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'SNL' wants laughs, not votes

The satirical show has tightened its focus on politics, attracting more viewers and generating criticism.

October 09, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," has a message for those convinced that the program's presidential campaign sketches have a secret political agenda.

"You know, they're jokes," he said. "And when people are confronted with jokes, quite often they will over-think it."

But as Michaels and his cast prepare to pull off six live shows in the next four weeks -- including three prime-time specials, beginning tonight -- "SNL's" creator doesn't hold out much hope that the show's political parodies will be viewed with equanimity.

"You see it on a partisan level now, where people have no sense of humor about the other side," he said, sitting in his 17th floor office in Rockefeller Plaza on Tuesday evening, munching on popcorn as he prepared for another late night.

"Saturday Night Live" is feeling the blow-back keenly this year. Viewership greatly increased when the NBC program put the 2008 race center stage, skewering the fawning news coverage of Sen. Barack Obama and spoofing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a cheerfully incoherent candidate.

An average of 8.3 million people tuned in for the first three shows this fall, 48% more than during the same period last year and 13% more than during the fall of 2004. That's far more than tune into other politically satirical programs, such as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which has averaged 1.8 million viewers a night this year.

But "SNL's" popular political sketches have also generated vociferous complaints from across the political spectrum. In the spring, the program was credited with helping shift public opinion in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s favor, especially after she made an appearance on the show right before the Ohio and Texas primaries. More recently, Tina Fey's doppelganger impersonation of Palin has emerged as a political Rorschach test: seen as all too true by gleeful Democrats and as a partisan hit by Republicans.

Michaels rejects the notion that the show favors any candidate.

"If we put on screeds, we would have no audience," he said. "If you want partisan, that's what Comedy Central is for."

He's amused by the influence attributed to the late-night variety show.

"We enhance the decision-making process," he said. "But I don't think people go, 'Oh, I saw that sketch, and now I'm determined to vote this way or that way.' "

The intense scrutiny of "Saturday Night Live" this season rivals the daily charges of bias that confront major news organizations as they cover the campaign. Last month, Carly Fiorina, an advisor to Sen. John McCain, called Fey's portrayal of Palin sexist and dismissive. A week later, Republicans cried foul when they learned that Democratic Senate candidate and former "SNL" cast member Al Franken helped conceive a sketch that mocked McCain.

"It's like playing basketball where people are calling their own fouls, and every time down the court somebody's blowing a whistle," said Seth Meyers, one of the show's head writers.

In fact, said cast members, their only slant is toward humor.

"Trying to take fair hits is kind of the shared collective of the place," said Amy Poehler, who plays Clinton. "But really, individually, everyone is just trying to be funny. The minute you sit down and say, 'I'm going to write an important political piece,' you're doomed."

The latest uproar came this week, when NBC temporarily pulled one of Saturday’s sketches off its website, triggering a storm of conspiracy theories in the blogosphere.

The skit, a mock news conference, lampooned President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders for their handling of the credit crisis. It also took aim at Herb and Marion Sandler, a real couple who built up their savings-and-loan by offering adjustable rate mortgages, then cashed out before the market collapsed.

The Sandlers weren't too happy about the sketch, particularly the caption under their name that read, "People who should be shot."

The sudden removal of the skit from the show's website prompted conservative bloggers to speculate that "SNL" had caved to pressure from the couple, who are major donors to liberal causes. The show's online comment board was bombarded with posts accusing it of being in the pocket of the political left.

Michaels said the sketch, written by veteran "SNL" scribe Jim Downey, was temporarily taken down because the executive producer did not realize when it aired that the Sandlers were real people.

"I can assure you this: They are very, very real," Michaels said dryly after speaking to the couple, noting that they did not ask him to remove the sketch. "I pleaded incompetence, which is not a thing I do often."

An edited version of the video that omitted the legally dicey elements -- the offending caption and a reference to the Sandlers' "corrupt activities" -- was re-posted online Tuesday.

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