The SNL Effect
Friday, March 14, 2008; 9:13 AM
Should a late-night comedy show be able to change the course of a presidential campaign?
That's the question Stephen Colbert asked me the other night, when I was prattling on about the impact of "Saturday Night Live" (and trying to avoid being humiliated by his blowhard character. By the way, the Comedy Central show cut some of my funniest lines! Whazzup with that?)
Now we already knew that "SNL" could shape public perceptions of a candidate. Back in 2000, Darrell Hammond's take on a sighing, eye-rolling Al Gore stung so badly that Gore's own handlers made him watch a tape to see how he was coming off in the debates.
But rarely have there been segments that made journalists look like such partisan boobs as the two debate parodies that showed debate moderators totally in the tank for Barack Obama (Fred Armisen) while skewering Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler).
Suddenly, the media have gotten a lot tougher with Obama. There was that testy news conference, the Rezko stories, that front-page NYT piece on his thin Senate record . . . Coincidence? Hmmm.
Maybe it was just the normal cycle of things, with Barack getting some belated front-runner scrutiny in the wake of Hillary's complaints about tilted coverage. Then again, she did invoke the "SNL" parody. How often does that happen in presidential politics?
Does the NBC show have an agenda? Longtime executive producer Lorne Michaels says no, it's a comedy show, it's all about getting laughs. He and Jim Downey, who writes the political skits, say there's no pro-Clinton bias at the show, and I believe them.
Still, you might want to follow the money:
"Both men said that most members of the cast and writing staff favored Mr. Obama as a presidential candidate," the NYT's Bill Carter reports, "and Mr. Downey said that he would definitely vote for him if he were nominated. (Mr. Downey said he was a registered Democrat.)
" 'I would imagine that most of the comedy world is for Obama,' he said. The show's head writer, Seth Meyers, has contributed to Mr. Obama's campaign.
"Mr. Michaels gave money to Senator John McCain's campaign earlier in the race. He said he had mainly supported Democrats and had also contributed this year to Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut on the Democratic side. Both Senators Dodd and McCain were presenters when Mr. Michaels was awarded the Mark Twain prize for humor in Washington in 2004.
"Mr. Michaels noted that Mr. McCain had been a host on the show and acknowledged, 'I have real affection for him.' But he predicted that the show would be tough on the Republican candidate and that he would not give more money to Mr. McCain's campaign now that he is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party."