With the presidential election approaching, The Post has asked me to list my 10 favorite “Saturday Night Live” political sketches and explain why they’re my favorites. While I’ve continued to watch the show since I left, all but one of these are from the 15 seasons (1975-1980 and 1985-1995) I worked there. I imagine there are some glaring omissions, notably Tina Fey’s brilliant Sarah Palin impression and Chevy Chase’s impression of Gerald Ford. But, hey, these are my favorites. In no particular order:
This was only the second time Dana Carvey played George H.W. Bush, and his character was still a long way from the iconic “Na ga dah” Bush he would do for next four years.
Jon Lovitz played a hilariously emotionally detached Michael Dukakis. Because the real Dukakis is a good five or six inches shorter than Poppy Bush, Conan O’Brien had the idea of there being a hydraulic lift behind Jon’s podium and supplied the sound effect at the writers’ table. On air you heard the whine of the “lift” as Jon rose — he stood on a small box and controlled his elevation by bending, then straightening, his knees. The “hydraulic lift” brought him up about six inches too high, stopped suddenly with a loud “goosh,” then started up again and brought him down to the right level, with the sound-effects guys perfectly matching what Conan said at the writers’ table.
The line everyone remembers from the sketch is Dukakis’s “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.” I wrote the line, but what made the laugh was the exquisite setup written by Jim Downey and executed brilliantly by Dana and Jan Hooks as a sultry Diane Sawyer.
Bush: . . . Stay on course, a thousand points of light. Well, unfortunately, I guess my time is up.
Sawyer: Mr. Vice President, you still have a minute-20.
Bush: What? That can’t be right. I must have spoken for at least two minutes.
Sawyer: No, just 40 seconds, Mr. Vice President.
This was written by Jim Downey, in my mind the funniest and most insightful writer of political satire in the 42 seasons of the show. Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush hilariously captured what everyone already thought about Bush — inarticulate, not particularly bright. Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore, as written by Downey, unfortunately crystallized what some voters hadn’t noticed — a tendency to be wonkish and somewhat supercilious. When Chris Parnell’s Jim Lehrer asks them to sum up their campaigns in one word, Darrell’s Gore says “lockbox.” Ferrell’s W. says “strategery.”
I was, and still am, a huge fan of Gore’s. I wish that Downey hadn’t written this, because it may have changed 500 votes in Florida. But it was a great piece of writing.
Nixon’s final days (1976)
Tom Davis and I sort of workshopped this piece at a revue theater in Minneapolis. In the SNL sketch, Dan Aykroyd played Richard Nixon with a mustache, because Danny had a mustache. Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner played son-in-law David Eisenhower and daughter Julie Nixon, and Belushi played Kissinger. And the great Madeline Kahn played first lady Pat Nixon writing in her diary about “those stormy final days.”
The sketch was based on Post reporting team Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book “The Final Days,” which describes a besotted Nixon roaming the halls of the White House at night, talking to the portraits of his predecessors. Danny had the gift of bringing a three-dimensional humanity to his characters, and you almost feel sorry for Nixon when Danny says to Lincoln’s portrait: “Abe, you were lucky. They shot you!”
“Why, Abe? Why me?” he continues. The portrait’s lips move, saying, “Because you’re such a schmuck.” At least, in our script. But the censors made us change it to “dip” because, they insisted, “schmuck” means “penis” in Yiddish. This was 1976, and we lost that one.
Danny again refused to shave his mustache to play a president without one. This was early in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when he was seen as supremely competent in every way. Danny and Tom and I wrote this call-in show hosted by Billy Murray playing Walter Cronkite. At one point, Danny talks down a guy named Peter who’s having a bad acid trip (played by Tom).
Peter (on phone): They were these little orange pills.
President Jimmy Carter: Were they barrel shaped?
Peter (on phone): Uh . . . yes.
President Jimmy Carter: Okay, right, you did some orange sunshine, Peter.
Eventually, Carter adds: “Just remember you’re a living organism on this planet, and you’re very safe. You’ve just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside and listen to some music, Okay? Do you have any Allman Brothers?”
An Oval Office sketch from the Iran-contra period. Phil Hartman plays Ronald Reagan as a cunning and tireless taskmaster who pretends to be an affable, doddering old man when the press is present. The moment reporters leave the room, he claps his hands, yells, “Okay, get back in here,” and his lackeys — Caspar Weinberger, et al. — run in and quickly take their seats as Phil barks out orders about laundering money and funneling it to Iran.
This was an idea from Robert Smigel, who voices Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Robert and I did a first draft, and Downey and George Meyer, who went on to be one of the top writers on “The Simpsons,” kicked in. Robert had my favorite joke. When Reagan’s aide comes in to tell him it’s time to pose with the Girl Scout who sold the most cookies, Phil angrily says, “This is the part of the job I hate!”
Bush cold openings (1988-92)
One of Dana’s first attempts at George H.W. Bush was in a 1988 New Hampshire Republican primary debate. Dan Aykroyd returned to the show for a one-time performance as an aggrieved Bob Dole resentful of Bush’s upper-class background: “I didn’t have the convertible for graduation, the sterling silver cocktail shaker or the machine that serves the tennis balls at you.”
I got to play Pat Robertson in that piece, and Nora Dunn did a very funny Pat Schroeder as the moderator. But Danny stole the show when he threatened to shove the pen Dole always holds in his bad hand through Bush’s neck.
Dana’s Bush was serviceable, but as the campaign progressed, so did his Bush. By the time H.W. became president, Dana could get laughs at will. We knew we could open any show with Dana as Bush discussing any big news story. Usually, Downey and I wrote these cold openings, but other writers and Dana would kick in. When Dana’s Bush announced the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he told the nation that “if we do go to war, I can assure you it will not be another Vietnam because we have learned well the simple lesson of Vietnam. Stay out of Vietnam.” That was Bob Odenkirk’s line and it got an enormous laugh. But as I said, Dana could get laughs at will with the character.
Downey and I once wrote a cold opening about the drug epidemic. Dana holds up a plastic bag. “This crack was bought right here, in the White House, three feet from this desk. Drug problem, worse than we ever thought. Marijuana being grown in the Rose Garden. Millie, the Bush dog, bringing in crack pipe from the South Lawn. It’s baaaad! Baaaad!”
But Dana was getting so many extra laughs along the way in dress rehearsal that the audience was losing the through line. Jim and I asked Dana to get fewer laughs on the air show. Dana completely understood and delivered a perfect performance live from New York.
“The Amazing Colossal President” (also known as “The Pepsi Syndrome”) (1979)
This sketch by Downey, Davis and me aired the Saturday after the Three Mile Island meltdown. The idea was simple. Billy Murray spills a Pepsi on the control board of a nuclear reactor, shorting out the board and causing a meltdown in the reactor’s core. They send Garrett Morris as a female maintenance worker to go into the core and mop up the floor. Danny as Carter comes in a little later to inspect the core — after all, he’s a nuclear engineer — wearing yellow boots as a precaution.
That week’s host, Richard Benjamin, as the reactor’s spokesman, assures the media throng that everything is fine. Then Rodney Dangerfield (played by Rodney Dangerfield) breaks the news to Laraine Newman’s Rosalynn Carter that her husband has grown very big. How big? “He’s big, I’m tellin’ ya. Let me put it this way. He’s so big he could have an affair with the Lincoln Tunnel.”
We cut to a very contentious press conference where Dick Benjamin is asked, “Is it true that the president is over a hundred feet tall?” “No!” says Benjamin adamantly. “Is it true that the president is over 90 feet tall?” “No comment!” Then, through a large window (a green screen), the Amazing Colossal President appears. Carter announces that he’s okay and introduces the equally colossal maintenance worker, Miss Violet Crawford, and when he announces their intention to marry, Rosalynn faints.
I believe I’m the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who’s ever played a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Paul Simon of Illinois) in a nationally televised comedy sketch.
Jack Handey, who rarely wrote political sketches, conceived this one. (Jack wrote non-topical, timeless classics like “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” and “Toonces, the Driving Cat” and voiced his “Deep Thoughts.”) Jack’s idea was that the senators on the committee, all men, would ask Clarence Thomas (played by a deadpan Tim Meadows) how to pick up women.
As you’ll recall, Americans were glued to their TV sets during the dramatic, unprecedented confirmation hearings. When we opened on Kevin Nealon as Chairman Joe Biden, there was immediate laughter and applause.
During the sketch, there’s reference to the testimony that Thomas had about watching pornographic movies with Anita Hill.
Sen. Howell Heflin (Chris Farley): Do you think hardcore porno is the way to go? Because I feel women prefer softer porn.
Biden: Senator Thurmond?
Sen. Strom Thurmond (Dana Carvey): I agree with Senator Heflin. Yeah, that’s right! The women like something with more stories and costumes, that’ll transport them to another place and time. That’s right! . . . Women don’t like close-ups of oversized genitalia! That’s just never gonna turn ’em on!
Like many of Jack’s ideas, the silliness of male senators asking Thomas for tips on picking up women struck at a deeper truth about an all-male Judiciary Committee grappling with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
I remember bringing Dana into Lorne Michaels’s office to show him a tape of Ross Perot. This was before most Americans knew who he was. After Dana watched it, he said, “Oh my God, he’s a fully formed, three-dimensional comic character!”
I wrote a piece where Dana as Perot talks to the American people and offers to be president for free. He’ll even supply the plane. But if he brings the deficit down, he gets a cut. On the Monday after that show, when Dana and I each arrived at our offices on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the receptionist told us that Perot had called for Dana to compliment him on the impression.
We put a call in to Perot, each of us on a different extension. When we got him, Perot told Dana: “Tell you what we do. You get on that costume and makeup and go around the country. Then they’ll be two of me! Cover twice the territory!” Dana kept trying to introduce me, the writer, but Perot clearly wasn’t interested. He just kept repeating the joke (or serious pitch — I’m not sure which).
The problem for our ’92 debate sketch was that both of Dana’s characters — Perot and Bush — were on the stage with Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton at the same time. We solved the problem by pre-taping Dana as Perot for his answers and putting David Spade in Perot makeup for the wide shot when the candidates entered.
My favorite joke in the piece was a slightly surreal moment when each candidate looks at one of the others and we see what they’re seeing. Bush looks at Clinton and sees him in long hair and headband smoking pot. Clinton looks over at Bush and sees him dressed as a prim little old lady. Bush and Clinton look over at Perot and see one of the Munchkins from the Lollipop Guild. There’s nothing like trenchant satire!
Al Franken is a U.S. senator from Minnesota and a former writer and featured player for “Saturday Night Live.”