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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

(continued from page 3)

“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.

“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).

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