Open season on politicians at 'SNL'
"Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels -- Finding a comedy hook with the president has been a challenge.
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"Saturday Night Live" returns this weekend to assume its prominent place in the late-night satirical commentariat leading up to another presidential election, and Lorne Michaels has been giving a great deal of thought to who will play which politician this season.
The show's creator and guiding hand (as executive producer) for most of its history, Mr. Michaels said in an interview in his office at Rockefeller Center that he has looked forward to campaign years going back to 1976, when Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter were running for the White House.
"We had that line that year: 'I was told there'd be no math,' which defined something," Mr. Michaels recalled. "It was our first time through it; we came on after Watergate. Politics was something we felt we needed to pay attention to."
The show's take on the eight elections since have affected many of the candidates -- and the performers who have played them. Getting to be a Bush (Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell) or a Clinton (Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond, Amy Poehler) or a Palin (Tina Fey) has elevated the careers of several cast members.
This year Mr. Michaels confirmed that the show had retained the services of Jason Sudeikis, who has been playing both Mitt Romney and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. ("They're never photographed together, so, no problem," Mr. Michaels said.)
Mr. Sudeikis had been rumored to be part of this year's "SNL" diaspora: Andy Samberg, Abby Elliott and Kristen Wiig have all departed. "Right now the idea is that Jason will go through at least until January," Mr. Michaels said, although he did not rule out getting a full season out of Mr. Sudeikis.
That leaves the question of whom Mr. Sudeikis will face in debate sketches. Fred Armisen has been the show's President Barack Obama since 2008, but Mr. Michaels said he would be relying on Jay Pharoah, who joined the cast in 2010.
"Jay has been doing Obama in his act this summer, and Jay is coming into his own," Mr. Michaels said. "I just thought it might be time to shake it up."
Mr. Armisen will still have an enormous amount to do, Mr. Michaels said, describing that 10-year player as "the backbone of the show now."
That might also describe Seth Meyers, a cast member and the show's head writer who was also the subject of rumors this summer that he would replace Regis Philbin as Kelly Ripa's sidekick on "Live."
"I personally didn't think I'd be losing Seth," Mr. Michaels said, "though I read that I could be."
With three vacancies Mr. Michaels was compelled to recruit new players. He turned to the Second City troupe in Chicago, long a pipeline to "SNL." Several performers were invited to audition on the "SNL" stage, where they get about seven minutes to perform characters, deliver impressions and be funny. "Part of it is just how they stand on that stage," Mr. Michaels said. "Can they take the stress of that?"
He came up with three survivors: Aidy Bryant, Cicely Strong and Tim Robinson. They will join the holdover cast and the guest host Seth MacFarlane (creator of "The Family Guy" and the man behind the film "Ted") for the 38th season premiere Saturday. "SNL" is returning a week earlier than usual, specifically to jump on the political news. That means references to the conventions, Mr. Michaels said. "We have at least three different takes on Clint," he said, referring to Clint Eastwood's memorable colloquy with furniture. (Bill Hader will play him.)
Taran Killam, who has been emerging as a breakout player, is Mr. Michaels' likely choice for Mr. Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, although he said that character may or may not appear this week.
But Mr. Michaels acknowledged that Mr. Obama has been a challenge. What is his comedy hook? "So far we haven't found it. My joke is always that he's the first Canadian president," said Mr. Michaels, a Toronto native. "He wants to think it through, do it in the fairest way possible and be thoughtful. And be a little distant, which I totally identify with, obviously."
Mr. Romney? "He's easy to play because of that caution of his."
The show's overall take on the election will continue to take shape. "We won't know where we're going until the first debate," he said.
Mr. Michaels' input will be more as editor than dictator.
"We talk it down," he said, adding, "If it's funny, we'll use it. If it isn't, we won't."
First Published September 14, 2012 12:00 am