The Saturday Night Live primetime election specials will make a comeback -- whose momentum will it ruin this year?

NBC has announced that, as they did four years ago, Saturday Night Live would make an early return to the airwaves to tackle the presidential election. Two primetime specials were announced for September 20 and September 27 (both Thursdays), and while we know that Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg have left the show, will Jason Sudeikis delay his departure to play Mitt Romney? Or will Romney actually show up?

But more importantly: It was the SNL specials four years ago that shed a different kind of spotlight on then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin by way of a devastating (and Emmy-winning) impression by accidental doppelgänger Tina Fey. Will the SNL writers and performers duplicate the skewering commentary from 2008 with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? And who is going to come out of this looking worse?

If you'll recall, Palin became an overnight sensation for the GOP when she was announced as Sen. John McCain's running mate. But she had, well, problems. (See: Game Change.) And the "objective" news media were helpless to stop it, because when they're being called names like "the lame-stream media" by a political candidate who is starting to look bad when she says something dumb in front of the camera, they simply cannot appear to take sides. As a result, Palin's gaffes were largely written off as unfair attacks.

And then, in early October, Tina Fey happened. Palin was not attacked -- she was faced with her own words, and there was nothing she could do about it. And 9 million people who watched those specials (plus all the people who watched the videos online after they aired) saw what the news couldn't show them: the McCain-Palin ticket was fatally flawed. The honeymoon was over.

John McCain, a seasoned veteran of the military and the Senate, was made to look old and floundering in the face of Democratic rock star Barack Obama and his running mate (Joe Biden, a man who had the same lengthy political career as McCain plus an inability to control his mouth, but didn't overshadow the person who was actually running for president). One sketch from those 2008 specials taking on the debate that aired that week showed Darrell Hammond, as McCain, wandering around the stage as if he'd forgotten where he was, a bad side effect of the incredibly awkward "town hall" debate format that had both candidates, um, wandering around the stage.

And while SNL is often accused of having a liberal bias, Obama is not immune to being mocked. Now that he has one term as president under his belt, SNL is going to be a very different experience for him, especially after this economical bummer summer. But will he show up to look like a good sport? As a candidate, he showed up for a cameo on a 2007 episode. (Back when everyone loved him and had those high expectations.) Hillary Clinton also stopped by Studio 8H during primary season, appearing alongside Amy Poehler while Poehler performed an impression of her. (That's a good sport.) McCain and Palin both showed up in the fall of 2008, knowing that if they didn't look like they were in on the joke, they'd look like they can't take the joke. And occupants of the White House need a thick skin (and a decent sense of humor) on top of all those fancy qualifications. (It should be noted that Palin also showed up during Fey's impression of her, but she seemed significantly less amused by it.) As of April, Romney is apparently still on the fence about making a cameo, but he should probably consider leaning over to the "showing up" side if he wants to convince potential voters that he isn't the uppity white bread caricature that Sudeikis has turned him into.

A very important player in all of this will be Jim Downey. Downey has been one of SNL's most established and prolific writers when it comes to political sketches, and he has been writing for the show on and off (mostly on) since the show began. He is probably the best known for being the most well-known conservative voice on the writing staff; author of Live From New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live Tom Shales said Downey was a Republican, former head writer Adam McKay called him "right wing." However, Downey himself has claimed to be a "registered Democrat" who said in a 2008 New York Times article that he'd vote for Obama if he won the candidacy over Hillary Clinton. Either way, Jim Downey does not discriminate when he writes a political sketch. If there is something to make fun of or illuminate on any part of the political spectrum, he will do it. No one is safe from Jim Downey. Assuming he will be on hand to write for these specials, we can bet that both Obama and Romney will come out of September with a few scars.

And then, the show comes back for the season, when the fun can really begin.

Fun fact: Jim Downey is the brother of Robert Downey and the uncle of Robert Downey Jr., who was a cast member during the 1985-1965 season.

NBC to do 'Saturday Night Live' election primetime specials [Deadline]



  1. The premiere of the 1965 SNL season was AWESOME.  It was basically a re-run of Leave It To Beaver for about 30 minutes, followed by some news, and then it was this hilarious thingy with lots of black circles and shapes on it, for like, another hour.  I couldn’t stop watching!

    1.  It’s an obvious typo in the last paragraph. RD, Jr., was indeed a part of the SNL cast from 1985-1986.

      1. oh, ok- I thought they were referring to RD Jr.- Man, I was confused- and I also didn’t know Sr was part of the cast, so it may have been obvious to you, but not me, because I’m culturally deficient.
        Thanks for clearing it up for me though!

          1. It’s true.  I don’t remember anything he did on the show except for a sketch about a bunch of models crash landing on a desert island; he played a male model.  Don’t know what that’s the sketch of his that sticks with me, lol … 

    2.  That cast also had Anthony Michael Hall (17 years old at the time) and Joan Cusack.  Strange days.

    3. He sniffed so much coke that he fell into a wormhole and came out in 1965, promptly giving man-birth to himself.

      Robert Downey Jr. is the ouroboros

  2. I doubt the premise of the OP.  Palin worked because Fey is a rare talent and also, serendiptously (sp?) Fey has a strong resemblance.  Plus… Palin is a bit of an easy target.

    I’ve not seen anything w/ what they’ve done w/ Obama/Biden/Romney that makes me think it’ll be nearly as funny as Fey/Palin.  In fact the current political stuff has been brutal, painful at times.   Armisen is great on Portlandia, but his Obama is terrible/boring.

    1. I dunno, Romney seems like an easy target, seeing as how Romney and Bane teamed up to destroy Batman and the economy.

      This stuff writes itself.

  3. I don’t buy the thesis here. Palin became a laughingstock on her own merits – by telling Katie Couric “all of them” when asked what newspapers she read, for example. Tina Fey may have helped to solidify the image, but only because it was there in the first place – and while many people may have been awakened to Palin’s idiocy by Fey’s exaggerations, others were freed to dismiss the truth of Palin’s idiocy because so often the “evidence” that they could see for such a proposition was not her own genuine appalling statements but the parodies of them seen on SNL. 

    Thus: Palin’s comments about Russia were terrifying in their ignorance, their misrepresentations, and their falsehoods, but what everyone remembers is Tina Fey as Palin saying she can “see Russia from [her] house”. In effect, rather than learning that Palin is an idiot you learn that Tina Fey thinks she is one. Which is fine – if you’re inclined to trust Tina Fey. But trusting the judgment of a television comedian trying to sell car ads on behalf of GE is a terrible way to make your decisions, however worthy Ms. Fey seems to be.

    1. In effect, rather than learning that Palin is an idiot you learn that Tina Fey thinks she is one.

      What kind of idiots do you think we are?

  4. I’m going to make a bold prediction that SNL will focus their ridicule exclusively on Romney and give Obama a complete pass.

    1. SNL is not exactly known for cutting political satire, which would be required to do any justice to lambasting Obama. There’s a lot wrong with Obama, but nothing obvious and easy to satirize. 

      Romney is an easy target, but not an easy target for SNL. They can easily make fun of his being out of touch, but that’s about it. They’re not going to touch his being Mormon, for example, and his easily-attackable policy positions are not funny, they’re depressing and rage-inducing.

      As others have said already, Palin was a ridiculously easy target. I thought Tina Fey’s Palin impersonation was funny but nobody changed their mind about Palin because of it. I mean, we’re in our own little bubble here at BB but Palin really did not need Tina Fey to point out how much of an idiot she is because she was doing that herself.

      Which leads to another point… in what world is SNL relevant to the world of politics? They’ve always done impersonations of the presidents and so on, and with a liberal bias of course, but it’s always very light. No bite. The Daily Show and Colbert Report are comedy shows that have a real effect on people’s opinions and on politics at large. 

      SNL is something you occasionally watch clips from on the internet if they do something particularly good (I enjoyed all the music videos Andy Samberg did with Justin Timberlake and others), and nobody cares about SNL’s political opinions. 

    2.  What would make good comedy regarding Obama?  I’m just curious, because personality wise he’s kind of boring, and Armisen doesn’t really have him down unfortunately.  I mean you could mock him for being an empty suit, and crumpling after all his “Change” talk, but he just doesn’t seem like good comedy fodder personality wise.  Biden is obviously more suited for it, Romney kind of has his rich, preppy villain, straight out of central casting thing going on at least.  The main thing is that it doesn’t really work as well unless the actor nails it, which is why Darrell Hammond was so great as Clinton, Ferrell as Bush etc.

  5. I hope it ruins everyone’s momentum causing us to reject the position of presidency and thus laying off all federal/state political figures.  I’d like to stop packing for my future move to Iceland where they actually arrest corruption.

    Grumpy old man rant – terminated – But seriously, I don’t see any way that a Rep. wins this year – SNL or not… even if they put together a Jesus and Santa ticket.

  6. Oh, is SNL still on? And people actually watch it??

    I do remember thinking Fey’s skewering impression was spot on, but I don’t recall a thing from the show since then.

    I also agree with other posters that Palin popped her own balloon as much or more than Fey did.

  7. I’m skeptical that SNL was that influential at revealing Palin’s emptiness. Even Katie Couric’s questions were too hard for her to give intelligible responses. She didn’t need softball questions, she needed T-ball questions. Journalists trying to be artificially “balanced” couldn’t hide Palin’s garbled answers.

  8. Obviously, Robert Downey Jr. is a time-traveler who began his run on the show in 1985 and finished it twenty years earlier. That’s probably also how he goes back and forth from the modern world to Victorian England to perform in the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes movies. 

  9. Hey, look at me! I get to be pedantic! It was not “the SNLspecials four years ago that shed a different kind of spotlight on then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.” The 2008 specials were basically extended Weekend Updates, produced because the Palin parodies had gotten so popular. Tina Fey only appeared in the third one. All the other Palin segments were cold opens for regular SNL episodes. You can check the transcripts here: .


  10. Neither Mitt nor Obama. The C of the LDS will take the biggest hit because propping requires only a white shirt and black tie and not much thought.

  11. Frevele writes “Romney [should show up] if he wants to convince potential voters that he isn’t the uppity white bread caricature that Sudeikis has turned him into.”

    Correction: it isn’t Sudeikis who has turned Romney into his caricature. Willard, and Willard alone, is responsible for that outcome.

    I advise Mittens not to show up. He cannot lose if he does not play.

  12. And who is going to come out of this looking worse?

    I’m gonna go with Fred Armisen in blackface and Lorne Michaels.

  13. I don’t know who it will ruin, but if Biden is on the ticket, it could make him look even more awesome. Throw Sudeikis a Bud Light and a couple bleeps, and voila! You have a cult pop culture hero!

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