Here’s a thought experiment: Try to make a list of the least funny things on television. The Home Shopping Network has got to be on there, plus the Weather Channel, the Sci-Fi Network and one of those cryptic channels that’s always broadcasting church services from some undisclosed location.

And then, rounding out the top five, there’s “Saturday Night Live.”

I keep hearing people talk about how “SNL” is providing some hilarious commentary on the presidential election, so for the past four weeks since the show returned, I’ve been watching the clips online. I am invariably horrified by what I find.

Tina Fey calls Hillary Clinton a “bitch,” but suggests that this is actually a good reason to vote for her (Edgy!). In a parody of the CNN debate between Clinton and Barack Obama, the moderators give Obama preferential treatment (It’s funny because it’s true!). Mike Huckabee shows up on “Weekend Update” for two and a half self-deprecating minutes on how badly he’s losing (Oh, Huck! There you go, bumbling along in second place!).

Watching these clips, I don’t feel amused; I feel a sick emptiness in my stomach where I know the amusement is supposed to be. And yet “SNL” is apparently playing an influential role in the election, so much so that Clinton referenced the debate sketch to cast herself as the victim of media bias, and leading to some speculation that the writers at “SNL” are actually trying to sway the Democratic contest in her favor.

I doubt this is true – I really wouldn’t credit the people writing this “comedy” with enough intellectual heft to pull off something like that. If they do favor a candidate, though, I wish they’d come out and say so directly, so that I could make a note to support the other guy.

It wasn’t always this way. “Saturday Night Live” used to be the gold standard of political satire, dating back to Chevy Chase’s days as President Ford in the show’s first years.

To those of you who have been watching the recent “SNL” clips and find them funny, I beg you to look up the classics online. Sadly, it seems that people have forgotten the way Dana Carvey perfectly replicated every facet of his George H.W. Bush’s nerdy persona, or the sight of Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton, shoveling down French fries while campaigning at McDonald’s.

There will always be a special place in my heart for the “SNL” coverage of the Lewinsky scandal. My favorite sketches were those with John Goodman guest-starring as a pitch-perfect, disgusting Linda Tripp. And of course, we all grew up with Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush – maybe the greatest impersonation of any president, and one that put words like “strategery” into the American lexicon.

Does anyone really think that Fred Armisen’s tortured and downright boring impersonation of Obama even holds a candle to any of those performances? Even Amy Poehler’s Hillary is a letdown, falling way short of Ana Gasteyer’s caricature of the then-first lady during the ’90s.

Worse than the bad acting, though, is the lack of imagination: Most of today’s sketches are just reenactments of campaign ads and press conferences. Whatever happened to Janet Reno’s Dance Party, Bob Dole on “The Real World” (“Nobody eats Bob Dole’s peanut butter!”) or Dan Quayle at the State of the Union, standing and applauding at all the wrong times?

Of course, not all of the reasons behind the decline of “SNL” are within the show’s control. Yes, any true fan knows that there’s been a gradual, painful exodus of real talent from the cast that started roughly at the start of the decade. But even before then, audiences were already looking for political humor elsewhere – first on cable, leading to the rise of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and now, increasingly, online.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and I can always find something entertaining on YouTube. But this year, more than ever before, I think the need for that traditional, one-stop shop for political humor has become painfully evident.

I hate to be the one to say it, but I don’t know that American popular culture can survive 2008, at least not against the obscenely decadent media bonanza surrounding this “Election to End all Elections. Fifteen months into the campaign, and with another seven months to go (at least), the race for the White House is already spent of anything that once passed for humor. Honestly, I can’t remember even chuckling about something related to the race since Ron Paul dropped out.

With John McCain having locked up the Republican nomination and the Democratic race at a virtual standstill, every day seems to bring another absurd dialogue about whether the Clinton surrogate should apologize for the possibly offensive thing he said in response to the possibly offensive thing the Obama surrogate said the day before.

I don’t even care who wins anymore, and as an American voter, I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to feel that way until at least mid-September.

So it’s a bit disheartening that the one thing that might have added a little cheer to this grim landscape, the once-proud court jester of American politics, is gone, replaced by a stiff, poorly written and depressingly unfunny shell of his former self.

The point is, it’s not just another TV show. Since the debut of “SNL,” we’ve had six presidents, eight presidential elections and an untold number of national crises and scandals. Would they have been the same without humor? I don’t know, but it’s not a possibility I like to think about.

So go ahead and keep laughing, if you can muster it. As for me, you’ll find me nowhere near my NBC station on Saturdays at 11:30, at least not until they bring back the funny.

Stephen Santulli is a senior in the College and former editor in chief of THE HOYA. He can be reached at santullithehoya.com. THOUGHTCRIME appears every other Tuesday.

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