Instead of playing herself, Clinton appeared as "Val," a bartender pouring drinks and dispensing advice to an ambitious, stressed-out candidate "Hillary," played by comedian Kate McKinnon.
Clinton gets points for letting the writers at "SNL" take gentle potshots at her. At one point "Hillary" tells the real Clinton she was late in arriving at her current position in support of same-sex marriage
("you could have supported it sooner"). Another gag centered on "Hillary" being unable to pronounce the word "vacation" and the idea of relaxing.
Clinton pulled off her lines without a hitch. No surprise there: As a first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, she's been on the public stage continuously for more than 30 years.
But notably absent from the skit were any jokes pointed enough to draw blood. There were no references to questions about classified communications ending up on Clinton's private email server, or about ethics issues related to the money raised and spent by the Clinton Foundation.
There was no mention of the upcoming showdown with congressional Republicans over the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of four State Department employees on Clinton's watch as secretary of state -- a temptingly timely subject, given Rep. Kevin McCarthy's suggestion
that the Benghazi investigation was designed to harm Clinton's presidential hopes.
The jokesters at "Saturday Night Live" didn't even touch on the polls
suggesting that a majority of voters consider her to be untrustworthy.
One suspects that Clinton's team negotiated limits to how vicious the humor could get, mindful of the night in October 2008 when, during the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin
, then the governor of Alaska, unwisely took part in an over-the-top zany skit
that mercilessly lampooned Palin, her family, her state and her campaign as the show's cast laughed at her, not with her.
Comedians Amy Poehler and Tina Fey played Palin on "SNL." Palin and her running mate, Sen. John McCain
, lost. Palin's TV appearance didn't sink the campaign, but it definitely didn't help.
So it was smart of the seasoned campaign operatives on Clinton's team to avoid letting their candidate be displayed as a fool. While "SNL" is well past the days of serving as a uniquely edgy, unorthodox way to connect with younger voters -- there are now far better venues
where that can happen -- the appearance was a clear attempt to steer the national conversation about Clinton away from emails and Benghazi.
Beyond the actual appearance, in fact, it's safe to assume the Clinton campaign directly or indirectly negotiated her appearance as part of a de facto package deal with NBC to showcase the candidate.
On the morning after her "Saturday Night Live" appearance, Clinton showed up in an exclusive interview
with the Rev. Al Sharpton
for the debut of his "Politics Nation" show in its new Sunday slot, a way to connect with black voters. And the following day, Clinton is set to appear on the top-rated "Today" show, seen
by 4.2 million people on a typical morning, including more than its rival networks in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic.
Had the "SNL" writers subjected Clinton to anything resembling the Palin treatment, she probably would have nixed the whole package. This way, Clinton got a chance to slowly change the narrative and get the attention of key Democratic constituencies a week before the first Democratic presidential debate. No wonder she was smiling.