Wednesday, August 27, 2014

More Things Than Are Dreamt Of In Your Philosophy

There's an updated version coming out of the excellent oral history of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Miller, bringing it into the 21st century.  Excerpts published in The Hollywood Reporter discuss what went on behind an SNL mainstay, its political satire.

Will Ferrell did a fine George W. Bush, but with the 2008 election, there was a problem that has hurt late-night humor to this day--comedy writers haven't been able to get a handle on Obama, or, more likely, don't want to. (I think he's as easy to make fun of as anyone, but if you like the guy and don't want to hurt him, it's hard to do the kind of humor SNL can be so good at.)

But something else almost made up for that--Sarah Palin. Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, which was probably the most significant political impression ever done on the show after Chevy Chase's Gerald Ford.  Not that they changed the election results--I question if SNL has ever been that influential--but boy did Fey's Sarah Palin strike a chord.

The dynamic that exists behind-the-scenes, it seems to me, is well-represented by writer Jim Downey and performer Horatio Sanz.  And I have to say, I think Sanz comes off as a bit of a dick.  A tried-and-true Democrat, he wants the show to go after the GOP ferociously, but when they go after the Dems, suddenly they're not doing it right.  Downey, meanwhile, is a moderate who's willing to go after anyone.

I could describe the fight further, but why not let them speak for themselves:

Downey: The biggest risk to doing political comedy is, you always seem to have a choice: Am I going to piss off the audience by trying to get them to laugh when they don't like what I'm saying, or am I going to kiss their ass and get this tremendous wind at my back by sucking up to them? The second way makes me feel like I cheated. I'm sure there are a lot of people in comedy who completely share every f—ing detail, jot and tittle of the Obama administration, and all I can say is: To the extent that you're sincere and that's really the way you feel, then you're a very lucky person because, guess what, you're going to have a very easy career in comedy because audiences will always applaud. They may not laugh, but they'll always give you [a] huge ovation. That's Bill Maher, you know?

Sanz: I don't think the show itself has ever let its freak flag fly in the last 20 years. Lorne's very concerned with being neutral so he wants to make fun of everyone. … He doesn't want the show to be this liberal bash rag. He may be a little more conservative than he lets on. … And you also have Jim Downey, who's basically the Karl Rove of SNL. He's always writing the right wing sketches, and honestly I think a lot of times they're out of tune with the audience. … I think Lorne sometimes leans too much on Downey and not enough on guys like Seth. Basically in the last couple of years, it's been Seth going up against Downey to set the show's tone on politics, and I think we could definitely have been harder on the right. They deserved it, and we dropped the ball as far as getting them.

Downey: My mission is to try to write a funny piece using politics as the subject matter, and so I go with what I think is the most interesting, potentially funny idea that no one else is talking about.

Sanz: The week that Nancy Pelosi was made speaker, the only thing that we could come up with at the time was, because she was from San Francisco, to make her a dominatrix. I thought that was really, really cheap. … It was pretty frustrating. And it continues to be frustrating. I don't really like watching the political scenes that much anymore because they're not written in the writers' and actors' tone. They're written like Downey wants to put this message out. And I think that's kind of shitty.

Downey: I used to write this stuff with Al Franken when we started out; I was a standard-issue Harvard graduate commie, and Al was like a Democratic Party stalwart. I had contempt for the partisan stuff. And I became more conservative over the years, to the point where I'm now a conservative Democrat, which means in Hollywood terms I'm a McCarthyite, I suppose. But I have to say, and even Franken agrees with me — I've talked to him about this — that the last couple seasons of the show were the only two in the show's history where we were totally like every other comedy show: basically, an arm of the Hollywood Democratic establishment. [Jon] Stewart was more nuanced. We just stopped doing anything which could even be misinterpreted as a criticism of Obama.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course because criticizing Obama is criticizing themselves and that is not what they do (And that's a good thing).

Still waiting for a funny conservative show.

4:07 AM, August 27, 2014  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

If you are a dyed in the wool leftist, you'll never find a conservative comedian funny because you will take the jokes personally. As a conservative myself, I probably don't find SNL's jokes about Republicans as funny as those on the left do.

Still, I think SNL has tried poking at both sides. I understand that their in-studio audience is going to tilt way left, so jokes about Obama golfing during crises aren't going to fly as well as jokes about Bush on the ranch.

The best Obama sequence I recall was when the ghoast of Martin Luther King visited him in the White House. Neither lived up to the other's expectations. Also, during the campaign, the jokes about how softthe media went on Obama were pretty on target.

This last season, I enjoyed the joint TV spot with Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama obviously hating each other while tring to give a public service announcement.

8:12 AM, August 27, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Actually, Anon, satire has historically been conservative. Aristophanes and Swift were both reactionaries making fun of new-fangled ideas. For some reason, show biz today is the province of liberals so we tend to think of it as a left-wing thing (even if people moving in lockstep isn't necessarily that funny).

If you want to read a funny conservative in modern times there's always P. J. O'Rourke.

10:34 AM, August 27, 2014  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

PJ hasn't done much since Parliament of Whores. But that can carry him.

2:46 AM, August 28, 2014  

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