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America's 'Saturday Night' Date With Monica

Monica Lewinsky, AP Monica Lewinsky, left, talks with Darrell Hammond, who portrays President Clinton during a skit on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." (AP)
By Tom Shales
Monday, May 10, 1999; Page C1

Ever the shrinking violet make that, never the shrinking violet Monica Lewinsky popped up over the weekend in what might be called her TV comedy debut, unless you consider any or all of her other appearances laughable. She was a surprise guest star on NBC's venerable and impudent "Saturday Night Live."

Actually, the surprise got out in advance during the week, after Lewinsky and actress Camryn Manheim were involved in a much-publicized contretemps and hullabaloo at a Manhattan restaurant. She was also spotted in the GE Building of Rockefeller Center, from which "SNL" originates.

On the show itself, Lewinsky first appeared in what's called the "cold opening" (before the credits) in a sketch that starred "SNL" regular Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton.

Clinton is sitting on a White House couch with dog Buddy thinking about his future: "I just can't wait to get out of Washington." Then comes a dream sequence set in Malibu a couple years hence. Clinton has become a talent agent whose clients include Keanu Reeves. His wife calls from offstage: "You here, Bill?" Clinton answers in the affirmative and in walks Lewinsky. "Hi, handsome," she says with a smooch.

He asks her how work went that day. "Everyone gets so mad at me when I turn the wrong letters," Lewinsky pouts, implying she's replaced Vanna White on "Wheel of Fortune." Clinton gives her yet another copy of "Leaves of Grass" and then says he has to leave for lunch with Vernon Jordan. In fact, Tim Meadows as Jordan had entered earlier with two blond hookers, inviting the president out for yet more extramarital activity.

When the new Mrs. Clinton points out that 6 p.m. is a little late for lunch, Clinton says, "Come on, don't you trust

me?" To which Lewinsky replies, "In your dreams, you big creep."

Then Lewinsky got to scream into the camera those immortal words "Live from New York, it's 'Saturday Night'!"

It must be conceded that Lewinsky did a good job in the sketch, not blowing any lines and maintaining a certain poise. If anything was shrinking, it was her clothing; she looked extremely chubby of face and fanny. But, as the saying goes, she acquitted herself well.

Lewinsky got a polite reception from the audience, though hardly the ovation reserved for the show's guest host, actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who put in a tremendously energetic and engaging performance throughout the night, even during material that was weak or embarrassing.

The world's most famous former White House intern returned later in the show for a second sketch, "The Ladies' Man," with Meadows in his recurring role as a salacious radio talk jock. Generously or obliviously, he referred to Lewinsky as "a very sexy and very special lady who has done more to educate this country on the ways of love than anyone else on the planet."

He also said to Lewinsky, "Oh, you are lookin' good, lady," about which there could be debate. But Lewinsky did look both pleased as punch and tickled pink to be basking in the glow of lights and cameras, much as she did when interviewed by Barbara Walters on ABC. This is one of the most discomforting things about Lewinsky's protracted romp in the limelight; she doesn't seem to know what she's famous for. She always has the smirk of the cat who swallowed the canary and couldn't be happier about it.

She appeared to be giving her all in the sketches, perhaps considering the show an on-air audition for some further TV work. The "Ladies' Man" sketch had Lewinsky giving advice to listeners who phoned in questions about relationships. "It's not a good idea to get involved with people you work with, believe me," she told one caller. Asked about phone sex, she said, "I did have phone sex with this one guy." Meadows leered and suggested they refer to that man as "William Howard Taft."

Her advice about phone sex was "If you do it, don't tell anybody about it," which was the cue for a call from John Goodman as Linda Tripp, a role Goodman has played, hilariously, several times on the show this season. Only Goodman's voice was heard. As Tripp, he said he was "at a phone booth outside Dunkin' Donuts on the Jersey Turnpike" and that the occasional noises heard were not from a phone tap but from people throwing bottles and cans at her as they drove by.

"SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels sounded pleased and relieved about the show when reached at his home in New York yesterday. Early overnight Nielsens indicate that the Gooding-Lewinsky show got an 8.5 rating and a 22 percent share of the available viewing audience; its season average has been a 7 rating and 18 share. At least 10 million people were watching.

Referring to the relatively mild applause Lewinsky got from the studio audience, Michaels said: "I thought it was a nice reception. We didn't know if there were some people who would boo." Michaels said talks with Lewinsky about a possible appearance began three weeks ago and that she was paid only union scale for the appearance somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 before taxes.

"She did a very good job," Michaels said. "I only dealt with her on a professional level. She was a little anxious because she's had some bad experiences lately in the media, but she came through."

Those bad experiences included tough questioning from co-host Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show, after which Lewinsky fled from the press, canceling numerous other interviews and presumably going into a major sulk. There were no jokes about that on "SNL," nor any jokes, really, at Lewinsky's expense. "My job is to make people who come on the show look good," Michaels said. "She put herself at risk and trusted us, and I think she came across well."

Michaels said he wouldn't decline to answer any questions about Lewinsky. Okay, then didn't he think she looked fat? "I'm going to decline on that one," Michaels replied. However, he was laughing, and he did not refuse to do any further interviews.

On the matter of Lewinsky, one could bemoan at this point the fact that notoriety has become the same thing as fame in America and that one can earn celebrityhood in scandalous and nefarious ways. And we could invoke for the one millionth time Andy Warhol's line about everybody getting 15 minutes of fame and worry about those who try to stretch it out to a half-hour or more.

But at the end of the day or the beginning of the day, if that's when you're reading this the facts are, it was a funny show and Lewinsky did a good job. Let's face it: She's not going to go away. Not willingly. Not without a fight. For every door she may close in a Matt Lauer's face, a hundred others may open unto her.

Such are the lessons, if indeed any lessons there be, of Monica Lewinsky and "Slutterday Night Live."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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