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Viewers Flock to Comedy Shows for Dose of Campaign Humor

October 30, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live has seen its ratings soar in recent weeks as viewers have tuned in to watch skits about political candidates and campaigns. SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels and head writer Seth Meyers discuss political comedy.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late-night comedy shows have long been places for candidates to be seen and to be skewered. And this year is no exception.

Here’s a clip from last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” skit poking fun at Obama’s infomercial.

TV NARRATOR: And now a message from Barack and Michelle Obama.

FRED ARMISEN, “Saturday Night Live” Cast Member: Good evening, my fellow Americans. I am Barack Obama, and this is my wife, Michelle. This coming Wednesday, our campaign will run a special 30-minute address on all four major networks.

MAYA RUDOLPH, “Saturday Night Live” Cast Member: This airtime was initially purchased so that we could speak to you one last time about the issues.

FRED ARMISEN: However, with poll numbers putting us so far ahead, we decided now’s a time to play it safe.

MAYA RUDOLPH: Instead of a conventional address, we’re going to carefully manage our lead and, well, shake things up.

FRED ARMISEN: With “The Barack Obama Variety Half-Hour.” It’s time to have some fun!

MAYA RUDOLPH: Because we got a lead in the polls, and we built it up.

FRED ARMISEN: We built it up.

MAYA RUDOLPH: We built it up. And now it’s solid, solid as Barack…

FRED ARMISEN: … solid as Barack…

MAYA RUDOLPH: … that’s what this lead is. That’s what we’ve got, got, got, got, got, got, got…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidates often play along in person. Two weeks ago, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made a cameo appearance on “SNL,” prompting the show’s highest ratings in 14 years. Here’s a clip from that night.

ALEC BALDWIN, Actor: Hey, Lorne. Hey, Tina. Lorne, I need to talk to you. You can’t let Tina go out there with that woman. She goes against everything we stand for. I mean, good lord, Lorne. They call her — what’s that name they call her — Cara — Cara — what do they call her again, Tina?

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: That would be Caribou Barbie.

ALEC BALDWIN: Caribou Barbie. Thank you, Tina.

I mean, this is the most important election in our nation’s history. And you want her, our Tina, to go out there and stand there with that horrible woman? What do you have to say for yourself?

LORNE MICHAELS, “Saturday Night Live” Producer: Alec, this is Governor Palin.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: Hi, there.

ALEC BALDWIN: I see. Forgive me, but I feel I must say this. You are way hotter in person.

GOV. SARAH PALIN: Why, thank you.

ALEC BALDWIN: I mean, seriously. I mean, I can’t believe they let her, you know, play you.

GOV. SARAH PALIN: Oh, thank you. And I must say your brother Steven is my favorite Baldwin brother.

ALEC BALDWIN: You are a delight. Now, come, let me take you for a tour of the studio. You know I’ve hosted the show — how many times, Lorne?

LORNE MICHAELS: A hundred and seventy five times.

ALEC BALDWIN: A hundred and seventy five.

TINA FEY, Actress: In answer to your question, you know, I don’t worry about the polls. Polls are just a fancy way of systematically predicting what’s going to happen. The only poll I care about is the North Pole, and that is melting. It’s not great.

What? The real one? Bye!

Campaigns provide rich material

Seth Meyers
Head Writer, Saturday Night Live
The country's probably a little tired of the current administration in the same way that comedy writers have gotten tired of it, as well. You know, you can only make jokes about people for so long before you seem repetitive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now are someone you just saw in that clip, he's Lorne Michaels, who created "Saturday Night Live" 34 seasons ago, and he is its long-time executive producer.

And actor Seth Meyers, he's been with the program for eight years, and he's the head writer and anchor of "Weekend Update."

Thank you both for being with us. And I have to get my bias on the table right away: I'm a big fan of "Saturday Night Live."

Lorne Michaels, to you first. What if John McCain had chosen somebody else, say, Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney as his running mate?

LORNE MICHAELS, "Saturday Night Live" Producer: It would not have been as much fun. I think that we would have dealt with it in the way that we always do, but I think that the choice of Gov. Palin was so startling and that the excitement at that convention, you know, just led to everyone paying attention. And that was really helpful for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think she provides such rich material?

LORNE MICHAELS: Well, I think because it's -- you know, it started fresh. There was no fatigue with her. I mean, everyone got to know her at the same time.

There was all those -- that wild Internet, you know, eruptions trying to define her. I think everybody was curious about her.

And in our world, you know, most people in the audience had the idea that she should be played by Tina Fey at almost exactly the same time and started, you know, letting us know that. And I think, if we'd used anyone other than Tina, I think the audience would have been disappointed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth Meyers, what makes one politician easier to impersonate and another one harder?

SETH MEYERS, "Saturday Night Live" Cast Member: Well, you obviously want hooks, and I think Sarah Palin had a lot of hooks. I mean, she was an unknown and we learned a lot about her really fast.

And she's also charismatic as an individual. And that's more fun for an actor to play than someone who's maybe a more, you know, a boring politician.

And, you know, with somebody like Tina, who has a great attention to detail, it worked out really well, because she found all these sort of idiosyncrasies of the speech patterns. And, you know, as a writing staff, there was plenty to write about, so it really worked out well for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Seth Meyers, what makes this campaign so rich, so ripe with material?

SETH MEYERS: Well, you know, I think that the country's probably a little tired of the current administration in the same way that comedy writers have gotten tired of it, as well.

You know, you can only make jokes about people for so long before you seem repetitive. And I think this current administration's resistance to change has sort of made them impermeable to comedy recently.

So for us, as well -- I mean, I think the American people got really excited about this election, and then they started paying attention to it. And the more they pay attention, the more you can sort of make jokes about the minutiae. And, you know, that has sort of played into our hands.

The role of comedy in politics

Lorne Michaels
Executive Producer, Saturday Night Live
The show strives to be bipartisan. And I think our job is to go after whatever happened that week and, whoever's an authority, that's who we're looking at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lorne Michaels, how do you see the role of "Saturday Night Live" and other comedy shows at a time like this, an election like this one?

LORNE MICHAELS: Well, you know, we're not on every day, so, you know, we have the week to prepare for it. And I think that, you know, our job is -- you know, the show strives to be bipartisan.

And I think our job is to go after whatever happened that week and, whoever's an authority, that's who we're looking at.

So I think that there are times when I think we've done it more successfully or less successfully, but I think this election -- because, as Seth said, I mean, when you get 80 million people watching a debate, it means that, you know, the country's paying attention.

And that just makes what we do easier, because we can really jump into it. We don't also have to explain the context.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said you strive to be bipartisan. Do you feel an obligation to be evenhanded?

LORNE MICHAELS: Yes, totally, but also I think that, you know, I think that the moment that someone's elected, and whoever the new president is, we're in opposition to that, not in any way in an unpatriotic way, of course, but our job is -- we're not their friends.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I asked about that, because -- and let me come back to you, to Seth Meyers on this, because back during the primaries, there were some -- when Hillary Clinton was having a tough time against Barack Obama, Amy Poehler played Hillary Clinton I think in a fairly sympathetic way, gave the press, I think, a hard time. How much blowback did you get as a result of that?

SETH MEYERS: Well, that was a unique time, because, you know, the very next debate, Senator Clinton mentioned us by name, which we'd never sort of had happen before.

But we had -- you know, we thought the press had been a little hard on her in that, so we actually did a piece sort of more critical of the press than in support of her.

But I feel like, when a campaign feels something and then they hear someone else say it, they really grab hold of it. That happened in that case.

You know, we weren't really picking a side there, but we were trying in that one instance to make a case that it seemed like the coverage had been a little unfair. You know, but, obviously, it was, you know, fun for us to have her mention it.

LORNE MICHAELS: Yes, but -- and also taking that stance, you know, and dealing with what looked like a swoon on the part of the press for Obama at that time, it didn't mean that we were pro-Hillary. We were just pointing out what seemed obvious to us. And I think that obviously resonated in the Clinton campaign.

Impressions evolve into characters

Seth Meyers
Head Writer, Saturday Night Live
The most off-limits thing for us is probably, you know, family members of campaigns. You know, that's something that's always tricky on how to handle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think your impersonations can ever do real damage, be hard for a candidate to shake off?

LORNE MICHAELS: I think that what happens when we do it properly is it starts as an impression and it evolves into a character. I've said this before, but when Dana Carvey used to do the first President Bush, you know, I'd watch him every week and, after a while, when I'd see President Bush on television, he was somewhat disappointing.

And I think the same way with what Darrell has done with President Clinton. They capture some aspect that, you know, the audience -- again, the audience wouldn't be laughing if it didn't resonate or didn't strike true. And I think that, after a while, you trust those characters and they speak to the audience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there anything, Seth Meyers, that's off-limits? And I'm thinking specifically -- Barack Obama is an African-American. Do you have to be specially careful in the way you portray him?

SETH MEYERS: Well, you know, I think the most off-limits thing for us is probably, you know, family members of campaigns. You know, that's something that's always tricky on how to handle.

And, you know, I think race is as sensitive on our show as it is everywhere in the media, but we haven't run into too many problems with it yet, certainly.

LORNE MICHAELS: And I think, you know, the essence of the campaign has been -- the McCain campaign trying to define Obama, you know, Obama trying to define himself.

And I think whoever becomes -- if Obama becomes president, I think, by definition, he would reveal more and more of himself. And I think we would find the ways in which -- you know, to be funny about that.

Post-election material

Lorne Michaels
Executive Producer, Saturday Night Live
We've been on for 34 seasons. There's always something. And you never know. You know, in 2000, we were held over for, you know, a couple months, so it doesn't look like that's going to happen this time, but you never know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you going to use for material after the election?

LORNE MICHAELS: We're going to...

SETH MEYERS: A lot of jokes about the economy. We're hoping that holds up.

LORNE MICHAELS: Yes, we're going to jump right on the economy, I think.

No, I think that -- again, it only begins the day after Election Day, you know? And there's -- you know, we've been on for 34 seasons. There's always something. And you never know.

You know, in 2000, we were held over for, you know, a couple months, so it doesn't look like that's going to happen this time, but you never know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth Meyers, anything to add?

SETH MEYERS: Yes, well, it will certainly be fun for us. Look, everybody loves a contest, and it's been a great contest so far. And, you know, I think when one person wins, we'll probably turn the focus back onto the final days of the Bush presidency. So...

LORNE MICHAELS: Yes, and, also, I think that this Saturday -- because it's our last show before the election -- I think that there's -- I think we're going to pretty much go all out on it, so...

SETH MEYERS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know you're going to have a lot of fans watching from around here. And I'm asking what you're going to do about after the election, because we at the NewsHour are asking that question, too.

LORNE MICHAELS: Yes, no, and it will be our first week off in a long time. We're not on the following weekend. And I know everyone's really looking forward to that here. I don't know whether you guys get the same break.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to keep going.

LORNE MICHAELS: Yes.

SETH MEYERS: Good thing. Good luck.

LORNE MICHAELS: We'll keep watching. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, thank you both.