- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

Lorne Michaels was as surprised as anyone that Sen. Hillary Clinton brought up a “Saturday Night Live” sketch during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate.

Then again, Mr. Michaels has been here before.

His sketch show has been making headlines since Chevy Chase (as President Gerald Ford) first took a tumble in a faux Oval Office back in 1975, but the just-ended writer’s strike meant the show couldn’t riff on the current presidential race.

Until now.

“Saturday Night Live’s” Feb. 23 broadcast, its first of 2008, drew a 36 percent bigger crowd than its season-to-date average, according to Media Life Magazine. And Sen. Hillary Clinton, or more likely one of her advisers, were among those taking notes. That broadcast featured a CNN debate in which deferential reporters tripped over themselves to accomodate Sen. Barack Obama’s every need.

Does this mean the show’s political clout is on the rise…again?

Time will tell, but Mr. Michaels promises politics will play an “enormous” role in the rest of the “SNL” season. He adds the show may produce separate political specials in the fall during the final lap of the presidential race.

And who knows which politician might turn up in a sketch next.

“We’ve had people [on the show] going all the way back to Gerald Ford,” Mr. Michaels says. “I think Americans don’t trust somebody in a leadership position who doesn’t have a sense of humor about themselves.”

In 1975, Mr. Michaels and his Not Ready for Prime Time Players had television’s political satire landscape mostly to themselves.

Today, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” routinely skewer politicians, and five late-night hosts fight over that day’s political scraps. And that doesn’t count Web-based spoofs on YouTube and other viral outlets.

Mr. Michaels contends “SNL” doesn’t directly compete with those venues.

“They’re like newspapers, and we’re more like a magazine,” he says of Colbert and company. “We do sketches, they do jokes.”

He adds those other shows can exhibit more of an ideological slant — guess which way — while “SNL” attempts to be more balanced.

“You can’t be partisan,” says Mr. Michaels, a registered Independent. “If you are, at a certain point you’re going to stop being funny.”

Not every “SNL” season packs a political punch. Mr. Michaels took a sabbatical from his show during the early 1980s. His replacement, Dick Ebersol, didn’t have his predecessor’s appetite for political humor.

And while the show’s creative level has waxed and waned, so, too, has its political coverage. But “SNL” always seems to rally.

“Every four years it’s what we do … going back to Ford versus Carter,” says Mr. Michaels, who during this interview sounds more animated than he’s ever been in his “SNL” cameo appearances.

Impressionist Jim Morris says great political sketches demand an informed public. That’s exactly what “Saturday Night Live” has.

“You’re relying on the viewers to get the references. Political humor has to play to a somewhat educated audience,” Mr. Morris says. “In this political season, everyone seems to be up to speed on what’s going on.”

No matter what it does, the show can never completely escape the ghosts of seasons past.

“The bar was set pretty high by the first cast in the ‘70s,” Mr. Morris says. “There’s no other show with the profile that ‘Saturday Night Live’ has had.”

“Saturday Night Live” can crystallize the public’s perceptions of the candidates, says political stand-up Will Durst. President George H.W. Bush “was seen as a wimp at the beginning of his term,” he says, an image that Dana Carvey reinforced in spoofing him on “SNL.” But the president’s image toughened after the Gulf War, and the skits thereafter reflected that.

“SNL’s” format is tailor-made for political satire. Most Congressional votes, press conferences and speeches happen during the week, a time when “SNL” writers can digest it all in preparation for Saturday.

Political material is like gumbo, Mr. Durst says. “It’s gotta marinate for a while.”

At the same time, the live format allows it to react on the fly to breaking news.

No other show over the years has gathered as many gifted impressionists as “SNL.” Mr. Carvey’s impersonation of President George H. W. Bush (“not gonna do it … wouldn’t be prudent”) set the standard for comics to follow. “SNL” veteran Darrell Hammond may be the most versatile mimic on the scene today.

Those impressions leave a mark.

And should this week’s sketches have an impact on the presidential race, Mr. Michaels couldn’t be happier.

“I think it’s our entire reason for existing,” Mr. Michaels says. “We came on right after Watergate. There was a strong feeling that our job was to tell the truth, but to be funny, too.”

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