When "Saturday Night Live," led by Tina Fey's dead-on Sarah Palin impersonation, won a Peabody Award for its comedic coverage of the 2008 election, the judges credited the show with generating more than just laughs: “The late-night legend... may have swayed the race itself."
While some chimed in "You betcha!," there’s no way of knowing whether there's any truth to the suggestion that "SNL" is more kingmaker than jester (even if the show indirectly propelled Al Franken to the U.S. Senate). But the Peabody citation underscored the pivotal role political satire has played in the show's success – proving as much a calling card as the longstanding "Live from New York!" opening.
For most of its four decades, “SNL” has provided a funhouse mirror reflection of elected leaders and unexpected events, at times helping us laugh when it would have been easier to cry. Much of the humor has been delivered through impressions of presidents, vice presidents and wannabes – including Palin, who reportedly accepted an invitation to appear on Sunday’s three-hour live special celebrating the show's 40th anniversary year.
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Here's a look back at the politics of “SNL,” as told through presidential eras:
“SNL” debuted just 14 months after, as Gerald Ford put it, the "long national nightmare" of Watergate ended with President Richard Nixon's resignation. The show also arrived just 13 months after Ford pardoned Nixon and barely six months after the fall of Saigon.
This turmoil provided the backdrop for the defining infancy of “SNL” – a mix of hard-edged political humor and outright silliness. The silliness, inspired by a couple of public physical stumbles by Ford (probably the most athletic president in U.S. history), helped make Chevy Chase a star.
Chase didn't attempt a standard imitation, but rather became a breakout player through Ford-inspired pratfalls. Forget 2008: Perhaps a better argument could be made that “SNL” influenced the outcome of the much-closer 1976 presidential race.
Nearly seven months before that election, Ford showed up on “SNL” – via a taped segment – making him the first sitting president to appear on any late night comedy program. Chase became a movie star, though he eventually did a stint in the Betty Ford Clinic for a painkiller addiction related to injuries from his "SNL" tumbles.
For all the Ford-generated frivolity, Nixon cast the longer, darker shadow – Dan Aykroyd portrayed the disgraced ex-president as a hunched and haunted anti-Semite, most memorably besides John Belushi's Henry Kissinger, as they re-enacted how the President made his secretary of state get down on his knees and pray with him in the White House before resigning.
Aykroyd offered an imitation of Jimmy Carter as straight as the former Georgia peanut farmer’s shining teeth. The show had fun with Carter’s infamous “lust in my heart” declaration – and had far more fun lampooning his colorful family, including his outspoken mother Miss Lillian and his beer-hawking brother, Billy (memorably portrayed in one instance by Gary Busey).
The Jimmy Carter of “SNL” initially proved a character cool enough to talk down a radio talk show caller from an acid trip (“Do you have any Allman Brothers?”). But when Carter was well on his way to becoming a beaten-down one-termer the show portrayed him as desperately embracing out-of-control inflation: “I believe the watchwords for the 80s should be ‘Let's Party!’”
Right with Reagan
The early Reagan years coincided with perhaps the bleakest period for political humor in “SNL” history. Maybe it was the nation’s rightward turn. Maybe it was the departure in 1980 of founding producer Lorne Michaels and the remnants of the original cast.
The most memorable first-term Reagan-related bit played off the attempted assassination of the President in the uneven, Buckwheat shooting episode.
The return of Michaels in 1985 and the subsequent unfolding of the Iran-Contra scandal reheated the satirical flame. The turning point for “SNL” came when Robin Williams' Reagan got news conferences answers fed to him through an earpiece – a method that went haywire when radio interference took over, spurring a classic Williams riffing spree (“Kareem goes on the inside, passes to Magic. Swish!”).
Phil Hartman might even have outdone Williams with one of the show’s all-time great sketches, which portrayed Reagan as an affable figure in public one moment and as take-charge Machiavellian political mastermind behind closed doors the next.
Dana Carvey captured the clipped cadence of President George H.W. Bush’s speech patterns, turning “wouldn’t be prudent” into a catchphrase. The show’s political fortunes rose as Bush’s fell. “SNL,” on the strength of Carvey’s impressions (which included an uncanny take on cranky billionaire presidential upstart Ross Perot) and Hartman’s randy rendering of Bill Clinton, launched a revival that largely hasn’t ebbed since.
Bill Clinton's appetites set the menu for eight-plus years of "SNL" spoofs, beginning with a 1992 sketch where the candidate (ably played by Hartman) grabbed food off voters' plates at a McDonald's.
The sense of naughtiness with which Hartman and later master impressionist Darrell Hammond imbued Clinton exploded with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A skit featuring a three-way phone call with Clinton (Hammond), Lewinsky (Molly Shannon) and Saddam Hussein (Will Ferrell) brought into hilarious, absurd focus the White House dalliance that led to impeachment.
The finest moment of "SNL" came in the first show after 9/11, when, Michaels, surrounded by first responders, asked then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani deadpanned, “Why start now?”
The exchange set the tone for humor – and “SNL” – as a tool of healing. It also set the stage for more politically aware humor even as the popular culture turned to fluffy reality TV and Internet-driven celebrity obsession.
Ferrell initially played President George W. Bush as an overgrown frat boy, who pumped beer from a keg to celebrate his disputed victory. After 9/11, Ferrell responded to the comedic and taste challenge by injecting a sense of goofy swagger into his Bush imitation. Less than a month after the terror attacks, Ferrell’s Bush talked tough about Osama bin Laden: “Buddy, you screwed up big time. Guess what, amigo – I’m coming to get you.”
Ferrell offered a more nuanced portrayal, both more scathing and sympathetic, in his 2009 post-"SNL" Broadway show (and later HBO special), “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush.”
Obama’s Cameo Nation
The rise of powerful women on “SNL” and in presidential politics intersected with the 2008 campaign. Sure, then-Sen. Barack Obama's star power was on display with a surprise cameo, when he pulled off a Barack Obama mask to reveal himself.
But it was then-Sen. Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic Party nod and then-Alaska governor Palin's GOP vice presidency nomination that electrified “SNL.” The show’s defining political sketch of this century came when Fey's Palin and Amy Poehler's Clinton engaged in verbal warfare. “I believe that diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy,” said Clinton/Poehler. "And I can see Russia from my house," added Palin/Fey.
Palin and John McCain appeared on “SNL” days before the election. Now, Clinton is expected to next year and Palin has made campaign rumblings, suggesting they’ll be back in some form on the show.
Obama, meanwhile, went from Fred Armisen’s benign portrayal, embodied in a “Cosby Show” spoof (minus the irony wrought by recent Cosby revelations), to Jay Pharoah’s more precise imitation – complete with verbal ticks and a gray-speckled wig that speaks to the President's physical transformation after six-plus years in a job that’s thankless, but one that leaves comedy writers thankful.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.