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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 4)

“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.”

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