When conservatives tuned in to Saturday Night Live on the evening of November 22, they likely had to check their channel guides to make sure they were watching the right channel. The show opened with a skit that took a blowtorch to President Barack Obama’s recently announced executive action to grant amnesty to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants in America. The skit featured cast member Kenan Thompson dressed as the famous Schoolhouse Rock character “Bill” from Capitol Hill, whom Obama repeatedly throws down the Capitol steps. Each time, Bill provides an explicit description of the painful fall.
Saturday Night Live, now in its 40th year, has been influencing the way Americans think about the political process and their elected leaders for longer than many up-and-coming political figures have been alive. Yet, despite its age, the show still has the ability to affect the public debate. After the Obama-amnesty sketch, the Washington Post immediately leapt to Obama’s defense and fact-checked it, declaring constitutional challenges to Obama’s actions to be “dubious.” (Perhaps for their next project, they will allow Henny Youngman’s wife a long-awaited rebuttal or will interview someone who respects Rodney Dangerfield.)
Over the past four decades, no American institution has provided a more consistent or effective brand of political humor than SNL. Ever since Chevy Chase first appeared as President Gerald Ford in 1975, few politicians have evaded the point of the show’s satirical rapier. But the depth of the wound is often predicated on the target’s political party. “We have a liberal bias, obviously,” former SNL star Tina fey has said.
Of course, political satire is nothing new. Comedians have been ridiculing politicians since the dawn of the American republic. But nothing in modern America has attained the breadth or depth of SNL’s reach into the public consciousness; the national lexicon is replete with SNL political references.
The show debuted in the post-Watergate era, when politicians were viewed with heightened distrust, and was initially given its political conscience by Lorne Michaels, a young left-wing Canadian. “I think coming on right after Watergate was crucial,” Michaels would say later in an interview. “I was 30. We’d just lived through all that, and because of that and Vietnam, politics was something everyone knew and talked about. I think we defined ourselves as a generation in that way.”
In the nearly 40 years that have followed, the show has saddled many political figures with public personae they would rather shake. Chase’s Ford impression showed him as a bumbling buffoon, constantly falling and injuring himself. Privately, Chase made it clear that he hoped Ford would lose in 1976, and three days before the Carter–Ford election, the show replayed the speech in which Ford announced he would be pardoning Richard Nixon. Michaels later listed this as one of his proudest moments as the show’s producer.
Few other political figures were spared. The show took a while to find a suitable take on Ronald Reagan (it tended to be non-political in the early 1980s), but in 1986, the late Phil Hartman devised a portrayal of the president as a tactical genius hiding behind a simpleton’s façade. Perhaps the most lasting cultural memory of George H. W. Bush’s single term in office is Dana Carvey’s affected “Nah ga do it” and “Wouldn’t be prudent” lines. Hartman’s portrayal of Bill Clinton as a regular guy, unable to control his voracious appetite for women and eating, presaged the troubles that would eventually drag Clinton down.
With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the show adopted a more aggressive tone, mercilessly lampooning the new president. As “Weekend Update” anchor, Fey regularly savaged Bush, zeroing in on the president’s alleged history of drug use and his repeated recourse to capital punishment as Texas governor. (Sample joke: Bush kept his drunk-driving arrest secret from his daughters because he would rather they see him as a “failed businessman who executes people.”)
Cast member Will Ferrell’s Bush impersonation wasn’t any more charitable. It was less an impression of his mannerisms than an interpretation of his character and intelligence, incorporating his malapropisms and lampooning his self-regard. Ferrell’s portrayal of Bush involved manufactured words like “strategery,” which reportedly became actual terms of art within Bush’s inner circle: His strategists got to be known within the White House as the “Department of Strategery.”
In SNL’s long history of political takedowns, one stands out among the rest.
Shortly before 11:30 p.m. on September 13, 2008, Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign couldn’t have known that it was experiencing its high point. When the lights went up, Tina Fey, dressed as newly minted vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, began the most memorable and effective skewering of a public figure in modern political history.
Fey’s mockery of Palin was so thorough that it became popular in academic circles to measure the “Fey Effect” on the 2008 presidential election. In one 2012 study, researchers from East Carolina University determined that Fey’s impression of Palin did change how voters viewed the Alaska governor.
According to the study, which surveyed 1,755 respondents, subjects who saw Fey’s Palin spoof had an 8.5 percent probability of approving McCain’s selection of Palin, while 75.7 percent disapproved. Of those who hadn’t seen the spoof, 16.1 percent approved of McCain’s choice and 60.1 percent disapproved. Among those who watched a skit lampooning the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, 45.4 percent said they were less likely to vote for the McCain–Palin ticket; of the respondents who saw only the actual debate, only 34 percent said Palin’s selection would make them less likely to support McCain.
After McCain announced Palin as his running mate, the race to cast her public image was on – and Fey won it. After Fey’s multiple appearances caricaturing Palin, a Zogby poll found that 86.9 percent of respondents believed that Palin had actually said, “I can see Russia from my house,” the show’s 10 million regular viewers no doubt contributing to that finding. (ABC’s Charles Gibson had earlier asked Palin what she had learned from her state’s proximity to Russia. “They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska,” she responded.)
SNL is different from most popular political humor in that its characters actually dress up and inhabit the roles of the people they aim to mock. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and other late-night talk shows are full of jokes about political figures; SNL enacts the jokes with characters saying the lines themselves.
“I don’t think it’s a crazy thing to say that SNL was one of the things that influenced voters in the 2000 election,” said SNL writer Jim Downey after George W. Bush took office. (Downey, a Republican, is widely credited with being the show’s best political writer.) During the 2000 campaign cycle, Al Gore and his aides studied SNL’s parody of a debate in an effort to understand where Gore had gone wrong.
The length of the typical skit on SNL – between six and ten minutes – almost always exceeds the length of time nightly news programs spend on political coverage. When politicians are quoted on news shows, their sound clips last, on average, eight seconds. And newscasts have begun incorporating SNL clips into their programming. The Internet – through such websites as YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo!, and the show’s website – then exposes SNL’s parodies to millions more than see the original broadcast.
This constant mockery hasn’t kept important political figures, including Gerald Ford, from appearing on the show: The president once taped a short segment at the White House that involved his saying, “I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not.” Michaels later said that, at the outset, Ford was getting it all wrong. To loosen Ford up, he quipped, “Mr. President, if this works out, who knows where it will lead?” According to Michaels, this joke was completely lost on Ford.
The show’s portrayal of Ford was in keeping with its take on Republicans. Generally, GOP politicians lampooned on SNL fall into a few categories: stupid (Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Dan Quayle), old and evil (Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan), old and clueless (George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole), and just clueless (Romney). By contrast, the show regularly depicts Democrats as too brainy (Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore).
Given the show’s liberal predispositions, mocking Obama has proven to be a challenge. During the 2012 presidential election, the show clung to an unfair portrayal of Mitt Romney as a Bidenesque, gaffe-prone windbag, but Jason Sudeikis’s imitation never really rang true. (In the summer of 2014, in his ice-bucket-challenge video to benefit ALS research, Romney challenged only two people to take it themselves – his wife and Sudeikis.)
Conversely, the show has never even tried to find Obama’s “thing,” an attribute it could present as an overarching theme. In one interview, former head writer Seth Meyers suggested that Obama might be portrayed as hopelessly under the thumb of his wife, Michelle, but dismissed the idea as a one-show type of joke.
Yet the events since Obama’s reelection in 2012 have proven to be too juicy for SNL to ignore. It has ridiculed the president on issues from Obamacare to Ebola to immigration. Kenan Thompson regularly lampoons Al Sharpton’s scattershot MSNBC show, and SNL often jabs African Americans for their unshakable support of the president.
Many a bettor would have lost money predicting the demise of SNL over the past four decades. Every few seasons the show hits a lull that seems to spell its downfall, then rises again with new cast members and new characters. Sometimes, the show is shocked out of torpor by political events that simply seem to be gifts from the heavens.
As President Obama transitions into the lame-duck phase of his presidency, the problems that have dogged his administration don’t seem to be going away. The worst of Obamacare is likely yet to come, the courts have yet to weigh in on his amnesty plan, and Republicans who now control Congress are certainly going to force him into some politically embarrassing vetoes. When all is said and done, the president may have added one accomplishment to his résumé — he may have become the first president to force SNL to give Republicans a fair hearing.
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.