Every four years or so, one television show manages to shake off the “not as good as it used to be” detractors and once again become the single most relevant 90 minutes on network television: Saturday Night Live.
Even with the rise of cable television, “The Daily Show” and YouTube, SNL remains THE place to go for political satire, especially during election years.
On the air for almost 35 years, the show has lampooned politics and presidents since Chevy Chase fell down stairs as a clutzy, slightly confused Gerald Ford, forever locking in the idea that Ford himself – a collegiate football star with two national championships to his name – was a clutz.
For me, SNL’s political hook was set back with Phil Hartman playing a totally-in-control Reagan organizing his political machine until it was time to play dumb for a photo with a girl scout. My most distinct memory of the 1988 election was the debate between Dana Carvey’s hysterically twitchy George H.W. Bush and Jon Lovitz’s confused and very short Michael Dukakis. During the debate, Lovitz used a lift to raise himself behind the podium and then, after Carvey repeated “thousand points of light” for his entire response, uttered one of my favorite lines ever: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
During the first Gulf war, Carvey’s Bush opened the show from the Oval Office almost every week, warning Saddam Hussein about the impending attack and then gloating when it was over.
During 1992, Carvey did double duty in the debates, playing both the president and Texas wackadoo businessman Ross Perot, while Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton ran away with the oval office, with a memorable jogging trip to a McDonald’s in one sketch and the line “there’s gonna be a whole bunch of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton. Fast food is the least of our worries”.
Despite left-leaning writers and performers, the show more than anything skewers power. During the Clinton years, he got it pretty good, especially during the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. The season premiere that year opened with a sketch set on an Oprah show of the future, reuniting the cast of the Clinton Scandal to talk about the incident (Hillary, in the sketch, was a crunchy hippie-esque lesbian. John Goodman played Linda Tripp). Later in the episode, the Ladies Man and host Cameron Diaz offered advice to the President on how to get rid of unwanted interns once they were done “mouthifying his wang”:
“Yeah, that’s nice. Now how ’bout you be going?”
In 2000, Will Ferrell’s George Bush became the most popular character on the show, so popular in fact that last week on Nightline, while plugging his new movie, Ferrell was asked if he takes any responsibility for the Bush victory because people liked his impression of Bush so much. The best moment of that election season was a debate sketch in which Tim Russert asked each candidate to sum up their campaign in one word. Gore responded “Lockbox,” while Bush gave us a new word, one that has stuck with us since: “Strategery.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, Saturday Night Live’s first live episode featured Mayor Rudy Guiliani (a regular guest during his time in Gracie Mansion) and members of the NYPD and NYFD during the cold opening. When Lorne Michaels asked Rudy if they could be funny, Rudy responded “Why start now?” and SNL was back.
Read more of this post