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What Wouldn’t John McCain Do on ‘Saturday Night Live’?

At a panel discussion on Monday, Lorne Michaels downplayed the political influence of Saturday Night Live, saying, “The first thing you think about is whether [the sketch] is going to work and that it’s funny. You can’t think about the fate of Western civilization.” But then, the panel — which was held to commemorate the launch of the Museum of the Moving Image’s presidential-campaign-commercials Website The Living Room Candidate, and also featured SNL’s Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, and veteran political-sketch writer Jim Downey — proceeded to discuss specific instances in which the show has actually influenced politics and dished about how much it sucks when a politician comes on the show and wants to do something silly, like protect his or her image. After the jump, a few highlights.

• Downey said that when Jesse Jackson was running, “I wanted to do a piece where he said, ‘Just because we’re the Rainbow Coalition doesn’t mean we take everybody,’ and there was a list of all the groups that weren’t welcome. I was insane to think he would do this. And I’m sitting there with his guys and he’s crossing them off one by one. ‘Won’t do that, won’t do that, won’t do that.’ Till there were three things left.”

• In 2000, Bush and Gore did a split-screen sketch because both campaigns had adamantly insisted that the two men not run into each other. They nearly did. “And what I remember is that Gore was very much tougher to convince than Bush,” said Downey. “Bush was like, ‘Hey, I’ll do it!’ Gore needed a lot of hand-holding and Franken knew him very well, so we were able to talk him into doing stuff. But we didn’t have a ‘Live From New York’ because Gore said, ‘I wouldn’t feel dignified.’” In the end, they had to get Jesse Ventura to pinch-hit.

• This past spring, Downey said he wrote a piece with McCain talking about how he’s a big pork buster and naming off all the outrageous programs the government was spending money on. “I would have loved to see John McCain do this,” said Downey. “He was supposed to say, ‘What about this? One hundred fifty million dollars to the Department of Justice for a program that notifies convicted sex offenders when a child is in their neighborhood?!’ I was thinking, ‘Just please don’t read the script until you get out there.’ They were too smart for me.”

• McCain was also supposed to be in a sketch about a high-school graduation where every name read off was a filthy name. “Lorne thought it would be fun to have John McCain in it as a faculty member,” said Downey. “So I have great tape of McCain laughing at the crudest stuff, because he was hearing all the names for the first time. His people said he couldn’t do it. But he told me later, ‘You got me good.’”

• Campaign staffers often watch the sketches and call Michaels, so he knows Palin saw Saturday’s sketch and that Hillary Clinton’s staff watched a sketch about Obama getting cushy treatment in a debate, which Hillary then referenced in an actual debate by offering Obama a pillow. And Downey knows for sure that Al Gore saw the sketch of himself after the first debate with Bush, in which the show made fun of Al Gore’s sighing and eye-rolling. “I was at Al Franken’s apartment,” said Downey, “and this guy that worked for the Gore campaign calls Al up and they’re talking about how they’d just shown Gore the tape; I know because I got on the extension and eavesdropped.” Downey went on, “So he was explaining, ‘We made him watch it,’ and then I watched him the next debate and he went from all the sighing and groaning and was just such a little wallflower.”

• When a politician does seem game for anything, it means something’s up. Days after Al Gore hopped into a hot tub with Chris Parnell–as–Joe Lieberman, he announced he would not run for president. “He was very loose on the show,” said Poehler. “He was ready to do anything. And that week we were saying, ‘He’s not going to run,’ because he was saying yes to so many pieces.” Bob Dole even commented on TV that as soon as he saw the hot-tub sketch, he thought, Oh, Al’s not running for president. Michaels, for his part, thinks we would have had a different presidency had America seen that hot-tub Al Gore.

• Michaels thinks the show can be a barometer for how well politicians will do in polls. “I think when politicians start to overthink things and become super cautious and eliminate things, they get farther and farther from who they are and the audience senses it,” he said backstage. It also holds true for candidates that schedule an appearance and pull out at the last second for appearance’s sake. Hillary Clinton had been scheduled to appear on the first show of last season, in August, before Iowa. She pulled out last minute and the show went on with a sketch about her inevitability. “That encapsulated where the media was at the time,” Michaels said, “and I think if she were there, people would have gotten more of a sense of who she was as a person, instead of this sense of entitlement.” Similarly, Obama was supposed to show up on the season premiere. Friday morning, his camp leaked news of the appearance. Friday night, they canceled because of Hurricane Ike. Michaels said in person he found Obama smart: “There wasn’t anything he didn’t get. Very good sense of humor.” But Obama’s political persona, he said, “is cautious. There’s no room for error. And the fact that it is as buttoned-down as it is makes it hard for people to find their way in. Comedy is one way to do it. We were very upset he didn’t come last week.”

Related: Tina Fey’s Star Turn As Sarah Palin Almost Didn’t Happen [Daily Intel]

What Wouldn’t John McCain Do on ‘Saturday Night Live’?