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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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Says Thompson, “In 2008, you’d turn on CNN to check in on what ‘SNL’ did this week. In 2012, people will be looking to them. How successful they are will depend on whether they find that sweet spot. They totally found it in 2008 with Sarah Palin. ‘SNL’ was one of the big stories of the ’08 election. I’d say ’08 was for ‘SNL’ what 2000 was for ‘The Daily Show.’ ”
“When ‘SNL’ picks on you, you have to be ready—and the best strategy is to laugh with them,” Shales says. “That’s the only strategy you can have. Because if ‘SNL’ is after you, the others are, too.”
Indeed, the “SNL” response to events is so immediate that, by the time the show returns in the fall, the scandals that erupted since its final 2010-2011 episode will be old news, barely worth a comedic mention.
“People are broken hearted that the Anthony Weiner story broke after ‘SNL’s’ season ended,” Shales says. “You always have the feeling when there’s something in the news that’s outrageous, that, well, what will ‘SNL’ do with this?”
As effective as “SNL” has been in shaping the national conversation by the subjects it chooses to poke fun at, its reach has grown over the years. Despite an exponential increase in the competition for the viewers’ time, one of TV’s toughest competitors has actually become an amplifier for “SNL”: the Internet, with its streaming video and aggregating services, quickly grab up choice “SNL” bits and turn them viral.
More people saw Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake’s proto-90s’ soul song, “Dick in a Box,” when the “SNL Digital Short” turned up on YouTube and Hulu (28 million hits and counting) than saw the original broadcast of the outrageous bit in December 2006.
“With DVRs and the YouTube culture, you can pick and choose what you see,” says TV Guide’s Bruce Fretts. “You can almost wait until the next day and see which bits people are posting about on Facebook.”
Though it went through periods in both the 1980s and the 1990s when critics were writing its obituary, “SNL” has bounced back with a vengeance in the 21st century.
Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC, told Shales in Live From New York, “What’s truly amazing is that it’s reinvented itself so many, many, many times. And what’s equally amazing is that I was a viewer when it first premiered and I’m a viewer now.”
 “I’ve been one of those who has pronounced the show dead in the past—but the show is cyclical,” Fretts says. “They go through up cycles and down cycles, and those often coincide with the political cycle. During election cycles, it gets strong. But they’re also constantly finding new talent, like Kristen Wiig. Now that she’s a movie star, I assume she’ll leave in a year or so. And then they’ll repopulate the show with new people with talent. But I think the current cast is pretty solid.”
Adds Shales, “I’m tired of hearing people say, ‘I never watch it—and it stinks.’ Well, if you never watch it, how do you know it stinks? And if it stinks, why are you watching it?”
The secret to its longevity? Belushi (and several others) point to Lorne Michaels, who created the show and has produced it for all but five of its 36 seasons.
“Lorne keeps it working,” Belushi says. “He created it. He gets it. He understands the form like nobody else.”
 “SNLs’” final show of the 2010–2011 season—with Justin Timberlake as host and Lady Gaga as musical guest—recorded the biggest overall audience for a season finale in 15 years, with the largest 18-to-49-year-old audience since 2004–2005’s final show. The show drew 9.8 million total viewers, slightly less than the 10 million who watched Jim Carrey host the season closer in May 1996.
“I have to guess that NBC is interested in doing anything necessary to keep the franchise alive,” Shales says. “I think Lorne is determined not to retire. Of course, nobody in show business ever thinks they’re going to die. If he dies, it will probably be in that job. If anybody was ever born to do a job, he was born to do that.”
Contributing Editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website,
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