Five times of crisis when “Saturday Night Live” was exactly what Americans needed

Comedy in crisis.
Comedy in crisis.
Image: NBC
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Saturday Night Live has been on a comedy roll lately, with poignant political sketches addressing race, online trolls, and the anxiety many Americans feel about a Donald Trump presidency. Its latest riffs on the missteps of the president-elect have been biting, drawing his ire.

Since its first season in 1975, the comedy sketch show has had many opportunities to address the country in times of crisis and transition. Sometimes, those attempts have fallen flat. Others have become cultural touchstones.

At 42 years old, SNL struggles as much as ever. Everyone’s an internet armchair critic now, and the show faces “from Twitter and elsewhere, a huge new array of would-be satirists and commentators,” write James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales in their preface to Live From New York, an SNL oral history. Through all its ups and downs, they write, and despite fierce competition, the show has consistently tried to deliver on at least one mandate: ”It made a nation laugh—laugh, even when it hurt.”

Here’s how SNL has addressed some of the flashpoints in American history since its launch.

Ripples of Watergate

SNL aired its first show on October 11, 1975—a banner year for American anxiety. Richard Nixon had resigned a year earlier over the Watergate scandal, Patty Hearst was kidnapped, the energy crisis messed up Daylight Savings Time, and president Gerald Ford had just escaped an assassination attempt. The show’s first “Weekend Update” featured Chevy Chase as news anchor, covering Ford’s campaign, which he was purportedly running under the self-written slogan, “If He’s So Dumb, How Come He’s President?”

“No one watching the new show, called NBC’s Saturday Night, could have known, but American political humor would never be quite the same,” Todd Purdum wrote in an SNL profile for Vanity Fair. 

“I think coming on right after Watergate was crucial,” show creator Lorne Michaels told Purdum. “I was 30. We’d just lived through all that, and because of that and Vietnam, politics was something everyone knew and talked about. I think we defined ourselves as a generation in that way. I think we were playing to an audience that was really under 30. We didn’t expect anyone else to know the music or to get the jokes. We weren’t deliberately thinking that way. It was just the truth. We were live, and we were in New York, which was still the knowledge capital.”

The Gulf War

The 1991 Gulf War was one of the biggest military operations undertaken by the US since SNL‘s launch. The show responded with skewering commentary that took aim at the president and the press. Dana Carvey played George H.W. Bush announcing the war: ”If we do go to war, I can assure you it will not be another Vietnam. Because we have learned well the simple lesson of Vietnam. Stay out of Vietnam.” The line is a favorite of senator Al Franken, a former SNL writer.

SNL’s foreign-policy skits both lightened the mood on some seriously disturbing topics and asked Americans to take a step back and appreciate the absurdities underlying the issues of the day,” writes Whitney Kassel for Foreign Policy.

The sketches weren’t without their critics. On Feb. 9, 1991, the show parodied a Desert Storm press briefing, with defense secretary Richard Cheney (played by Phil Hartman) and Lt. Col. William Pierson (Kevin Nealon) fielding super specific questions on the US’ military strategy. At the time, the government had imposed serious restrictions on press coverage, which the sketch made light of. Some found it problematic.

The O.J. Simpson trial

The murder trial of former NFL star O.J. Simpson in June 1994 had an indelible effect on the American public, dividing people over issues of race, bias, and the US legal system. An SNL cold open in October 1995, the week after Simpson was acquitted, featured Tim Meadows playing Simpson, returning to his role as football commentator. The sketch included plenty of cringe-worthy murder puns, not to mention a play Telestrator that spelled out the words, ”I Did It.”

“When he wrote that out … the [studio] exploded,” writer Andy Breckman says in Live From New York. “I’ve never heard a reaction in my life like that, ever. It exploded, but it wasn’t just laughter, it was almost a release.”

Behind the scenes, the show wasn’t immune to the divisive effect the trial was having on the country, and many believed its over-the-top coverage of Simpson was one of the reasons “Weekend Update” anchor Norm McDonald was later fired from the show.

Today, SNL continues to draw material from issues of race in America, most recently on the topic of police brutality and related protests.

Bill Clinton’s impeachment

Before Trump, Bill Clinton was one of the most lampooned politicians on SNL, memorably portrayed by Phil Hartmann and later Darrel Hammond. It fell to Hammond to play the president during his impeachment over an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1998. The incident combined everything the show was good at—politics, sex, absurdity, and an excellent celebrity impersonation—and they ran with it.

SNL also took aim at speculation that the country might invade Iraq to distract from the impeachment. One April 1998 cold open included a deathly funny three-way call between Clinton, Lewinsky, and Iraq president Saddam Hussein.

Sept. 11

The first episode of SNL’s 27th season aired 18 days after the terrorist attacks on New York City. The show’s opening featured a moving monologue by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani (who had urged Michaels not to delay the season’s scheduled launch), and a gut-wrenching performance of “The Boxer” by Paul Simon. After the Giuliani’s monologue, Michaels stepped on stage to ask him if it was alright for the show to be funny again. “Why start now?” Giuliani responded. 

“I guess in the final analysis you can’t critique it the way you would any other show,” Will Ferrell says in Live From New York. “Some people said to me, ‘Great job, it was wonderful,’ and other people said, ‘That was lame,’ because we didn’t do really tough sketches. It was a benign show, and maybe that was the best thing to do under the circumstances.”

A later memorable sketch from the post-9/11 era would feature Will Ferrell at an office meeting sporting a patriotic shirt—and ill-fitting underwear.