As another political season comes to its conclusion, it makes sense to reflect on the impact of comedy on politics. Today, political satire can been virtually everywhere on television, most adroitly on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Once upon a time, though, “Saturday Night Live” was the dominant source for political commentary on television.
Premiering in 1975, “SNL” and its “Not-Ready-For Prime Time Players,” represented the more cynical zeitgeist of the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, when there was little reluctance to skewer our national leaders. “SNL” quickly played an important role in the first election during its nearly four-decade run, the 1976 contest between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia.
Though only on the show for one season, Chevy Chase made an indelible impression in portraying Ford. Though the former University of Michigan football player was one of our most athletic presidents, Chase took advantage of a pair of televised stumbles by Ford to create a view of the president as a bumbling leader. Interestingly, Chase made no attempt to impersonate Ford’s voice or other mannerisms.
With original producer Lorne Michaels absent for several seasons in the early-to-mid 1980s, “SNL” didn’t engage in much political commentary. But when he returned for season 11, the show produced some of its best material. One of its famous political sketches came when Phil Hartman portrayed Ronald Reagan during the middle of the Iran-contra scandal. The “Gipper” famously had an image as a genial leader who left the details to his subordinates. In Hartman’s skit, Reagan plays a grandfatherly role in public while secretly masterminding every detail of the arms-for-hostages agreement in private.
Of course, Dana Carvey’s masterful take on George H. W. Bush remains the gold standard for political impersonations. By exaggerating Bush 41’s mannerisms and voice, Carvey captured the essence of his persona. Indeed, when people try to do impersonations of the elder Bush today they are simply imitating Carvey—whether they realize it or not.
While both Hartman and Darrell Hammond did a fine job as Bill Clinton, “SNL” truly returned to the center of the national water cooler in the disputed 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Hammond’s portrayal of Gore in the first debate, with his constant references to the Social Security “lockbox” made the term a national punch line. Gore’s advisers made him watch the skit to show make him aware of the image of his public persona. Will Ferrell’s W was also impressive and his invocation of “strategery” as the center of his political philosophy so reflected Bush’s own mangled syntax that many actually believe he said it.
2008 may have marked the high point for “SNL,” with several shows making a significant impact on the dialogue of the campaign. Hilary Clinton referenced a skit mocking the media’s fawning coverage of Obama during one of their many debates. Though Fred Armisen struggled a bit with his Obama, Amy Poehler’s Hilary was excellent.
Still, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin was probably the most impressive “SNL” political character since Carvey’s Bush 41. Clearly aided by the physical similarity between her and the Alaska governor, Fey also captured her voice and mannerisms. It became difficult to discern between the two.
You can’t win every election and this campaign has been a bit disappointing for the long-running show. Furthermore, younger viewers are increasingly moving away from it for fresher programs. Still, “Saturday Night Live” has been a key part of our politics since the disco era and remains so today.