The Comedy of Politics
Since Chevy Chase’s acerbic satire of President Gerald Ford in 1976, “Saturday Night Live’s” comics have played a defining role in the political life of America
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011
On a memorable night in September 2008, Tina Fey smiled into the TV camera and declared, “I can see Russia from my house.” The line earned big laughs and with good reason. Fey, dressed in red, her hair in an upsweep, was impersonating then–vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, spoofing something Palin had said earlier to “ABC News’” Charles Gibson.
It was the first of many Palin jokes Fey delivered on “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 2008. The impersonation seemed like a natural for the former “SNL” head writer and news anchor, who later told David Letterman on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “She’s got that crazy accent that’s a little bit Fargo, a little bit Reese Witherspoon in Election. Not since Sling Blade has there been a voice like that, that anybody could do.”
When Palin popped on to the national scene as a vice presidential candidate, her resemblance to Fey—and vice versa—made the comic impersonation a natural. When Fey showed up on “SNL” in September 2008 as the then–Alaska governor, it became a national sensation—and, some say, may have helped cost Palin and running mate John McCain the 2008 presidential election.
Or not—it depends on who you ask. But it once more brought the spotlight back to the veteran late-night comedy series, which kicks off its 37th season in October. It made “SNL” part of the national conversation, a player in national politics because of its sharp-edged take on current events—and not for the first time.
The phenomenon of “Saturday Night Live” affecting the national political scene stretches all the way back to its first season in 1975-1976, when Chevy Chase’s impersonation of President Gerald Ford turned the show into a sensation—and may have hurt Ford’s chances of being elected to a full term as president when he ran against Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“Well, I don’t know how you would measure that. No newsman ever asked someone coming out of a voting booth whether their opinion was shaped by comedians,” says Buck Henry, who hosted “Saturday Night Live” several times in its early years. “I helped write that first sketch that had Chevy playing Ford. I’d say that ‘SNL’s’ focus on politicians helped, in certain cases, to whittle them down a notch.”
William Horner, professor of political science at the University of Missouri, takes it further. Horner, who is finishing a book called The First Saturday Night: “Saturday Night Live” and the Presidential Election of 1976, suggests that Chase, who played Ford as a stumbling bumbler out of touch with reality, created a Ford persona that struck a chord and stuck with the American public.
“In his autobiography, Ron Nessen [Ford’s press secretary, who actually hosted an episode of “SNL” in April 1976] makes the argument that ‘SNL’ cost Ford the election,” Horner says. “You could say that Chase changed people’s impression of Ford. My feeling is that it made a difference. Ford did lose New York. If he’d won New York, he’d have won the election.”
And the McCain-Palin ticket? Both Republicans actually turned up on “Saturday Night Live” in person during that fall 2008 election season. It may have been an attempt at conveying that they were hip enough to be in on the joke—or perhaps to inoculate themselves against further lampooning.
“When Sarah Palin went on, it showed the public she could take a joke about herself,” maintains Dan Aykroyd, a member of the original “SNL” cast when it went on the air in 1975. “It humanized her, in my view. It showed that she recognized the power of the show.”
Bruce Fretts, articles editor for TV Guide Magazine, argues the opposite—that, once Tina Fey did her Palin impersonation, even a Palin appearance on the show couldn’t mitigate the effect that the satire had on the public perception of the controversial Republican candidate.
“That was what everyone was talking about for the major portion of the election cycle,” Fretts says. “There were real teeth in their Palin skits. It had impact because it defined her as a laughingstock. They stripped away her ‘Aw, shucks’ persona and made her look like a phony and a dunce. People had suspicions about her and you were seeing those reflected back and reinforced by the sketches.”
Horner argues that, in fact, “SNL” changed the dynamic of the press coverage of the Democratic primaries that same year. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did drop in for guest appearances during the primaries—but an earlier “SNL” skit, about press moderators at Democratic debates fawning over Obama while ignoring Clinton, became a story in itself.
“And then Hillary Clinton went on the show herself,” Horner says. “The people who do go on have an agenda. They think they’re co-opting the show.”
Tom Shales, Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington Post TV critic and coauthor of Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’, observes that Jim Downey, a longtime writer of political humor on “SNL,” always discourages allowing the real politicians on the show.
“Downey expressed displeasure in our book about inviting actual newsmakers on,” Shales says. “He thought it defanged and diluted the impact of the satire. How can you lampoon them and be ruthless when you’re standing next to the actual person?”
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, it’s not hard to envision “SNL’s” stellar current cast—fresh off a summer of movie hits for Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis—sharpening its knives for the already-underway 2012 primary tussle.
“I love the amazing videos they do,” says Jim Belushi, a cast member from 1983-1985. “From what I’ve seen, this current cast is great.”
With a strong cast that isn’t afraid to take on contemporary politicians and celebrities—everyone from Rep. John Boehner and President Barack Obama to Miley Cyrus and Charlie Sheen—it’s less a question of who they’ll take the satirical blade to than what will escape their edgy comedic treatment.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that political advisers are devising strategies to deal with what has become a mainstream vein of political satire. Besides “Saturday Night Live” on NBC, two Comedy Central shows—“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert—have become important players in translating current events into comedy.
A poll by Pew Research Center for People and the Press in 2008 showed that an increasing number of 18-to-29-year-old voters got their political news from just such shows. As Downey told Shales in Live From New York: “Someone did a survey of college students on where they got their political views and information—and television comedy was number one. During the 2000 election, after the first debate followed up by the first debate sketch…I kept hearing reports from people that they [had seen the sketch rebroadcast] on CNN or there was something on the ‘Today’ show…And then it became a standard thing. Nowadays they practically have a regular slot.”
Shales says, “I hope we haven’t reached the point where candidates are figuring out how to exploit ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the other shows. But we’re probably at the point where it’s part of the overall media strategy.”
Which, if it were true, would be further indication of just how far “Saturday Night Live” has come since it went on the air more than three decades ago.
When it started, “Saturday Night Live” was, for all practical purposes, an experiment: an off-the-radar show airing late on a weekend night in a slot which the network had previously devoted to reruns of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Carson’s show was a cash-cow for the network, so when Carson expressed displeasure at the use of repeats (which he felt devalued both the live show and the eventual resale value of reruns), the network turned to a young executive named Dick Ebersol, a former protégé of Roone Arledge.
Ebersol, in turn, hired an unknown Canadian comedy writer-performer named Lorne Michaels, who had written for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for Lily Tomlin’s network comedy specials. Their mandate: to create a new comedy show and perhaps shake up the late-night time slot on weekends.
“Lorne told me he had been approached to do a weekend replacement show for ‘The Tonight Show’ and it would be a cross between ‘Monty Python’ and ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Laraine Newman, a member of the original cast, told Shales in his book, Live From New York. “And I thought, I’d watch that.”
Filmmaker-comedian Albert Brooks recalls being approached by Ebersol and Michaels in the early stages of development about the possibility of being the show’s permanent host.
“They didn’t know what to do and, at one point, they talked about it being ‘The Albert Brooks Show,’ ” Brooks says. “But I didn’t want to move to New York and do a live show.”
Comedian Robert Klein, who hosted the fifth episode of the first season, encountered Michaels in the office of the agents they shared and heard early on about his idea for a live comedy sketch show.
“I remember having a talk with Lorne and saying that he’d be better off taping it,” Klein says with a laugh. “He said, no, there was a spontaneity and excitement to doing it live. He turned out to be right.
“Look at it this way,” Klein continues, “the network hadn’t done a live show like this since ‘Howdy Doody’ in 1953. Everyone was on tape. Live was for ballgames.”
There is an ocean of difference between how “Saturday Night Live” is seen today and how it was perceived when it first went on the air in 1975 (called simply “Saturday Night,” because the late Howard Cosell was hosting a primetime variety show on ABC called “Saturday Night Live”).
“When we went on the air, it was a groundbreaking satirical show that revived live television,” Aykroyd says. “It had the spirit of Sid Caesar and ‘Your Show of Shows.’ Today, it remains probably the most intelligent, well-executed live satirical variety show on the air.”
Notes Fretts, “Nobody had done that kind of humor on TV, even in that time slot. This was revolutionary sketch comedy aimed at an alternative audience.”
“Comedy like that hadn’t been seen by that generation,” says Brooks, who made short films that were broadcast during “SNL’s” first season. “There were a lot of shows, from ‘Your Show of Shows’ on, that did sketches. But ‘SNL’ was doing it weekly, dealing with the news and trying to make it as updated as you could, up to two hours before it went on, and that was unusual.”
“When it started, I was in high school and we’d wait for it with bated breath every week,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for TV and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Once the upstart, “SNL” has become an institution after 36 seasons on the air. Where it once was seen as a rogue enterprise in the late-night corridor—staffed with the first generation of performers who had actually grown up watching TV—at this point it arguably is on its third or even fourth generation of fans.
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