Candidates Versus Comedians
Politicians have been a ripe target for humorists for generations. Mark Twain, for example, quipped that “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” Will Rogers once said, "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you." As long as we have had political representatives, we have had people making fun of them. Television, however, took the art of spoofing politicians to a whole new level. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour both made fun of the state of our politics and of our politicians, but both shows tended to be fairly gentle in their critiques. Then came Saturday Night Live (SNL), and the gloves came off.
The impact of the 1976 season of SNL on the presidential race between incumbent Gerald Ford and political newcomer Jimmy Carter is the subject of a new book written by the husband-and-wife team of Bill Horner and Heather Carver. Horner, a teaching professor of political science at MU, brought his knowledge of the American presidency and the impact of entertainment media on politics to the table, while Carver, chair of the MU Theatre Department, looked at the performative aspects of the show on the candidates and the audience. Horner says the idea for the book came from a post he saw online several years ago that claimed SNL had affected the outcome of the 1976 election.
“I went home and told Heather this was an interesting premise,” Horner says. “Could it have affected the election? The argument we make in the book is that if there was an election of which SNL could have affected the outcome, it would have been 1976 because of the size of the audience, because it was a close election, and because of the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Ford.”
A Portrayal, Not an Impersonation
Horner says Chevy Chase already had become famous for his pratfalls on SNL, so he decided to continue that routine while portraying former President Ford. Horner says Chase was basically riffing on news footage of Ford stumbling down wet stairs after a long flight to Austria and made that the central part of his portrayal—no hair, no makeup, and no Michigan accent—Chase’s Ford was just a bumbling idiot. Horner says that image of Ford dogged him forever.
“If you ask people about Ford now, a lot of people will tell you he was clumsy, and that is in large part due to Chase’s portrayal of Ford,” Horner says, which is ironic, given that Ford was captain of his high school football team, was a center and linebacker for the University of Michigan Wolverines, and turned down several offers to play in the National Football League after college. Horner and Carver turned to schema theory to explain this in their book—the idea that people create mental shortcuts to help process information. In the same vein, a lot of people think of Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin when the latter’s name comes up, or they think of Dana Carvey when talking about former President George H.W. Bush.
Removing the Fourth Wall
For the book, Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics, Carver and Horner interviewed people associated with SNL, including show creator Lorne Michaels, performers Dan Aykroyd and Garrett Morris, and show writer Tom Davis, as well as Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen and former President Carter.
Carver says the fact the show was live made all of the difference in how it influenced the audience. “Lorne Michaels talks about SNL as theater, and even though it’s sketch comedy, it’s still improvisational, it’s still the concept of having the audience feel they are a part of the show,” she says. Because the audience feels like they are part of the experience of a live production, they are left with lasting impressions, and those lasting impressions likely helped to doom Ford’s chances against a relative political novice like Carter. However, once Carter won the election and became the “establishment,” SNL quickly changed its tune.
“Lorne Michaels calls SNL a pressure valve for society and says they are anti-establishment, and as soon as Carter was elected, they turned on him,” Horner says. In fact, Horner says he’s starting work on a new book that compares how SNL treated Carter to how the show has been treating President Donald Trump, because he says there are a number of parallels between how the two men got elected. For example, both men won the presidency without party support and despite active resistance from major establishment players. Horner says SNL will be a great way to tie the two stories together.
Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics will be available this fall.