The Long Love Affair Between 'Saturday Night Live' and Politics

From Giuliani's post-9/11 appearance to McCain's non-use of sex puns, 'SNL' and politics go hand in hand.

by Jenna Marotta
Nov 7 2015, 5:30pm

Tonight, when Donald Trump hosts Saturday Night Live, we can expect jokes about how his xenophobia has endured despite his marriages to Eastern Europeans, his ill-fated attempt to trademark the phrase "You're fired," his brand new feud with John Oliver, his Scrooge McDuck–like lust for gold, and his inability to pronounce the first letter in the word huge. And hey, get a look at his hair!

According to the GOP presidential candidate and reality-show star, he vetoed a couple of "risqué" sketches, so the chances that the show will have much edge are pretty much nil. But his mere presence on the long-running sketch show has already generated a lot of controversy: Activists have called for SNL to "dump Trump" because of his anti-immigration views, and a Latino group has offered a $5,000 bounty to any audience member who will yell accusations of racism at the host.

Since SNL debuted in 1976, politicians have descended onto the late-night institution in one of three capacities. An elected official might be impersonated by a celebrity (Larry David's Bernie Sanders) or, more typically, a cast member (Norm Macdonald's Bob Dole, Will Ferrell's George W. Bush), unless he or she is available for a brief cameo (Ralph Nader, Mike Huckabee) or, even rarer, a hosting gig (Ed Koch, Jesse Jackson). 2016 Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton stopped by the show a month ago, where she played a bartender named Val opposite her ferociously ambitious doppelgänger, Kate McKinnon.

Trump himself previously hosted SNL in 2004, back when he was merely the overlord of The Apprentice—but that was just a bit of corporate synergy, considering both shows are on NBC. (After Trump's inflammatory comments about Mexico, the network pulled him off the show and later replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Trump is a controversial guest, but American politics has always been a part of SNL's DNA—whatever the political landscape turns out, the show rolls with. The first impression of a government official occurred in episode four, when Chevy Chase was cast as then-president Gerald Ford, "committing all manner of trips, flails, and lurches," as the New York Times recounted. The Ford Administration responded to the parodying by sending press secretary Ron Nessen to host an episode that included a taped clip from President Ford. Chase's impersonation is still one of the show's most enduring, along with Tina Fey's take on Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign. The all-time MVP of SNL political impersonations is Darrell Hammond, the show's longest-running cast member (1995–2011) and current announcer. Hammond, who Michaels dissuaded from pitching original characters so he could focus exclusively on learning to imitate public figures, played Bill Clinton as a sly dog, Al Gore as a stiff bore, John McCain as a seen-it-all war hawk, and Dick Cheney as a robotic crank. At times, the line between parody and reality blurs—politicians are campaigning when they appear on the show in attempts to make themselves seem likable, relatable, or funny, and former SNL writer/performer Al Franken is now a senator from Minnesota. The show is such an important platform that John McCain and Sarah Palin appeared on the show less than 55 hours before polls opened on election day in 2008—not that that last-minute schtick helped them win over voters.

Far and away the best appearance by a politician on SNL came in the first post-9/11 episode, when then New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opened the episode alongside the firefighters and police officers who had responded when planes hit the World Trade Center. "Even as we grieve for our loved ones, it is up to us to face the future with renewed determination," Giuliani said. "Our hearts are broken but they are beating, and they are beating stronger than ever." Then showrunner Lorne Michaels asked Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" to which he replied, "Why start now?" relieving all the tension in the room. It was a human moment that was bigger than either comedy or campaigning.

I was in the room with McCain as preparations were underway for his previous guest spot that May. It was the final day of my internship at SNL, where I'd spent 36 hours a week for the previous four semesters. On that spring Saturday afternoon, SNL's writers were still deciding how to best utilize the presidential candidate. Every episode of SNL begins with a "cold open," a sketch that ends when someone breaks the fourth wall and shouts, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" It is considered an honor to be the person who looks into the camera and formally introduces the show. Since McCain was running for president (and many writers had fond memories of collaborating with him when he hosted six year previously), initially he was going to deliver the famous tagline.

SNL's scripts often align with the calendar, and a graduation sketch seemed apropos for the last episode preceding a summer hiatus. Thus the cold open took place on commencement day at the Pounder School for Students with Special Needs, an academy where no one dares "tease you because you have a funny name." This meant the show about three dozen extras to play graduating students, and the group group included everyone from then-SNL writer and future Weekend Update co-anchor Colin Jost (as Harry Charles Wombus) to myself (as Eileen Dover). During that afternoon's run-through, Senator McCain portrayed the Pounder School's principal, tasked with enunciating a litany of shoehorned sex puns. Perhaps McCain felt uncomfortable uttering euphemisms about masturbation and cunnilingus, for he instead appeared seated at a desk in front of an American flag later in the episode, leaving commencement duties to host Steve Carell, and the show went on.

It might seem odd that Trump would have similar worries about appearing presidential—after all, here is a man given to say things like, "I have a good relationship with the blacks," and "If Ivanka weren't my daughter, I'd perhaps be dating her." But as the campaign goes on and he remains near the top of the polls, the Donald has become more of a traditional candidate, commissioning ads and hiring staff. People may be upset by what they see as SN's legitimizing of a candidate with some odious views, but the show didn't make Trump popular—America did that. And whatever the political climate of the country is, it's SNL's job to point at it, and laugh.

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Saturday Night Live airs tonight at 11:35 PM EST.

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Jenna Marotta