All week long, Vulture is taking a close look at Saturday Night Live’s biggest season in years.
For better or worse, Saturday Night Live over the last 18 months has been preoccupied with politics to a degree potentially unprecedented in the show’s history. At some level, this isn’t all that surprising: SNL has always leaned into political humor during election years, and the 2016 cycle was longer, and more intense, than any in recent American history. What’s more, President Trump’s hostile takeover of the White House, and the grassroots resistance that sprung up to oppose him, has made it all but impossible for SNL to ignore the madness coming from Washington postelection. “Because Trump and his administration are so eventful, there’s been a never-ending stream of ammunition and things to play off of,” says James Andrew Miller, co-author of Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. But while SNL has clearly risen to the occasion during the Trump era, the show hasn’t always been so successful in finding the funny in White House events. To put the current moment in context, Vulture recently spent an hour on the phone with Miller discussing SNL’s D.C. track record since the show’s 1975 launch. Our conversation focused on six distinct eras, ranging from the show’s post-Watergate foundational seasons and the less successful Reagan years all the way through to the dawn of Trump. And because a thorough dissection of SNL’s political history wouldn’t … be … prudent for a single article, we concentrated on how much comedic blood the show was able to draw in its attempt to skewer presidents and their respective administrations.
Ford and Carter
Establishing political bona fides
The national malaise that gripped America in the wake of Richard Nixon being driven from office made the mid- to late-1970s a decidedly gloomy period for the country — and a perfect time to launch a new form of sketch comedy show. While Lorne Michaels didn’t create SNL to be primarily a platform for political commentary, Miller says the producer was absolutely looking to shake up the TV comedy establishment. Save for the ill-fated Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s, small-screen variety had largely steered clear of commenting on politics. “Lorne was out to create a whole new DNA for comedy that was distinct from Sid Caesar and Milton Berle and a lot of the comedy of the past,” Miller explains. That meant a more direct, frequently brash approach to political humor.
It was a pair of potent performances — Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford and Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter— that established early on SNL’s ability to take on current events and politics in a way which didn’t feel preachy. The two actors were “so dead-on in terms of their impersonations that it just instantly built [SNL’s political] credibility,” Miller says. “If Chevy hadn’t been as good with Ford, and Danny hadn’t been as good with Carter, I don’t think SNL would have rocketed off in terms of political satire and impersonations the way it did.” The genius of those early SNL presidential impressions was they didn’t get bogged down in conservative versus liberal politics. Chase and Aykroyd didn’t seem to care much about either man’s political stances; the comedy was found in their respective personalities. It wasn’t even all that important if the actors looked much like the president, either: Aykroyd didn’t shave his mustache for some of his Carter sketches. “Probably the most famous Carter sketch was ‘Pepsi Syndrome,’ where Carter is exposed to the radiation at Three Mile Island and becomes ‘The Amazing Colossal President,’” Miller says. “Carter, in that sketch, was just this affable, very funny figure. It really didn’t have anything to do with whether he was Democrat, Republican, or pro-this, anti-that. It was just very funny, and it wasn’t capital P political.”
That doesn’t mean early SNL sketches didn’t have a political effect. Whether intentionally or not, Chase’s portrayal of President Ford as bit of a moron proved damaging to the president’s image as he headed into the 1976 campaign. “Ford was a football player and, by all accounts, a pretty nimble guy,” Miller recalls. “But Chevy was able to turn him into this guy who was always falling down and hitting his head. I remember meeting people who had worked for Ford later on and they said, ‘He’s a great jock! He’s so fantastic!’ But after Chevy got done with him, a lot of people thought of Ford as a stumbling, bumbling guy. It showed right away that SNL had a real ability to take people and create a whole persona for them.” And yet, as key as the first five years of SNL were to setting a tone for how the show would handle Washington humor, Miller is quick to note that politics wasn’t central to SNL’s formative half-decade. “A lot of people look back on Season 42 and say that politics was the most memorable, the most successful element of the show,” he says, “but there’s no way that you can say that for the first five years.”
Reagan and Bush
A slow start redeemed by two star turns
Given how often those on the right charge SNL and Michaels with being part of the liberal media elite, you’d think the rise of conservatism under President Reagan and his one-term successor, George H.W. Bush, would’ve resulted in some of SNL’s fiercest, most pointed political commentary. After all, Reagan was as loathed by the left as he was revered by those on the right, and his actions in office — tax cuts for the rich, massive cuts to social-welfare spending, wars on drugs and pornography — were in many ways just as extreme as those now being proposed by President Trump. But for at least half of the 12-year Reagan-Bush regime, SNL didn’t leave much of a mark in politics. Part of the issue was that the show was experiencing its own crisis of confidence. “Remember, Lorne left in ’80, which was when [Reagan] was elected,” Miller notes. “So there were a couple years where the show was trying to find itself again. It was going through its own growing pains.” What’s more, the big star of the show during the early Reagan years — Eddie Murphy — had interests beyond D.C. politics. “By and large Eddie wasn’t doing political stuff,” Miller says. “He was saving the show with all his characters and sketches, like James Brown.”
SNL’s Reagan impressions during the first three-quarters of his administration ranged from solid to forgettable, with Charles Rocket, Joe Piscopo, and Randy Quaid all taking turns channeling the Gipper. In a foreshadowing of last season’s Alec Baldwin takeover of Trump, Robin Williams even played Reagan in one episode. But in 1986, as the Iran-Contra scandal heated up, and Reagan’s teflon coating began to fade, something big happened: Phil Hartman joined the cast. Destined to become one of SNL’s master impressionists, he would make his first appearance as Reagan that December. In “Mastermind,” an instant classic of a sketch written by Jim Downey and Al Franken, Hartman played on Reagan’s reputation as the ultimate nice guy to maximum comedic effect. “The sketch starts out with Hartman as Reagan being affable and unassuming and kind to everyone, and then the visitors are ushered out and all of a sudden, Reagan becomes this brilliant strategist,” Miller says. “It was just fantastic, because you hadn’t thought about it like that.” The sketch was also a sign that, after going relatively easy on Reagan and his right-wing revolutionaries, SNL was ready to adapt a slightly harsher tone. “By 1986, you had more stability with the cast, and a new era, and writers engaged in politics,” Miller says. “Towards the end of the Reagan administration, [politics] became more prominent.”
And yet SNL during the 1980s and early 1990s still wasn’t very interested in taking political stands, the way last season’s show did its very clear un-endorsement of candidate Trump. Hartman’s Reagan was followed by what’s considered by many to be among the best SNL presidential impressions ever: Dana Carvey’s take on the elder Bush. Even as the country dipped into recession and Bush went back on his promise to never raise taxes, SNL mined humor from the president’s goofy personality and quirky speaking style (“not gonna do it,” “wouldn’t be prudent”). While it’s impossible to imagine Baldwin and Trump hanging out together five years from now, Miller notes that Bush “was a fan of” Carvey’s sketches. “They had several appearances together!” he notes. “Bush would laugh at it, so I don’t think that was mean in any way.”
The Clinton Years
Hammond in command
Bill Clinton was the first president to come of age in the era of SNL: He had just turned 29 when the show made its debut in 1975, and he was also the first president younger than Michaels himself. But neither Michaels nor his writers cut Clinton any breaks due to generational kinship. If anything, there’s a case to be made that SNL went harder on Clinton, and for a more prolonged time, than any of the previous four presidents in office during the show’s run up until then. (Dan Aykroyd’s Nixon was brutal, but he was already out of office — and pardoned.) “They certainly didn’t let Bill Clinton get away with anything,” Miller says. It didn’t help Clinton that, after Hartman’s relatively sweet take on him as a McDonald’s-loving Bubba, Michaels tapped Darrell Hammond to fill his dad jeans in the fall of 1995.
“Hammond was probably the greatest impersonator in SNL history, certainly in terms of versatility and longevity,” Miller says. “Nobody comes close. His Clinton was incredible. When it comes to some of the things Clinton got involved in, particularly his relationships with women, Darrell just nailed it.” Perhaps because Clinton’s scandals and failings were about the man himself, and not his political machinations, SNL and Hammond felt more comfortable taking direct aim at him. Whereas Carvey’s Bush made the 41st president out to be a lovable dork, “if you were to watch Darrell’s sketches as Clinton, I don’t think charming is going to be one of your first 50 words,” Miller says. “They took him to that dark place in virtually every sketch. It was about his libido, it was about what your gut was telling you about the guy. They kind of pieced together a couple of things that you may have already thought about him and took it to another level.”
Funny, then it died
SNL’s political hot streak continued with George W. Bush — at least during the early years of his administration. Will Ferrell’s W. ended up being one of the comic’s signature characters — and one of SNL’s most memorable impressions — even though Ferrell left the show during the second year of Bush’s administration. But those three years (including a series of sketches during the extended 2000 campaign) were enough to have an impact. “The question with W. was, did Will’s brilliant impersonation help or hurt him?” Miller says. “I think a lot of people thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re making him out to be an idiot, and they’re being so tough on him.’ But other people felt like the way Will did it, the [reaction] always was, ‘He’s a guy you want to have a beer with.’” It’s also worth remembering the mood of the country during the dawn of the Bush administration: Post-9/11, even Democrats were rallying around the flag, and the White House. That no doubt softened the tone of SNL’s political humor at the time. W. also got a break once Ferrell left. Replacing his master impression wasn’t easy, even with talents such as Chris Parnell and Will Forte. In Miller’s oral history of SNL, Forte admits his heart really wasn’t in the presidential gig because Ferrell has been “so good at” channeling W. “I didn’t want to see anybody else come in and do George Bush after Will Ferrell did it,” Forte told Miller. “It was almost like somebody coming in and taking over the role of Church Lady. That’s Dana Carvey; nobody else can do Church Lady.”
As the country soured on W. toward the end of his term, SNL did manage to get some digs in at the White House — but mostly by going after Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney. Much as he captured Clinton’s dark side, Hammond was able to turn the veep into a power-hungry prince of darkness (not that Cheney ever hid his dark side all that well). Miller describes Hammond’s Cheney as sort of the mirror opposite of Ferrell’s W. “Bush Jr. was not made out to be this warmongering guy who started these two wars. It was more about just him as a guy,” he says. “With Cheney, he was the one who was the mean ogre who had more of a political agenda. When Darrell did Cheney, he really went for it. There was no doubt about Cheney’s agenda or opinions about war, oil, and everything else. That was a very, very pointed impersonation.”
Looking beyond the White House
Miller doesn’t mince any words in stating what’s obvious about SNL’s skewering of President Obama during his eight years in office. “There was no real juice with Obama,” he says. “Jay Pharaoh tried to do his best, and Fred [Armisen] did his best. But that dog was not gonna hunt.” Conservative critics of SNL no doubt believe the show went “easy” on President Obama because it agreed with his policy or appreciated his youth and relative hipness. More likely: Obama’s calm demeanor (“no drama Obama”) and lack of substantive scandal for most of his administration (made-up scandals such as Benghazi don’t count) made it hard for SNL to find the funny in 44. “The truth is, Obama was impossible — the toughest, without a doubt,” Miller says.
And yet, SNL between 2008 and the start of the Trump era was not bereft of memorable political satire; just the opposite. For perhaps the first time in the show’s history, supporting political “characters” managed to outshine the president, particularly in 2008, when Obama was running for office versus Hillary Clinton and, later, Sarah Palin. “2008 was just an incredible gift,” Miller says. “When Tina [Fey] did Sarah Palin the first time, that night and the next day was just like a tsunami that washed over everything else in the culture.” And while not quite as much of a standout, Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton shone during the 2008 campaign and during the early years of the Obama administration, when she was secretary of State. “They saved it,” Miller says of Fey and Poehler’s impressions. “They were brilliant, so good, and it helped mask the fact that” Obama was pretty much of an O-bummer on the comedy front.
A work in progress
Barring an unforeseen event, Trump will be in the White House for another three-and-a-half years, making it impossible to render any definitive judgments on how SNL handled the 45th president, or whether SNL’s tone toward him ultimately influenced the way voters perceived his tenure. What’s not a stretch is that SNL’s saturation coverage of Trump to date seems almost unprecedented. This extends even to the show’s direct relationship with the commander-in-chief: the Performer Formerly Known as the Donald is the first sitting president to have hosted SNL twice before winning office, including a controversial appearance one year before he was elected. He was a long-running SNL character literally decades before he took office. “Trump is Trump, and he’s so oversized,” Miller notes. “His personality and his impact on the culture is so big that it’s not a push to think that that has manifested itself in the show.”
And yet while Trump has provided a target-rich environment for SNL, the show has managed to rise to the occasion in ways it hasn’t always in the past. Reagan — a former movie star — offered plenty of opportunity for effective satire, but as Miller notes, the show wasn’t able to tap into that until late in the Gipper’s term. With Trump, SNL struck gold nearly from the start. Baldwin’s Trump was an instant smash during the primaries, and his postelection portrayals of POTUS have arguably even more effective. The decision to cast Melissa McCarthy as White House press secretary Sean Spicer resulted in the creation of SNL’s biggest non-POTUS political character since Fey’s Sarah Palin. Add in two performances from the primary season — McKinnon’s multilayered and ultimately poignant portrayal of Hillary Clinton and Larry David’s dead-on Bernie Sanders — and the Trump era (2015–present) has allowed SNL to dominate TV political parody.
While Miller is quick to praise SNL’s current writing staff and the work of Baldwin, McCarthy, and McKinnon — “That triumvirate was pretty damn good,” he says — he also cautions against assuming Michaels made some strategic decision to dramatically up the emphasis on political comedy. “Aside from the ‘Black Jeopardy’ sketch with Tom Hanks, I don’t think there were a lot of new, breakout characters” not related to the 2016 campaign and Trump’s move to Washington. “There’s not going to be a movie happening based on any sketch from season 42. I know there were a lot of people who were fast-forwarding through sketches to get to the political stuff, and I’m not trying to trash the show this season, but I think the most successful things were all political. So I think that makes it [seem] even more of a political show.”
Another thing that stands out about SNL since the election is just how brutal the show has been to Trump and the incoming administration: There has been no honeymoon period. In past years, Miller says, “There was some tough satire from time to time, but it wasn’t like they were out to demolish anybody.” Still, while conservatives have already been quick to scream bias — and Trump himself has whined the show is doing “a hit job” on him — Miller believes SNL under Michaels has never had tried to wield any particular political ax. “First and foremost, it’s about trying to be funny,” Miller says. “That’s part of the reason they’ve been able to last. It’s not like some years they’re MSNBC or some years they’re Fox. They’re just trying to be as funny as possible.”