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SNL pokes fun at government unions

As comedy it was so-so, but as an indicator of political change Saturday Night Live’s “2010 Public Employee of the Year Award” might prove to be among the most consequential sketches in the show’s 35-year history.

The sketch, available here (be advised, the material is meant for a relatively mature audience) opens with an emcee, apparently in good health, who had been placed on disability from his job as a bus driver because the workman’s comp board was under the impression that he was paralyzed from the neck down. Then we are introduced to the three finalists for Public Employee of the Year along with their “talents”: an officious DMV Clerk who recites the absurd DMV rules (daydreaming in line is not allowed) a court clerk who reads his own poem (in which a court clerk reacts in shock to a request that he get a file from the courthouse basement) and a school janitor who is already on break when the time comes for him to perform in the talent competition.

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The sketch repeatedly refers to general sloth, corruption and absurd union work rules: The DMV office where the first finalist works managed to go through an entire day without helping a single customer, the court clerk also has a no-show job as an elevator inspector, and the school janitor is not actually required to “clean, care for, maintain, protect, or look after the school.”

In terms of its implications for national politics, the “2010 Public Employee of the Year Award” skit is potentially huge, easily outranking Chevy Chase’s somber pronouncement that Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead, and possibly on par with the memorable 2000 debate in which George Bush’s “strategery” went up against Al Gore’s “lockbox” — a sketch that went a long way toward defining the public's perception of both men.

SNL’s writers cater to a wide audience and the material has to make sense to viewers who stay up late on a Saturday night, otherwise their ratings and advertising suffer. But the writing team is composed of pros who know their audience — SNL has been on the air for 35 years after all. The implication of the sketch is fairly clear: the abuses of power perpetrated by government employee unions are well known and established enough to serve as comedic fodder nationwide. For Americans who were on the fence about government unions, seeing SNL lampoon them will reinforce the message that these are people who take unfair advantage of taxpayers.

In recent months there has been an avalanche of journalism and analysis detailing the excesses of unionized government employees. With the comedians joining in we have a fairly strong indication that the message of the serious journalists has gotten through. Government unions may not be used to being the butt of jokes, but their public reputations are bad and getting worse, and they probably should be ready for more comedic roasting. Let’s hope the roasting is followed up with serious reforms.