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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
Marshall Fine
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.”

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