Who says Americans want change? Once again, viewers are voting with their remotes and choosing ”SNL” as their primary source of political and pop culture satire. Spend a week on the set and you’ll see why
The 17th-floor office belonging to Saturday Night Live executive producer and principal architect Lorne Michaels is not huge, but it is sizable. You could fit 10 people in it easily. Twenty, though, would be cozy, and 30 a definite crush — which is a shame, as that is roughly the number of performers, writers, and producers who are paying Michaels a visit this late Monday afternoon in March. The purpose of the get-together is to introduce this week’s host, Enchanted star Amy Adams, to the cast and writers, who then pitch her sketch ideas. As this is the first staff get-together of the week, the chatty hubbub is considerable. Everyone quiets down, however, when Michaels starts to talk.
”Show 3,” drawls the producer. ”Amy Adams is the host, and there will be no presidential candidates, as far as we know.” After that brief introduction, the ideas begin to fly. ”How about someone gets an allergic reaction at an outer-space-themed restaurant and the waiters refuse to break character?” suggests head writer and cast member Seth Meyers. Assorted ”Yeah, I could see that”-type snickers ripple through the crowd. Kenan Thompson pitches an idea in which ”an old lady tries to sell a masturbation instruction manual.” The reaction from the room is a mix of ”Go for it” glee and ”Ewwwww!” Writer Colin Jost chimes in with something called ”BBQ OR.” ”It would be about a restaurant that also performed surgical operations,” he explains. This inspires both cackles and looks of mild confusion. At least half of the pitches suggested today will never be heard of again. And only a handful will survive the show’s brief but ruthless production process to be broadcast on Saturday. The hope among those present is that the skits that do make the cut will further enhance the reputation of a show that has grabbed both headlines and ratings since returning from its writers’-strike-caused hiatus.
In an election where ”change” has been the million-dollar buzzword, Saturday Night Live has proved it’s still a formidable political and pop culture force, despite the fact that it has barely changed one iota in the 33 years since Michaels midwifed it into existence. SNL‘s first poststrike show on Feb. 23 — featuring the debut of Fred Armisen as Barack Obama, in a zeitgeist-tapping skit lampooning the media’s love affair with the Illinois senator — lured a season-high 7.5 million viewers, proving that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert haven’t cornered the market on topical political humor. The following week, Hillary Clinton, who had already provoked what chief Clinton impressionist Amy Poehler describes as a ”crazy media frenzy” by name-checking the aforementioned SNLskit in a debate, stopped by to stand side by side with her doppelgänger. (”It doesn’t matter who it is, it’s really weird to stand next to someone when you’re dressed up like them,” says Poehler. ”I don’t think that will ever not get awkward.”) Three days later, Clinton won the Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island primaries, leading more than one news outlet to credit SNL for her comeback.
It’s all served as a reminder that SNL is at its most funny — and most important — in an election year. Poehler’s Clinton — a wonky bore with a Joker-esque smile — belongs to an honorable tradition of SNL caricatures that have helped frame a politician’s public persona, stretching back to Chevy Chase’s take on Gerald Ford as Commander-in-Klutz. Michaels was so aggrieved at the comedic opportunities that had been lost to the show during the writers’ strike that he resolved to broadcast four shows in a row for the first time since 1976. It’s not a moment too soon. ”When we were coming back from the strike, I caught the subway with Amy,” says cast member Andy Samberg. ”We stopped at one of those coffee trucks and we went to pay and the guy’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? Welcome back, we missed you!”’