Kettler on Horner and Carver, 'Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics'

Author: 
William T. Horner, M. Heather Carver
Reviewer: 
Andrew Kettler

William T. Horner, M. Heather Carver. Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics. Jefferson: McFarland, 2017. 208 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7184-0.

Reviewed by Andrew Kettler (University of Toronto) Published on Jhistory (October, 2018) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52745

William T. Horner and M. Heather Carver’s Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics is a short book that explores the influence of Saturday Night Live (SNL) on political discourse and election outcomes. The monograph reads the present political dialogues of SNL regarding the figure of Donald Trump through how SNL deployed narratives about Gerald Ford enough to position his presidency as one led by a clumsy and ineffective buffoon. A manageable publication that applies long block quotations, the monograph reads well alongside other works on SNL, including the academic analysis by Peter M. Robinson in Dance of the Comedians: The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America (2010), the early examination from Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad in Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (1986), and the standard popular work by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller within Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests (2002).

The work begins with a short preface that outlines the importance of SNL within the modern political field. A first chapter similarly explores the place of SNL in the creation of discourses about leading candidates in the 2000, 2008, and 2016 presidential elections. Arguing that the program represents a common subversive trend in the history of theater dating back to the Greeks, the authors explore whether SNL could change perceptions enough to alter recent elections. Admitting that this analysis cannot be done in any strictly replicable manner, the authors instead search long quotations from the producer of SNL, Lorne Michaels, to portray different motives and anecdotal references about public reception.

Ford rises in importance within these quotations, because he was the first president SNL had the ability to skewer during his time in office. The first season of SNL used the characters of Ford, Richard Nixon, and the Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter to create stereotypes that resonated with the public. Rather than continue the general media love affair with Ford that began with his unelected rise to the presidency, SNL linked with later critiques from journalists like Richard Reeves to begin a vetting process of the new president. As part of these discourses, SNL often borrowed from a public concern with Ford’s possible inadequacy, and furthered those anxieties with sketches about his clumsiness on ski slopes and in more mundane daily settings like the family Christmas. Both Reeves and Chevy Chase, who portrayed Ford, have often noted how they came to regret parts of their renderings of Ford, with Reeves later providing that the stoic figure of Ford possibly offered paternal guidance during a difficult time in American history.

Alongside Chase’s famous portrayal of Ford, the authors also explore the importance of jokes about the presidency on “Weekend Update” as a basis for later iterations of the soft news format like the Daily Show. Showing how SNL both emerged from and deviated beyond earlier shows like Laugh-In and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the authors offer that the early writers of SNL, specifically Herb Sargent and Alan Zweibel, crafted an image of Ford as an inadequate leader for comedic effect. The authors also engage their discussions of “Weekend Update” through often describing the formula for jokes told by Jane Curtin and Chase about the later primary races involving Ford, Carter, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan.

The authors probe Ford’s clumsiness deeply, describing the roots of those opinions dating back to accounts from earlier political rivals like Lyndon Johnson and the famous trip that led Ford to stumble when he was leaving Air Force One for a meeting with Anwar Sadat in Salzburg, Austria, in June 1975. That journey, and other minor political gaffes, led SNL to construct an idea that Ford was both unable to lead and nearly incapable of walking. When Chase first premiered his depiction of Ford stumbling around the Oval Office in early November 1975, the indelible image became a dominant legacy of the president. To portray the importance of the actor’s interpretation, the authors often point to the limited media outlets on television of 1975-76, whereby more than twenty million Americans generally watched SNL due to a lack of competition from other outlets before the rise of cable television.

The authors further their discussion of Ford’s bumbling by analyzing the decision of White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen to host an episode of SNL during the presidential campaign. To examine that event of April 17, 1976, the scholars debate Nessen’s decision to appear through the press secretary’s own later perceptions of the value of the experience, which also included taped appearances by Ford. Continued discussions of the importance of “Weekend Update” expand to pair with analysis of the Ford and Carter campaigns of 1976 when Chase furthered his role as Ford and Dan Aykroyd portrayed Carter as overly intellectual.

Despite overwrought jokes about Carter’s famed Playboy interview, SNL helped to create images of the two candidates that defined Ford as hurtfully inept and Carter, though arrogant, as more progressive and politically benign. For academic readers, chapter 10 enters into debates on media theory. Evaluating the influence of different genres on the political sphere, as analyzed by Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini, the authors offer that SNL provided the first waves of influential soft news that is now common in the public sphere.[1] Often wavering, this investigation rarely concludes on how influential SNL actually became, even as the reading of the rise of Sarah Palin and Tina Fey’s famed portrayal highlight the interesting chapter.

The final chapter compares the characters of Carter, Palin, and Trump to define how SNL frequently retains a subversive and nominally apolitical tone through the retention of a trickster identity due to the live performances of the show, which can occlude political meanings through satire due to the momentary characteristics of the enactment. The authors implicitly contend that the figure of Trump has made those subversive elements less obscure, as the buffoonish leader offers increasingly simple jokes for writers. For many on the set of SNL, the initial ratings grab that came with constantly piercing Trump and allowing the candidate to host may have contributed to the populist fervor that led to his election. Despite constant assertions of political neutrality, it seems obvious that SNL leadership now hopes to undo their mistake.

Note

[1]. Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini, “Heeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Democracy!” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 19, 2002), B14.

Citation: Andrew Kettler. Review of Horner, William T.; Carver, M. Heather, Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52745

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