The Comedy of Politics

Clockwise from top left: Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Fred Armisen and Darrell Hammond, Darrell Hammond  and Amy Poehler.
Clockwise from top left: Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Fred Armisen and Darrell Hammond, Darrell Hammond and Amy Poehler.

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

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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.
“You can’t be revolutionary for 35 years,” Shales says. “The old spirit—that they were anti-TV or that they were going to overturn the applecart—doesn’t really apply. But I still think they’re doing the kind of breakthrough comedy that has people talking at the water cooler on Monday morning.”
Adds Fretts, “It’s a little like Rolling Stone magazine. It started as this underground thing and then became part of the mainstream.”
The landscape has changed significantly in the three-and-a-half decades since the show went on the air, in part because of the boundaries that “SNL” broke, Thompson says.
“It pushed the envelope of content,” he says, “so that when the cable era rolled around, there was already some precedent for that kind of outrageous humor. It was also a venue for more Dadaist comics: Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman. It fertilized the whole American comedy scene.”
The competition to be current and edgy is distinctly stronger at this point. It’s not just “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report”: Political satire is the province of other cable shows such as “South Park,” and even prime-time network programs like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” (which featured an episode in which George H.W. Bush moved in across the street from the Simpsons).
“These days, there’s so much cutting-edge comedy that ‘SNL’ is just one entry in that larger environment,” Thompson says.
From the beginning, “SNL” was a star-making vehicle, vaulting its cast to fame. Over the years it has become a finishing school for comedy stars drafted from the farm system of improvisation-based theater troupes such as Chicago’s Second City, Los Angeles’ Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade, which has roots in Chicago and New York.
“Right from the start, it was a real show with a Second City sensibility,” says Robert Klein, himself a Second City alumnus. “It immediately represented smarter TV. I had high hopes for it before it started because of the pedigree of the cast, that the whole thing could be a hip enterprise.”
“It’s still a place for bright young comic talent to break into the business and make a big national impression in a hurry,” Shales says. “You need a show like that to replenish the comic supply, as it were.”
The show’s very first season made an instant star of Chevy Chase, who had originally signed on only as a writer. He became suddenly famous as the first anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” newscast, with his catchphrase, “Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase—and you’re not.” By the end of the first season, he had announced his plans to leave for the movies.
That original cast spawned a whole set of movie stars: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray (who replaced Chase when he left). Jane Curtin went on to star in two of the biggest sitcom hits of the 1980s and 1990s: “Kate & Allie” and “Third Rock from the Sun.”
Since then, the show has created a host of movie stars: from Eddie Murphy to Adam Sandler to Will Ferrell, from Mike Myers and Dana Carvey to Chris Farley and David Spade. The list of talent that Michaels recruited and launched is impressively long, including, among others, Kevin Nealon, Chris Rock, Al Franken, Norm MacDonald, Tracy Morgan, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig.
“Lorne has a great eye for talent,” Aykroyd says. “He selected me and Belushi and Bill Murray and Phil Hartman and the rest. Today he’s got a great ensemble cast of really talented people. He’s got that ability to recruit talent.”
Getting there—just making it into the lineup of a show which has been on the air since before many members of the current cast were born—is a dream come true.
Jim Belushi explains, “The greatest moment of every show is when they say, ‘Live from New York’ and the horn section kicks in. All of a sudden, you’re right there, living in the moment. It puts you right back in your body and out of your head.”
Being on the show, Belushi says, is comparable to being a professional athlete: “You’re like a tackle on the Chicago Bears—they say hike and you just power forward,” he says. “It’s like bench-pressing—all out. Or like boxing. You’ve got three minutes and you’ve got to hit them and not get hit yourself.”
The experience of being on the show? It offered the adrenaline rush of live performance, magnified by the even more daunting notion of millions of eyes trained on what you were doing.
“That’s such an overwhelming thought—to think that someone you went to kindergarten with is watching the show,” says Belushi, whose older brother John blazed the Second City/“SNL” trail for him and others. “When that thought went into my mind—that millions of people were watching—I had to think about something else, or it would overwhelm you and you’d freeze up. And really, when you’re busy in the moment of a sketch, you don’t get the chance to think about things outside of Stage 8H.”
The “SNL” system feeds new comic talent straight into the American mainline, creating stars who go on to other film and TV projects with stunning regularity. They are chosen by Michaels for the cast based on their ability to create characters that strike a nerve with the audiences.
There’s a long tradition of self-created characters who have caught on with the public, from the very beginning with John Belushi’s samurai character (speaking gibberish Japanese), the Olympic Restaurant  “Cheezbuger, cheeburger” skit, the Coneheads and the nerds of the early years, through Carvey’s Church Lady or Myers and Carvey as Wayne and Garth of “Wayne’s World,” from Franken’s Stuart Smalley to Wiig’s current Target lady and mischievous Gilly.
The tradition of making those popular characters into recurring bits continues, with the characters interacting with the show’s guest hosts. Current cast member Kenan Thompson told Movieline Magazine, “I wanted to do a sketch where I was singing and it just kind of became this thing with a talk-show host who’s singing and never lets his guests talk.” Thompson’s invention, motor-mouthed talk-show host DeAndre Cole, has drawn a who’s who of celebrities—everyone from actor Robert De Niro and singer Paul Simon to boxer Mike Tyson and former Vice President Al Gore—to his “What Up With That?” talk show and then all but ignored them.
But political impersonations have been “SNLs’” bread and butter, right from the beginning.
Initially, when he played Gerald Ford, Chevy Chase did nothing to make himself look or sound like the then-president, beyond stumbling, dropping things and otherwise acting as though he was having trouble negotiating the reality of this dimension. Aykroyd, on the other hand, wore wigs, mimicked voices and otherwise assumed as much of a resemblance to both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter as he could.
“I don’t think Jimmy Carter was unhappy with what we did, but I heard that Nixon was upset,” Aykroyd says.
Every subsequent president has had his imitator: Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan; Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell as Bush I and II; Hartman and Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton; Fred Armisen as Barack Obama.
Indeed, Ford himself even taped a cold opening for the episode that his press secretary Ron Nessen hosted: “I had to shoot Ford saying, ‘Live from New York,’ and ‘I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not,’ ” Lorne Michaels told Tom Shales for Live From New York. “Ford does it, but the line reading is wrong. We’d done two or three takes, and to relax him, I said to him—my sense of humor at the time—‘Mr. President, if this works out, who knows where it will lead?’ Which was completely lost on him.”
George H.W. Bush was so flattered by Carvey’s impression that, shortly after losing the 1992 election to Clinton, he invited Carvey and his wife to spend a night at the White House.
“His sense of it was that (my impression) wasn’t mean, that it was mostly silly,” Carvey told Shales. “But I don’t think he ever saw the one where we had him on his knees, saying, ‘Please, God, don’t make me a one-termer.’ ”
But Carvey’s sketches still had to be seen when they aired—or perhaps taped on a VCR. These days, thanks to cable TV and the Internet, the reach of a truly funny “SNL” sketch about a current politician is global. And the politicians don’t always take it well.
When she did Palin on “SNL” during the 2008 campaign, Fey was criticized by McCain-Palin campaign advisor Carly Fiorina, who was quoted in news outlets as calling it “disrespectful in the extreme, and, yes, I would say sexist.”
But as Fey told David Letterman during an appearance on his show shortly afterward, “The Republicans say it was sexist. But you have to be able to goof on female politicians, too, or you’re treating them as though they’re weaker. She’s a tough lady—hey, she kills things. Big things.”
Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson says that, in fact, “SNL” may have hurt Palin in a way other than simply holding her up for ridicule.
“Her interview with Katie Couric played on the third-place nightly news show,” he says. “If this had been before the Internet that interview would barely have made a ripple. But the fact that those clips were available on the Internet and then Tina Fey was doing an impression of her meant that many more people watched it online than ever saw it on TV. Meanwhile, Tina Fey and ‘SNL’ helped firmly establish how Palin would be portrayed: as somebody with not much of a grip on the issues.”
What does the 2012 election cycle hold? With both Obama and Republican presidential hopefuls already declared as candidates, the political scene should provide an amplitude of material for “SNL’s’” writers and cast, beginning in October—the show’s 37th season—and right up to the general election in November 2012.
Kristen Wiig, the show’s latest breakout star thanks to Bridesmaids, already does both Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Michele Bachmann. Jason Sudeikis regularly brings out his impression of Vice President Joe Biden and Armisen frequently unleashes his Obama.
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