Nikki Haley Is Just the Latest Bad Politician Lorne Michaels Has Happily Welcomed to ‘SNL’
A smug, comedy-compromised Nikki Haley showed up on Saturday Night Live last night, the latest clown in a circus parade of political candidates who’ve shown up for obligatory cameos since 2000 or so. It’s a surprisingly large group that includes Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, Al Sharpton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and, of course, Donald Trump. (Whether or not you consider any or all of these “bad politicians” likely depends on your ideological stripe.) The fact that Haley wasn’t funny isn’t the point — SNL political cameos seem to be about recognition applause more than laughs — but she did allow the show to score another point in the game of “See, we present both sides!”
That’s more important to Saturday Night Live’s creative team than you might think. “When it’s the political stuff, the best is when somebody who’s a Democrat goes, ‘Oh, you really gave it to Bush,’ and somebody who’s a Republican will go, ‘Oh, you really laid into Gore,’” explained onetime SNL writer Steve Higgins in oral history Live From New York. “That’s the reaction we should be getting.”
Maybe that’s true now, but it wasn’t always so. The show’s first political cameo was an unlikely one — Gerald Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, hosted in an attempt to balance the pummeling SNL was giving the president every week. At the very least, Nessen wanted to prove Ford had a sense of humor. But the 1976 version of Lorne Michaels was wary of Nesson’s appearance. According to Saturday Night, A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, “Lorne had never liked the way Bob Hope would make jokes about the president one day and play golf with him the next. It led, he was sure, to pulling punches.”
These days, of course, it’s easy to imagine Michaels sharing an expensive bottle of white wine with Obama. Golf isn’t Michaels’ style.
Back then, the show’s writers were determined, as Michaels himself put it, to “take the president and shove his press secretary up his ass.” Writer Rosie Shuster confessed that the writers’ attitude could be summed up as, “The president’s watching. Let’s make him cringe and squirm.” They knew Nessen would refuse to do overtly political stuff so instead, they wrote the raunchiest material in the show’s young history. Emily Littella, for instance, did a tirade against presidential erections, her hard-of-hearing version of elections. If you can’t criticize ‘em, embarrass them to death. It worked — some of Ford’s aides wanted Neesen fired for being part of the sleazefest.
The odds of any of that happening today are somewhere between zero and none. Candidates are savvier about potential embarrassments these days, with the possible exception of Palin. But the bigger reason is that Saturday Night Live is way more Steve Higgins than Rosie Shuster now, more concerned with the appearance of balance (and securing buzzworthy guests) than sticking it up anyone’s ass.
In 2024, an upcoming primary is just like the movie opening this weekend — not a subject for satire but one more event for a celebrity to plug on SNL.