Saturday Night Live’s “Olya Povlastkey” and the Mediascape

I found a moment from the television show “Saturday Night Live” to be particularly apt to our first week’s readings. Some may already know it: the sketch comedy show performs a news segment in every episode called the “Weekend Update”, where they invite a myriad of “guest speakers” to discuss a political or sociological issue centered in America or abroad (these speakers are usually caricatures of political figures, or as is the case in this scene, completely fictitious.) In an episode from May of this year, one of the cast members played a Russian woman who was asked to comment on events surrounding the 2014 Crimean Crisis, namely a Ukrainian invasion of Russia.

There are a number of issues of transnational temporality raised by the sketch, particularly in dealing with the space-time complexity of Appadurai’s “mediascapes”. Povlastkey’s (played by Kate Mckinnon) Q&A often segways into a multitude of plays on quite outdated quotes from American television programming. She counterbalances sarcasm and critique of the American lifestyle (the use of “FML” for example) with sincere fascination with the 1990’s show Full House – reference likely picked for its availability to jokes about the insufficiency of Russian living situations, and because it is comical to the American viewer who perceives its irrelevance in the contemporary US, and can laugh at how fervently it is being received by this other nation in the now.

The suitability of Appaduria’s choice of the term Flow is also demonstrated exceptionally well in this sketch; for there is a “ripple” effect, an exchange, a pushing and pulling of images happening not only in the sketch itself, but as a result of its own mode and reception. Within the scene, this character responds to belated television images and constructs an imagined world of “America” from them – and outside of the sketch, the American recipient (both the sketch participant, the actual audience members, and those watching from home) are experiencing a hyper-inflated image of disheveled Russian lifestyle, and constructing a loose understanding of a place based on the scraps they are given.

Not only do we have a rebounding of imagined worlds, but the entire exchange is prompted by a factual political situation of global import, suggesting that Appadurai’s proposition that the exchange of information surrounding real events can be conflated with fictitious images is occurring here. This very fact is somewhat of a central part of what makes the sketch so funny: the audience notes that a lay person, a woman from a rural and unnamed “Russian” town, has been called on to talk about an issue…simply because she is “Russian”, or because she is “there”. She is essential called on to incite our imaginations, because we are too far away to do it ourselves. This irony is common among other guests called onto “Weekend Update”. Along with providing what I’m sure is some commentary on the way American news programs operate, it is in my humble opinion, also very funny.

Tayryn Edwards

3 thoughts on “Saturday Night Live’s “Olya Povlastkey” and the Mediascape”

  1. Although it is not specifically mentioned, this clip also (perhaps unknowningly) suggests of another one of Appadurai’s ideas. It appears that “Full House” is not just dubbed or subtitled, but rather is remade with Russian actors. While I don’t know how the remake approaches the original text, this would be an interesting example of indigenization and flow.

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  2. The reverse also applies– It’s an American comedian who plays the caricature of a Russian woman. I think that the choice to imitate a Russian making jokes about problems in Russia allows the audience to more comfortably laugh along– we are allowed to laugh so long as the person making the jokes and complaints claims to be Russian, even if we know that this is not the case. Still, as Tayryn suggests, we are looking at an international conflict through a mediascape flow that has rippled from Eastern Europe, through the US mediascape and finally to the viewer. The image of the state of Russia changes as it travels through both European and US mediascapes.

    -Freddy B

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  3. Tanya: If “Full House” is being remade with Russian actors, that does stir another layer of interest into the pot – it actually facilitates another issue that Freddy’s response made me think of; one that I wanted to posit previously but forget to fully flesh out. I think you are both getting at the question of what is fundamentally humorous about the sketch in a way that I really had trouble doing. Freddy put it into words very succinctly, and here it translates well into a question I’ve had: What “allows” the American audience to laugh? In a sense, I think it is a kind of self-aggrandizing (I know there is a better, more fair word, just can’t think of it) laughter. A viewer is able to laugh at the American actress playing a “Russian” woman because they are aware of the exaggeration and/or aware of how little they may know about the true condition of life in Russia from this portrayal (hopefully). It allows the viewer to feel cosmopolitan in that realization, in the same way that knowing that an American television is being reproduced in another country may allow the American writer or even viewers who felt an affinity toward the show to feel a validation in knowing that the themes and perhaps some of the dialogue resonate with a wider audience – and that we produced something that encapsulates another nations concerns and issues.

    – Tayryn

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