News segment, "it doesn't bode well for your character." 

-- Robert Lloyd (LATimesTVLloyd@Twitter)