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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

On a memorable night in September 2008, Tina Fey smiled into the TV camera and declared, “I can see Russia from my house.” The line earned big laughs and with good reason. Fey, dressed in red, her hair in an upsweep, was impersonating then–vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, spoofing something Palin had said earlier to “ABC News’” Charles Gibson.

It was the first of many Palin jokes Fey delivered on “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 2008. The impersonation seemed like a natural for the former “SNL” head writer and news anchor, who later told David Letterman on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “She’s got that crazy accent that’s a little bit Fargo, a little bit Reese Witherspoon in Election. Not since Sling Blade has there been a voice like that, that anybody could do.”

When Palin popped on to the national scene as a vice presidential candidate, her resemblance to Fey—and vice versa—made the comic impersonation a natural. When Fey showed up on “SNL” in September 2008 as the then–Alaska governor, it became a national sensation—and, some say, may have helped cost Palin and running mate John McCain the 2008 presidential election.

Or not—it depends on who you ask. But it once more brought the spotlight back to the veteran late-night comedy series, which kicks off its 37th season in October. It made “SNL” part of the national conversation, a player in national politics because of its sharp-edged take on current events—and not for the first time.

The phenomenon of “Saturday Night Live” affecting the national political scene stretches all the way back to its first season in 1975-1976, when Chevy Chase’s impersonation of President Gerald Ford turned the show into a sensation—and may have hurt Ford’s chances of being elected to a full term as president when he ran against Jimmy Carter in 1976.

“Well, I don’t know how you would measure that.  No newsman ever asked someone coming out of a voting booth whether their opinion was shaped by comedians,” says Buck Henry, who hosted “Saturday Night Live” several times in its early years. “I helped write that first sketch that had Chevy playing Ford. I’d say that ‘SNL’s’ focus on politicians helped, in certain cases, to whittle them down a notch.”

William Horner, professor of political science at the University of Missouri, takes it further. Horner, who is finishing a book called  The First Saturday Night: “Saturday Night Live” and the Presidential Election of 1976, suggests that Chase, who played Ford as a stumbling bumbler out of touch with reality, created a Ford persona that struck a chord and stuck with the American public.

“In his autobiography, Ron Nessen [Ford’s press secretary, who actually hosted an episode of “SNL” in April 1976] makes the argument that ‘SNL’ cost Ford the election,” Horner says. “You could say that Chase changed people’s impression of Ford. My feeling is that it made a difference. Ford did lose New York. If he’d won New York, he’d have won the election.”

And the McCain-Palin ticket? Both Republicans actually turned up on “Saturday Night Live” in person during that fall 2008 election season. It may have been an attempt at conveying that they were hip enough to be in on the joke—or perhaps to inoculate themselves against further lampooning.

“When Sarah Palin went on, it showed the public she could take a joke about herself,” maintains Dan Aykroyd, a member of the original “SNL” cast when it went on the air in 1975. “It humanized her, in my view. It showed that she recognized the power of the show.”

Bruce Fretts, articles editor for TV Guide Magazine, argues the opposite—that, once Tina Fey did her Palin impersonation, even a Palin appearance on the show couldn’t mitigate the effect that the satire had on the public perception of the controversial Republican candidate.

“That was what everyone was talking about for the major portion of the election cycle,” Fretts says. “There were real teeth in their Palin skits. It had impact because it defined her as a laughingstock. They stripped away her ‘Aw, shucks’ persona and made her look like a phony and a dunce. People had suspicions about her and you were seeing those reflected back and reinforced by the sketches.”

Horner argues that, in fact, “SNL” changed the dynamic of the press coverage of the Democratic primaries that same year. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did drop in for guest appearances during the primaries—but an earlier “SNL” skit, about press moderators at Democratic debates fawning over Obama while ignoring Clinton, became a story in itself.
“And then Hillary Clinton went on the show herself,” Horner says. “The people who do go on have an agenda. They think they’re co-opting the show.”

Tom Shales, Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington Post TV critic and coauthor of  Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’, observes that Jim Downey, a longtime writer of political humor on “SNL,” always discourages allowing the real politicians on the show.

“Downey expressed displeasure in our book about inviting actual newsmakers on,” Shales says. “He thought it defanged and diluted the impact of the satire. How can you lampoon them and be ruthless when you’re standing next to the actual person?”
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, it’s not hard to envision “SNL’s” stellar current cast—fresh off a summer of movie hits for Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis—sharpening its knives for the already-underway 2012 primary tussle.

“I love the amazing videos they do,” says Jim Belushi, a cast member from 1983-1985. “From what I’ve seen, this current cast is great.”

With a strong cast that isn’t afraid to take on contemporary politicians and celebrities—everyone from Rep. John Boehner and President Barack Obama to Miley Cyrus and Charlie Sheen—it’s less a question of who they’ll take the satirical blade to than what will escape their edgy comedic treatment.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine that political advisers are devising strategies to deal with what has become a mainstream vein of political satire. Besides “Saturday Night Live” on NBC, two Comedy Central shows—“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert—have become important players in translating current events into comedy.

A poll by Pew Research Center for People and the Press in 2008 showed that an increasing number of 18-to-29-year-old voters got their political news from just such shows. As Downey told Shales in Live From New York: “Someone did a survey of college students on where they got their political views and information—and television comedy was number one. During the 2000 election, after the first debate followed up by the first debate sketch…I kept hearing reports from people that they [had seen the sketch rebroadcast] on CNN or there was something on the ‘Today’ show…And then it became a standard thing. Nowadays they practically have a regular slot.”

Shales says, “I hope we haven’t reached the point where candidates are figuring out how to exploit ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the other shows. But we’re probably at the point where it’s part of the overall media strategy.”

Which, if it were true, would be further indication of just how far “Saturday Night Live” has come since it went on the air more than three decades ago.

When it started, “Saturday Night Live” was, for all practical purposes, an experiment: an off-the-radar show airing late on a weekend night in a slot which the network had previously devoted to reruns of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Carson’s show was a cash-cow for the network, so when Carson expressed displeasure at the use of repeats (which he felt devalued both the live show and the eventual resale value of reruns), the network turned to a young executive named Dick Ebersol, a former protégé of Roone Arledge.

Ebersol, in turn, hired an unknown Canadian comedy writer-performer named Lorne Michaels, who had written for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for Lily Tomlin’s network comedy specials. Their mandate: to create a new comedy show and perhaps shake up the late-night time slot on weekends.

“Lorne told me he had been approached to do a weekend replacement show for ‘The Tonight Show’ and it would be a cross between ‘Monty Python’ and ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Laraine Newman, a member of the original cast, told Shales in his book, Live From New York. “And I thought, I’d watch that.”

Filmmaker-comedian Albert Brooks recalls being approached by Ebersol and Michaels in the early stages of development about the possibility of being the show’s permanent host.

“They didn’t know what to do and, at one point, they talked about it being ‘The Albert Brooks Show,’ ” Brooks says. “But I didn’t want to move to New York and do a live show.”

Comedian Robert Klein, who hosted the fifth episode of the first season, encountered Michaels in the office of the agents they shared and heard early on about his idea for a live comedy sketch show.

“I remember having a talk with Lorne and saying that he’d be better off taping it,” Klein says with a laugh. “He said, no, there was a spontaneity and excitement to doing it live. He turned out to be right.

“Look at it this way,” Klein continues, “the network hadn’t done a live show like this since ‘Howdy Doody’ in 1953. Everyone was on tape. Live was for ballgames.”

There is an ocean of difference between how “Saturday Night Live” is seen today and how it was perceived when it first went on the air in 1975 (called simply “Saturday Night,” because the late Howard Cosell was hosting a primetime variety show on ABC called “Saturday Night Live”).

“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).

“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.

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, www.hollywoodandfine.com

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