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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 5)

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.

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