Not many people can watch television and say they’re working. For Matt Sienkiewicz, assistant professor of communications at Boston College, it’s all part of the job. The Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker’s 2009 film, Live: From Bethlehem, took a serious look at producing news in Palestine. This scholar also has a comedic side, having studied the role of satire in American pop culture. His book, Saturday Night Live and American TV, comes out later this year. I chatted with Matt about our perception of fair and balanced news, and what it takes to be a good comedian.
Tell me a little bit about Live: From Bethlehem. Did you know going into the project that it would turn into a piece about news being fair and balanced?
The original impulse for the film was to investigate what Joe Sousa and I felt to be a disconnect between American perceptions of Palestinian media and the real situation. For example, we knew someone whom the State Department sent over to Bethlehem in order to give a lecture on ethics to journalists. He was told the problem was ideological but quickly determined that was not the case. Many—if not most—of the journalists were highly professional, but they faced enormous material concerns. This is what we wanted to document. Yes, there’s an ideological element of creating news when caught between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, etc. But there is also a tremendous difficulty in simply making news in the context of occupation. It’s hard to schedule a broadcast when, depending on checkpoints and other factors, a one-hour trip to the capital in Ramallah can take 45 minutes or 5 hours.
Speaking of fair and balanced news, what’s your take on how we handle the news in this country?
Like many people, I have concerns about the fracturing of our country that the different news outlets can exacerbate. There’s very little “big tent” news out there. Many people are getting their information from sources that are overt in their political orientation. But it’s important to keep in mind that people decide what they watch or read; the control is still ultimately in the individual’s hand. You also need to remember that news always needs to be supported in one form or another, and as a result, you’ll never get good, professional information that is 100 percent agenda-free. But with all that said, it certainly would be nice if there was a common news source that most Americans were engaged with, if only for the sake of having better party conversations.
I’ve noticed the theme of satire appearing throughout your work, from SNL to Family Guy to South Park. Do you see a correlation between being Jewish and having a good sense of humor?
I think so. A lot of comedy is about seeing the artificiality of the world around you and pointing to the little absurdities of everyday life. Being a minority helps with that. For example, being a Jew in a Gentile society helps you see the artificial structures society creates around a holiday like Christmas. It all may seem natural to most people, but maybe the Jew can see through it a little bit because she’s not part of it in the same way. That perspective is where a lot of great satire comes from.
You’re about to publish a scholarly book examining Saturday Night Live. What’s your all-time favorite skit from the show?
I should be hip and scholarly and pull out an obscure Michael O’Donaghue sketch from the 70s. But to be honest, if I could only watch one SNL bit for the rest of my life, I’d choose the Andy Samberg/Lonely Island video “Iran So Far” about Ahmadinejad. It’s a short piece full of both insightful political satire and silly comedy. I could watch it five times in a row and not get sick of it.
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