Live From The Campaign Trail, It’s Saturday Night!
March 2, 2008 4 Comments
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.
Al Gore even took a turn on the show, lampooning himself and his loss in two sketches, one where he refused to leave the set of the West Wing and another in which Gore and his wife, Tipper the Censoring She-Bitch, appeared on Stewart Smalley’s show for some therapy and told his own reflection “I don’t have to be the most powerful man in the world…”
Outside the continued folly of a war and four more years of elitist domestic and economic policy, one of the other great tragedies of the 2004 election was that Seth Meyers’ brilliant John Kerry impression fell by the wayside.
This season, SNL is right back in the forefront, roaring back from the writers’ strike with an opening debate sketch and a Weekend Update spot by former head writer and Hillary supporter Tina “Bitch is the New Black” Fey, that not only landed the show on front pages across the country and pundit gab-fests, but also had Hillary Clinton citing the debate sketch’s characterization of the media fawning over Obama during this past week’s democratic debate.
Republican also-ran and Veep wannabe Mike Huckabee also appeared on Weekend Update. Huckabee, whose comedic timing is the best among all the candidates, did a funny bit about knowing when to get off the stage and overstaying a welcome.
The Washington Post even ran a big story questioning the choice of non-black actor Fred Armison as Barack Obama, despite the fact that no one questions Darrell Hammond’s Jesse Jackson (probably because it is spot-on and hysterical). Armison has the mannerism and look down pat, but I think he is missing something very important in the speaking voice.
For the record, Obama appeared as himself on a Halloween episode before the writers went on strike.
Then, this week, Clinton herself appeared on the show’s cold opening, during an “Editorial Response” to a similarly-themed debate sketch. The show also offers candidates an opportunity to show they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves and Clinton rose to the occasion, skewing her own laugh while appearing with an in-character Amy Poehler.
Also this week, Rudy Guiliani made a return to SNL, appearing on Weekend Update and blaming his appearance in a dress in SNL as his downfall. “The Florida strategy was strong and I stand by it,” Rudy said. “It was the dress that did me in.” Rudy then continued his tradition of making fun of the show by comparing his campaign to an SNL sketch – a string opening but no ending.
With more and more Americans claiming to get their news from places like The Daily Show, SNL and the late night comedians, the candidates have learned the importance of appearing on these shows, not only as a way to reach more voters, but also as a way to try to nip in the bud an impression before it becomes the popular conception and accepted truth about them.
In the olde days, the only person that could speak truth to power was the jester, because he did it couched in humor. In modern times, shows like Saturday Night Live fill that void.
Let’s just hope whoever will be playing John McCain isn’t so lovable as to make voters want to see four more years of that impression.