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.