On Oct. 11, 1975, Muhammad Ali had just defeated Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” and the United Nations was weeks away from passing Resolution 3379, equating Zionism with racism. Patty Hearst had been captured and charged with armed robbery, and “The Price Is Right” was about to expand to a full hour from 30 minutes. President Gerald Ford had recently survived an assassination attempt by Sarah Jane Moore in San Francisco, and the Angolan Civil War would soon begin.
And late that Saturday night in New York, a 32-year-old writer-comedian named Chevy Chase sat behind a fake news anchor desk on the NBC television network and intoned: “Yesterday, in Washington, President Ford bumped his head three times getting into his helicopter. The CIA immediately denied reports that it had deliberately lowered the top of the doorway. And Ford was on the campaign trail, announcing in Detroit that he has written his own campaign slogan. The slogan? ‘If He’s So Dumb, How Come He’s President?’”
No one watching the new show, called “NBC’s Saturday Night,” could have known, but American political humor would never be quite the same. And for nearly 36 years, the institution that was soon rechristened “Saturday Night Live” has been inextricably interwoven with the ups and downs of the post-Watergate presidency and American politics. The program may originate from Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, but it looms — as the filmmaker Douglas McGrath, who spent a season as a writer on the show 30 years ago when he was just out of Princeton, puts it — as “the Empire State Building of satire, the one that you find first on the crowded skyline.”
Seth Meyers, the featured entertainer at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, is merely the latest in a parade of “SNL” alumni — including Al Franken, Conan O’Brien and Darrell Hammond — who have braved an audience that amounts to the ultimate trade show for press-and-political humor. Still other entertainers at the dinner in recent years — especially Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — owe their careers in part to the brand of “ripped-from-the-headlines” humor that “SNL” pioneered.
That a show that started by parading its “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” would come to loom so large on the cultural landscape, and that its fictional politicians would so often seem more vivid than their real-life counterparts, might once have seemed improbable. After all, Chase portrayed Ford, one of the best athletes ever to occupy the Oval Office, as a bumbling buffoon (and made no effort at all to mimic his voice or mannerisms), and Dan Aykroyd initially played the smiling Jimmy Carter wearing his own dark mustache. Ford did his best to play along with the joke, but some of his lieutenants credited Chase’s caricature with helping to seal the president’s fate in the razor-close election of 1976.
By the time Dana Carvey found the “nah-gah-do-it, wouldn’t-be-prudent” role of a lifetime as George H.W. Bush more than a decade later, the show’s place in the political firmament seemed unshakable. Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and longtime executive producer, told me in a recent interview that he would find himself listening to the real Bush 41 and think that Carvey “didn’t really sound like the president.” George W. Bush never uttered the word “strategery” (except, perhaps, in deliberate jest), but Will Ferrell did, in a script dreamed up by longtime “SNL” writer Jim Downey — and it quickly came to sum up the 43rd president’s scrambled syntax and “decidery” persona. Al Gore did talk about a “lockbox” for Social Security in 2000 — but never with the somnolent, oracular self-importance that made the sound bite one of Hammond’s best bits.