Live From New York update: Obama nixes Muslim sketch, Hillary’s entitlements and Sarah Palin

Live From New York - Saturday Night Live
Live From New York - Saturday Night Live

VALPARAISO, Indiana, August 19, 2014 — Saturday Night Live oral history, Live From New York, has been updated with new material by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post television critic Tom Shales and his collaborator James Miller.

The book updates the original issue and offers some surprising insights into the political humor of Saturday Night Live.

A live action TV Fun House sketch by writer Robert Smigel got the kibosh by Barack Obama. The sketches premise was an airplane pre-flight instructions to the passengers.

Robert Smigel, writer: “It meant to be about racism and profiling, an airline-safety video with multilingual narration, and whenever you heard a different language, they would cut to people of that nationality. First, typical white Americans, then a Latino family, then a Japanese family, all being instructed about seat belts, overhead compartments, et cetera. Then it cuts to an Arab man, and the narrator says, in Arabic, “During the flight, please do not blow up the airplane. The United States is actually a humanitarian nation that is rooted in the concept of freedom,” and so on. …

When the standards people freaked, Lorne fought them. Standards pushed back hard. They even got someone at NBC human resources to condemn it.

Lorne said, “I have a plan.” Obama was doing a cameo in the cold open. Lorne told me he would show my sketch to Obama. “If Obama thinks it’s OK, they won’t be able to argue it.” I thought it was a brilliant idea, except why would Obama ever give this thing his blessing? What if word got out? “Hey, everybody, that guy over there said it was cool. The one running for president of the country.” But I loved Lorne for caring this much and being willing to go that far to get this thing on TV.

Lorne Michaels, producer SNL: Obama said, “It’s funny, but no, I don’t think so.”

The sketch was canned.

Saturday Night Live has absolutely affected the public’s political opinion. Lorne Michaels talks about a pre-2008 primary show that was supposed to feature then candidate Hillary Clinton:

According to the book, Howard Wolfson from Hillary Clinton’s campaign called the show to put the candidate front and center of the first show of the 2007 season. Barack Obama was just starting to grab national headlines.

Lorne Michaels: [Clinton’s campaign] called first, so I said OK. You have to play by those rules. And then, the week of, they bailed. I went, “Really? You called us, and we gave it to you.” I think every now and then I get carried away and think we actually do have influence.

And then, after that, we put Obama on the date when Hillary was supposed to be on. The sense of entitlement which was following her everywhere at that point peaked for me at the bailing.

Tina Fey’s husband was the first to notice the resemblance between the comedienne and the Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. At first, Fey was reluctant to do the character, but it soon became a fait accompli. Michaels recollects, “The audience that was suddenly watching Sarah Palin wasn’t necessarily the SNLaudience. Tina crossed over. It made her a huge star.”

To the credit of Sarah Palin, and quite possibly one of the peeks we had at the real person versus the candidate the McCain camp tried to form, she appeared on SNL.

Tina Fey’s dead-on impersonation of Sarah Palin brought a new audience to SNL and to Tina Fey. Not only did she become a huge star for the show, but the exposure led to the wildly successful 30 Rock, a loosely based parody of the SNL set, movies and her in demand presence for gigs like hosting the Golden Globes with cast member Amy Poehler who went on to star in successful sit-com Parks and Recreation, entering its 7th, and final, season.

On SNL, Poehler adopted the presence of Hillary Clinton to Fey’s Palin, reflecting the emergence of women as political leaders.

Amy Poehler: Playing Hillary and Sarah Palin was an indication of women taking center stage in politics in a way that I hadn’t been able to experience in my time there. My first show was two weeks after 9/11 happened, and for the first three or four years of my time there, we could barely do anything political. Everyone and everything was so tender, and we had lost Will Ferrell as our [George W.] Bush. Everything was so bad; the news was so bad. There was a lot of pop-culture stuff, and getting to finally do really deep political parody at the end of my career there felt really satisfying.

The new edition of Saturday Night Live – Live From New York an oral history is on sale Sept. 9, 2014

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