Sunday, June 04, 2006

The 2008 Race: Whither SNL?

This might only be a midterm election year, but recent experience tells us that the 2008 presidential campaign is probably already under way – even if the media is only covering it for a few minutes every Sunday morning. Heck, experience tells us that the 2008 presidential campaign has probably been under way since early last year.

Thus, it is not too early to begin to think about how Saturday Night Live will be man-handling the 2008 election. True, SNL ceded its primacy on the whoopee cushion at the nexus of "Presidential Politics" and "TV Comedy" to The Daily Show some time ago (if the news goes on for 24 hours a day, satires of the news should be going on at least 4 nights a week), and many people complain bitterly that SNL is not what it used to be. Well, the same goes for presidential politics. Nevertheless, SNL still has the power to surprise us – particularly when the SNL crew has among its ranks one or more gifted impersonators.

Some of the best presidential candidate impersonators of the last 30 years have been born on SNL. Even as recently as 2004, Seth Meyers' John Kerry was spot on – seeming to come out of nowhere from one of the new guys who didn't at that time seem all that promising – and while Jeff Richards' Howard Dean may have left a little to be desired, Darrell Hammond as Gephardt, Kenan Thompson as Al Sharpton and, of all people, Amy Poehler as Dennis Kucinich, were a hilarious set of caricatures.

Going back over the parallel histories of SNL and presidential campaigns since the show's inception in 1975, we see a variety of approaches to political impersonation. Of course, in the beginning (episode #4 of the first season, if you're counting), there was Chevy Chase doing President Gerald Ford. Chase's Ford wasn't so much an impression as the re-creation of a stock character -- the out-of-touch bumbler, Inspector Clouseau without the French accent and get-up -- a guise that fit Chase's comedic instincts like a glove. There was no attempt to make Chase look or sound like Ford – which was part of the joke. Here are the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" – we have no budget for talented impressionists or elaborate make-up effects. We're just kids putting on a show.

Chase's Ford was funny because it played into the then prevailing perception of Ford, among both supporters and detractors, as someone who was out of his element in the presidency, and for whom nothing came easy. (Remember: "It was my understanding, that there would be no math in this debate.") The then-mustachioed Dan Aykroyd, who unlike Chase, was a gifted impressionist and character comic, was actually a perfect foil and a good follow-up to Chase's Ford with his own Jimmy Carter impersonation – with an easy smile, a pronounced comfort in his own skin, and a freakish command of obscure details (as in the "Ask President Carter" phone-in show with Bill Murray's Walter Cronkite, moving seamlessly from automated letter sorting systems to a form of "barrel-shaped" LSD called "orange sunshine"). By the end of the Carter administration, however, Aykroyd's impression became a scaffold for elaborate hemorrhoid jokes (i.e., a State of the Union address about the "constant swelling" of inflation). Aykroyd also did a decent Nixon, steeped in paranoia, but that was well after doing Nixon ceased to be a matter of topical humor. After Aykroyd, there was no returning to the Chevy Chase model of doing jokey non-impressions of political figures.

There would be no Carter-Reagan debate sketch, either. Instead, on one episode in 1980, we were treated to a sketch about various presidential primary hopefuls doing chores for a prospective Iowa caucus-goer. Neither Carter nor Reagan make an appearance there, but we did get an awfully nice Ted Kennedy from Bill Murray. (Phil Hartman's later Ted Kennedy is priceless, but to me, the edge goes to Murray; he played Kennedy with an air of familial earnestness -- like he grew up with Irish brothers, which he did.) The show's only impersonation of John Anderson came in a Weekend Update report, in which Charles Rocket tried to avoid telling Anderson (played by Joe Piscopo) that he had lost the 1980 election.

Chevy Chase did a Chevy Chase-model Ronald Reagan during the first season, playing unhip piano in a lounge somewhere, but there were fleeting Ronald Reagan portrayals throughout the 1980s – by Harry Shearer, Charles Rocket, Joe Piscopo, Randy Quaid and finally, by Phil Hartman. Hartman's Reagan was the first to show something underneath the laid-back exterior we were all familiar with: in "Reagan the Mastermind," Phil Hartman's Reagan turns out to have been putting all of us on, taking charge behind the scenes and losing patience with his lackeys, as well as with Jimmy Stewart (played by Dana Carvey). By and large, however, it has to be said that SNL gave Ronald Reagan a wide berth – as evidenced by the paucity of Reagan material to be seen in the quadrennial SNL political anthologies. (There's one appearance by Robin Williams as Reagan that I'd love to track down some day, though.)

The mid-1980s are always thought of as the weakest era for SNL (with fellows purportedly named Gary Kroeger and Tim Kazurinsky playing folks like Walter Mondale and Gary Hart), and it has to be said, it was a pretty weak decade for Presidential Politics as well. The 1984 Democratic primary cycle yielded few surprises as the decidedly non-caricaturable (i.e. bland) Mondale stroked his way to the nomination. SNL paused only briefly to survey the doomed candidacy of John Glenn, played by guest Tom Smothers; it was an icon of sorts playing an icon of sorts, the tongue-tied, subversive folksinger playing an astronaut-hero whose spacecraft had by that time drifted into political mediocrity. Mary Gross did put in a few appearances as a particularly perky Geraldine Ferraro, and various folks politely tried their hand with Jesse Jackson (among them, guest host Carl Weathers, in 1988) – all of which seems now like a missed opportunity.

In 1988, with full-blown Republican and Democratic primary races, and a resurgent SNL (with a political humor course being set by the presence of Dennis Miller in the Weekend Update anchor chair), things started to click again. Before Dana Carvey started doing George H.W. Bush, most of the nation thought of Bush as Reagan's normal-guy, next-door-neighbor understudy, but Carvey drew out the previously unnoticed, or perhaps unarticulated quirks in Bush's delivery. Carvey's "Nah ganna daw" became as much of an identifier of the elder Bush as anything Bush's media team had ever devised; "read my lips" certainly didn't do the Bush team any favors.

While many of the candidate portrayals of that season are forgettable (Kevin Nealon seems to have been saddled to stand in as every white guy no one else wanted to do – from Biden to Gore to Pete DuPont to Lloyd Bentsen), some would occasionally rise above the middle, such as Al Franken, in his bow-tied Senator Paul Simon and his astonishing Lyndon LaRouche, or the idea of a child (Jeff Renaudo) showing up as the youthful Dan Quayle on five different episodes. Although the Gary Hart debacle dominated early primary coverage in 1988, SNL did not send up Hart directly; rather, they chose to send up Donna Rice (played by Nora Dunn and Victoria Jackson, successively), sidestepping Hart and displaying a perhaps not unexpected comedic double standard.

The 1988 SNL debate between George ("stay the course . . . a thousand points of light") Bush and Michael ("I can't believe I'm losing to this guy") Dukakis (played by "little swarthy" Jon Lovitz), however, was a classic – a reminder to the writers at SNL that political humor was really possible. With Carvey playing Bush, Phil Hartman playing a smooth Bill Clinton (with interludes featuring Al Franken as Paul Tsongas and Carvey as Jerry Brown) – and ultimately, Carvey playing Ross Perot, SNL found itself completely qualified to present itself as a wacky alternative universe to the wacky 1992 presidential campaign. The most memorable moment of SNL's mangling of the 1992 sojourn, however, was the Ross Perot drive in the country with Admiral Stockdale (played by Hartman again), with Perot critiquing Stockdale's debate performance using his favorite superlatives ("world class!") before dumping him out on the road.

Bill Clinton presented SNL with a ton of material, especially once the Lewinsky scandal was in full bloom. By that time, the gifted Darrell Hammond had taken over the role from Hartman, giving him a frat boy vibe that had been missing before, and that was perfectly in keeping with the circumstances. Standout sketches during this period would have to include the Bill-and-Hillary GAP commercials (with Hillary played by Ana Gasteyer), and, of course, Janet Reno's Dance Party, with Will Ferrell as the attorney general. The 1996 campaign yielded a few gems as well: with the outrageously funny David Koechner as Pat Buchanan, one of the great underrated SNL impersonations; Kids-in-the-Hall refugee Mark McKinney as a dead-ringer for Steve Forbes; Cheri Oteri filling in for Carvey as Perot; and finally, Norm MacDonald as Bob Dole in one of the most biting and ferocious of all SNL political impersonations. It showed extraordinary style and magnanimousness when the real Bob Dole showed up on SNL to stand alongside Norm as the fake, scary Bob Dole. MacDonald had played him throughout his run with Captain-Queeg-like mean-spiritedness in such classics as the 'Bob Dole on The Real World' sketches.

During the 2000 primaries, SNL didn't really know what to do with Bill Bradley or John McCain, but by the time the general election rolled around, political humor, and political impressions, were very nearly the raison d'etre of SNL. Will Forte, whose post-2000 George W. Bush has grown old faster than the real thing, did well during the 2004 campaign, but despite his talent as a performer (his 'Tim Calhoun' character is a scream), my vote will always be for Will Ferrell's Bush during 2000; his furrowed brows accomplished what no other Bush impersonator has accomplished by showing the slow-moving inner-mechanism of the man behind the podium ("Strategery!"). Not to be outdone, Darrell Hammond's Al Gore ("Lockbox") also hit the mark with precision, playing to Gore's unfortunate tendency during the 2000 campaign to put his intelligence out on patronizing display.

So, what happens in 2008? Forte's done, except for the fact that he was also the primary portrayer of John Edwards in 2004. Meyers might be back as Kerry; but most pundits are currently predicting that Amy Poehler will be getting a lot of juice out of Hillary Clinton, with Horatio Sanz doing a snapshot of Bill Richardson and as yet unnamed folks pitching in as Joe Biden, Evan Bayh and Mark Warner (where is Kevin Nealon when you need him?). Some people are hoping, however, that Hammond gets to dust off that old Al Gore wig. On the Republican side, we're in a bit of a fix. Among "front runners," there are no definitive John McCains, Rudolph Giulianis, George Allens, Bill Frists or Newt Gingriches in this crowd – let alone a Chuck Hagel or a Mitt Romney – although if Condi runs (improbable), we have the reliable Maya Rudolph on hand.

With no incumbent, no heir apparent, and contested primaries on both sides of the aisle, SNL may have to expand its cast to 20 or so regulars just to keep up. Or then again, maybe we can just rely on the real candidates to provide the laughs.

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Blogger Jeff Fuller said...

Great read! I remember the last half of all that . . . wasn't a politically inclined pre-teen.

12:46 AM  

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