The history of politics on SNL

Saturday Night Live creator/executive producer/guru Lorne Michaels and a panel including longtime politically-minded SNL writer James Downey, current head writer Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler recently discussed the funny and sometimes very influential nature of presidential politics parodied on the show, from the beginnings of Chevy Chase tripping up Gerald Ford through Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush to the various Bill Clintons and George W. Bush’s, Al Gore, John Kerry (played by Meyers), Poehler’s Hillary Clinton, and of course, Tina Fey’s devastatingly spot-on Sarah Palin.

The panel got short shrift in terms of media coverage, but the Museum of the Moving Image has put the entire hourlong SNL conversation online.

Some highlights:
"You get used to having very surreal moments on that show." — Amy Poehler’s response to standing next to Hillary Clinton on live TV, while wearing the same outfits.

"They become characters instead of impressions." — Lorne Michaels, on how certain political spoofs such as Poehler’s Hillary, or Dana Carvey’s take on Papa Bush, in turn influence the candidates themselves.

More after the jump…

At the 11-minute mark, Michaels talks about the impact SNL has on how the public views a candidate:

"The thing you think about first is whether it’s going to work, and whether it’s going to be funny and if the take is original and fresh enough. I think you can’t think about the fate of Western Civilization and we don’t, you know, we’re part of it, but we’re not, nobody, honestly, nobody’s going into the booth going, you know, I watched SNL and now I’m clear…on what to do. I think it’s that we’re just part of it. And invariably we’re part of it because we deal with the small part of it. We don’t try and deal with, in that grandiose way of what’s best for the country…again none of this stuff works unless it hits pretty close. You can’t go out there and just do a partisan rant. I mean, you can if you’re on MSNBC. But you can’t really do it in comedy because if you lose the audience, you lose them really fast."

Then, around minute 36, after Meyers talks about actually having a beer with John Kerry at a Red Sox game…there’s a discussion about how likeable the cast member is playing the politician in turn plays into how viewers then think about the politician. Michaels make this point:

"I think Amy’s Hillary is a perfect example of it. Because Amy is one of our best-loved people ever at the show. (prolonged applause) I didn’t mean to do that. (audience and panel laughs) But it was like, if you liked Will Ferrell and he does ‘strategery,’ you’re more on the side of Bush because you like who’s playing him. I think there’s, if you feel a connection. The fact that the audience already liked Chevy, and him doing Gerald Ford as a guy who falls down. I’d like to say we had more of a take than that. It was very early days." Downey interjects: "We didn’t have the budget!" "Yes, we didn’t have the budget, but there’s also connecting with the performer, and I think if you like the person doing it, that has an influence."

"What was so interesting about the Sarah Palin thing was, there are at least, there are two people at the show right now who could do her and do her perfectly, but that was a situation where the audience just cast Tina Fey…Emails…letters. Everybody you’d talk to would go, what a gift, huh? You could have so much fun with Tina Fey. I go, well, you know she’s actually on her own show now…but the audience sort of felt, that’s what they wanted to see."

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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