Horner, William T. and M. Heather Carver. Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 2018. 200 pages. ISBN 978-1-4766-7184-0. Paperback. $21.00.
Theater producer George S. Kaufman once said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” But in 1975, satire debuted on a Saturday night—live. SNL was almost from the first a “must watch”, for its political satire, especially for Chevy Chase’s indelible portrayal of President Gerald Ford as an inept, accident-prone bumbler. The damage seemed so great that Ron Nessen, his press secretary, agreed to appear on one episode (April 17, 1976) to try to repair Ford’s image through gentle kidding, after a taped lead-in by the President himself. Since the program appears live, the show’s cast, led by Chase, departed from scripts in sketches that Nessen appeared in, and savaged Ford; the broadcast is described in detail in the book’s central and most valuable chapter. (Ironically, while taping the show’s introduction, President Ford stumbled over the television cables.) Additionally, Dan Aykroyd’s subsequent caricature of Jimmy Carter as a glib, smarmy know-it-all, and mock debates closely patterned after the “real” campaign events, helped establish SNL’s satires as an arguably influential factor in our public life. Politicians would have to accept being parodied, and their gaffes magnified. SNL foreshadowed that tradition by its caustic treatment of Carter’s administration, which is also detailed in Horner and Carver’s monograph. Over the years, SNL cast members would seek not only to criticize political leaders through “news updates” and mock election campaign debates, but to sound, even look, like their targets. As Gerald Ford later mused in Humor and the Presidency, personal insult had become “part of the territory.” In a final section, the authors briefly survey some of the most notorious examples, including John Belushi’s George Wallace, Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.
The humor of SNL’s treatment both of Ford and Carter today seems pallid and repetitive, focused more on personal peculiarities than weightier issues. While Chevy Chase disliked Ford, Aykroyd’s take on Carter aimed more at entertainment than ideological value. Producer Lorne Michaels denied any intent to affect the election results. Chase believed that his portrayal of Ford had influenced the election; Aykroyd disagreed. Academics (University of Missouri) rather than journalists, Horner and Carver admit that at the time, little empirical data like polling measured public response to political humor; it is impossible to prove that SNL’s satire had more negative impact than Ford’s misstatements or his pardon of Richard Nixon.
The 1976 election did cast a long shadow, however. Increasingly, politicians would feel compelled to appear on late-night comedy shows, seeking to repair damage done by TV satirists to their public image. The public would no longer treat them as icons. So Horner and Carver finally conclude that, programs like SNL, showing politicians as human, and risible, have had impact “regardless of what quantitative analysis shows.”
Nesteroff, Kliph. We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of
Native Americans in Comedy. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2021. 320
pages. ISBN 978-1-9821-0303-3. Hardcover. $27.00.
Review by Kalman Goldstein.
Nesteroff’s book is both a tribute to endurance and persistence, and a reminder of how demeaning media portrayals of Native Americans used to be. Jim Thorpe (Sac-Fox) fought unsuccessfully to end movies’ employment of whites in “redface” as war-whooping Injuns falling from their horses. Will Rogers (Cherokee) privately bewailed this practice, but his own persona was as a witty cowboy and his satiric material “white.” During mid-century, “children across the country enthusiastically re-created genocide during recess.” Cartoonish “Indians” were always stoic, or inept, and notably humorless. As late as the 1970’s, the lamentable sitcom F Troop featured the “Hakawi”, whites in “redface” buffoonery. Even the sympathetic “Iron Eyes Cody”, symbolizing environmental concerns, was a Sicilian actor. Because Nesteroff interviewed Canadian First Nations comics as well, there are reminders of the atrocious boarding schools, abandoned only in mid-century, which were an arm of Canadian cultural warfare. Finally, it seemed still necessary to show that Natives possess a sense of humor, by surveying near- and contemporary comedy writers and stand-ups, noting their tribal affiliations. His interviews are sandwiched between episodes in the life of Charlie Hill, (Oneida), an iconic figure whose success has become an inspiration to current Native comics. The book’s title, comes from Hill’s routine opening: “My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real-estate problem.”
Hill’s life anchors the book. Due to talent, grit, and luck (befriended by David Letterman and Richard Pryor), he broke through to late-night TV and became relatively well-known. Some followed his example and networked through the Comedy Store. Almost all the comics interviewed, save for Jackie Curtiss, a Mohawk who ran the Chicago Playboy Club, or sitcom writers Sierra Ornelas (Navajo), and Lucas Brown Eyes (Oglala), remain or were lounge room comics, playing the “Silver Circle” of Midwest or Nevada clubs, with, the author judges, material frozen in time. Some, comics, especially Navajo, Cree, or Ojibwe, play dates largely on reservations or at powwows. Their audiences are parochial; their material specialized, sometimes bilingual.
On the other hand, some have developed routines that, by design, have reached out to white audiences. Williams and Ree are an interracial act; Ree a Crow, Williams white; they tour “country” circuits and had gigs on Hee-Haw. Adrienne Chalepah (Kiowa-Apache) formed Ladies of Native Comedy. She has done comedy rooms nation-wide, and her group has appeared on Netflix. The 1491s are a five-man troupe from several tribes who have created sketches on You-Tube, have appeared on The Daily Show with their challenging humor, and even wangled an appearance at a Shakespeare Festival in Oregon. Currently, there are about 100 Native American comics, doing sketch comedy, stand-up, even improv routines, from New York comedy clubs to Great Plains powwows, and now to the Internet.