Comedy Impressions That Changed Politics
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“I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not.”
That’s the line the President threw back at Chevy Chase when the Saturday Night Live star showed up to perform for a White House dinner in 1976. Back then, before Chase’s joke had been repeated into a cliche, the quip might even have been clever. But Ford was wrong. In the eyes of at least some Americans -- perhaps enough Americans to sway an election? -- Chase was the definitive Ford.
In fact, William Horner, a University of Missouri political science professor, is convinced that Chase's impersonation of a bumbling Ford was so convincing that it influenced the election’s results.
The thing is -- it wasn’t even a good impression. The onscreen graphic admits as much. Chase himself didn’t make much of an attempt to capture Ford’s vocal tics or mannerisms. Instead, he just tried to make the President look like a clumsy ass.
“That was just funny to me,” Chase said, “like this is him punishing himself for being a Republican.”
Certainly, punishing Ford was Chevy’s personal goal, even though SNL producer Lorne Michaels swears the show itself is politically agnostic.
“I thought, ‘This is funny and whatever I can do to get Carter elected, by God I am going to do it,” Chase admitted.
He told CNN: “There was no question that it had major effect and in fact, in speaking with (Ford) ... he felt so, too.”
True that. Ford admitted as much in his autobiography, A Time to Heal: "The news coverage was harmful ... But even more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my missteps for their jokes," the President wrote. "Their antics — and I'll admit that I laughed at them myself — helped create a public perception of me as a stumbler.”
“And that wasn't funny."
Na Ga Da It
Chase wasn’t the first comedian to impersonate a sitting President. Vaughn Meader had the fast-selling album in history, comedy or otherwise, when he released The First Family in 1962. But the comedy was toothless, poking mild fun at so-what topics like the Kennedy family’s athleticism and Jackie redecorating the White House.
Richard Nixon, on the other hand, had every comedian on the planet shaking their jowls, making the peace sign, and mumbling “I am not a crook.” What comic didn’t do a Nixon? Dick was tricky enough to know he was the butt of the joke and tried to get in on the action, asking America to “Sock it to me!” on Laugh-In. There’s no telling if his appearance helped him reach young voters, yet Nixon did get re-elected.
But with Chase’s bumbling Ford, the age of comedy impressions shaping our political perceptions was on. And perhaps no impression redefined our judgment more than Dana Carvey’s outrageous caricature of the senior George Bush.
The impression was tough for Carvey to master, he admitted in an essay he wrote for The New York Times. “President Bush was a comedian’s nightmare,” he says. “There was nothing to do an impression of — no hook. My take on him, in the early sketches, was actually kind of terrible and not particularly funny.”
The key to nailing the impression (and this seems to be not uncommon among SNL origin stories) was exhaustion.
Carvey and writer Al Franken were working on a new Bush bit late on a Friday night. To put it in comedy terms, says Carvey, “we had nothing.” But then the magic happened. “I was playing around, trying to make Al laugh. At one point, I raised my right arm and began rotating my hand lazily with index finger pointed… And then it came out — my voice flattening in a lazy syntax — ‘those people out there … doing that thing … doing that thing in that whole area over there.’”
That John-Wayne-meets-Mr.-Rogers lethargy was the hook Carvey was grasping for. And President Bush became a character -- one so convincing that it was hard to remember if Carvey’s catchphrases were things Bush had actually said.
Rolling Stone opined that Dana’s impression “was a collection of tics and mannerisms that overshadowed the real figure – it eventually became the de facto way millions of people saw the leader of the free world.”
“If President Bush said, ‘Not going to do it,’ I said, ‘Na Ga Da It.’” said Carvey. And “Na ga da it” was the version everyone remembered.
It may come as a surprise that the two men became friends. Upon meeting for the first time, Bush actually complimented Carvey on the impersonation.
“You know, Dana,” said the President, “I never thought your impression of me was nasty — never hit below the belt.”
While it wasn’t mean, the impression had an impact. An NBC News essay argues that Carvey’s Bush is more familiar to most Americans than Bush’s actual legacy.
In a weird twist, Bush called in Carvey to cheer up his troops when he lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton (who arguably got nastier SNL treatment in the form of Phil Hartman’s burger-munching pleasure seeker).
I Can See Russia From My House
Other impersonations stuck as well. Rolling Stone thought Will Ferrell “put so much dimensionality into his fratboy-ish Dubya performance that he often did a better job selling Bush’s humanity than the President himself.
Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore was brutal, somehow making the single word “lockbox” into a symbol of soulless, somnambulant wonkism. Somehow the statesman who won an Academy Award for his climate-change documentary was the most boring guy who ever walked a dangerously warming planet.
Then of course, it was Tina Fey who delivered a brutal blow to the solar plexus of Sarah Palin’s public image.
For many, it was nearly impossible to distinguish the reality of vice-presidential candidate Palin’s antics from the comic fantasy of Tina Fey’s impression, which often used Palin’s unfortunate sound bites verbatim. Confused voters might have gone to Snopes to see if Palin actually said “I can see Russia from my house.” (She didn’t.)
That confusion meant impressions were more than just making fun of a naked emperor’s imaginary clothes. They could dethrone them as well.
After the 2008 election, a FirstView poll found that SNL did have an effect on the results. The survey found ten percent of voters report being influenced by the show’s political sketches. Did that make a difference? The survey said "59 percent of those who saw the skits voted for Obama and 39 percent voted for McCain."
Fey isn’t so sure she had an influence other than reinforcing what people already believed. “I don’t think that show can really sway people,” she said on a David Tennant podcast. “I think you can shine a light. You can help them articulate something they’re already feeling about a given person.”
Nasty Late-Night Losers
From Nixon to Ford to Bush to Palin (who showed up on SNL to bop along to Amy Poehler’s Palin rap), most politicians decide it’s best to at least appear that they’re in on the joke when a comedy impression takes off.
But most politicians aren’t Donald Trump.
SNL got a lot of grief for booking Trump to host when he was running for President. Some blame the show (and ex-cast member Jimmy Fallon) for normalizing Trump’s run and creating a runway for his eventual victory.
Maybe that criticism led Lorne to bring in a big gun to impersonate Trump for all four years of his administration, the blustering-to-the-point-of-near-panic Alec Baldwin. (Darrell Hammond, who had years of SNL Trump experience, had assumed he was getting the gig--he cried when he found out he was being replaced. Suffice to say, Hammond’s Trump was pretty dang good.)
Was Baldwin’s impression good as well? Good enough to get under the candidate’s skin. Despite hosting the show in 2015 (and presumably getting the good will that comes with it), Trump was firing back at SNL just months later.
"Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!"
But Trump didn’t just get mad -- he tried to get even. After he won the election, he was so incensed about the weekly skewerings that he tried to get the federal government to make SNL stand down. And of course, he fired back with tweets -- something he did a lot in the days before someone took away that particular toy.
"It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side.’ Like an advertisement without consequences. Same with Late Night Shows. Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?”
News flash: Satire is still protected speech in America! But it was more than tweets. Trump had staffers investigate whether the FCC or even the Department of Justice could make Baldwin clam up. As you might have guessed from the many sketches that followed, the answer was a resounding “no.”
The ex-President, to be fair, denies he ever looked into this, saying in a statement: “The story that I asked the Department of Justice to go after ratings-challenged (without Trump!) Saturday Night Live and other late-night Losers, is total Fake News.”
But while Trump’s protests may be overheated, they do raise a reasonable question: If comedy impressions of our nation’s leaders are so influential, can they be considered fair?
“Fair? What do you mean fair?” says Chevy Chase, perhaps the man who started it all. Saturday Night Live is “an all-purpose comedy show. Of course it's fair, it's satire, it's what it is, and it's fair to give your own opinion.”
Even if that opinion is tripping over your own necktie and falling down a flight of Presidential stairs.
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Top image source: NBC