Boss Jim Downey

l gurley Boss Jim Downey

Q: For years now, shows like Meet the Press have been broadcasting clips of an SNL sketch, a spoof of political reality, to have a conversation with their audience about the actual political reality. How are you getting to the core ingredients of what’s going on in a way that people like Tom Brokaw can’t seem to articulate?

A: I think they’d like to make sarcastic comments about candidates, but their role as news people prevents that, so I think showing our clips permits them to let us make the point.

I think it would be awkward for even some of the people on cable to be as out-and-out mocking as we can be, and I also think it sort of makes their shows more entertaining—they can do it for free. It’s like a minute of each show that they get for free and at least they can sort of skim the cream of our pieces. But you know, it’s nice to be noticed.

Of course, it’s selective what they show. Just by way of digression, I think I first noticed this whole phenomenon during the 2000 election.

Q. This was when ‘strategery’ came into the lexicon?

A: Yes, the Bush-Gore debate pieces which were written about in The Times because the Gore campaign staff showed him the sketches as an instructional tool, say, see this is how you can be caricatured if you act that way, and that led to his reaction in the second debate where he was way too passive. They were running my stuff all the time on all of the network news channels and each of the big three—CNN, Fox and MSNBC—would from the same sketch mine different elements. CNN always took the most left-leaning elements of my piece, Fox the most right-leaning, and MSNBC was kind of down the middle. That’s changed now. CNN has become the middle of the road and MSNBC the left.

Q. Tina Fey’s been a major figure this year, as Sarah Palin, right?

A. I knew who Sarah Palin was because I read the Almanac of American Politics but until I heard her speak, which almost no one had outside of Alaska, I had no idea she had that sort of upper Midwest mom accent. So after she was picked, everyone I’ve ever met in my life was calling me going, Oh, you’ve got to have Tina Fey. I said, I get it, because they both wear glasses. I thought if that was all there was to it, you could put any number of women in that hair and the glasses and you’d have your Sarah Palin. But the key thing about Tina was, she’s a really great subtle performer and she can also do that voice. I’ve heard her do that voice, and some of us within the show, we were struck that this would be something Tina could do and only 5 percent of it was the glasses. Tina was saying it’s a voice she did onstage in Second City. It’s an American voice, a Midwestern mom.

Q. Your sketches have actually had some impact on the 2008 election.

A. You know, one of my biggest peeves in life is what Dave Letterman and I used to talk about—he used to term it derisively ‘important comedy.’ It was how annoying it was that there were comics who would start to think of themselves as important forces for good, such as Lenny Bruce, that kind of thing. We always shared a contempt for that.

Q. How did that Obama-Hillary debate sketch come about?

A. The idea was that come hell or high water, when we returned from the strike, we were going to open with a debate piece, and I was sort of the guy who does those. I had had my own observations about how the Democratic primary had been shaping up beginning in the late fall, and after we came back from the strike in late February, Obama had won the Iowa caucuses and Hillary had to make a comeback in New Hampshire. It seemed to me that there were two things that had sort of emerged in the preceding four months. On the one hand, a sort of a hard-on for Hillary that the press had—just really enjoyed her frustration and her discomfiture and faltering. That was a very sort of cynical, kind of snarky attitude but at the same time there was a reverential attitude about the Obama campaign. It’s the kind of thing that was later to manifest itself with like that Rolling Stone cover, which was almost like the kind of thing you see in South America, of party leaders or Jesus or something. You know, the kind of covers without any caption or anything?

Q. After that debate sketch, Hillary Clinton mentioned it during an actual debate. That make you feel at all exploited?

A. No, I don’t feel exploited. It was more of the fact that media seemed to acknowledge a truth there that made me feel slightly flattered. I could understand how Hillary wanted people to see the sketch. It was the sort of thing that made the press want to report on it—is the press in the tank for Obama? Joe Klein had a thing in Time about the SNL effect. And I know from within—I have indirect connections with the Obama campaign and less so with the Hillary campaign—but a guy I know who’s a political pollster and does campaigns told me that the Hillary people certainly loved that piece and they thought it sort of saved their campaign. I was just trying to write a funny piece and say something that wasn’t crazy.

Q. What about Tina and Amy doing that “Go Bitches” thing on Weekend Update?

A. That was something that Tina came in with—she was hosting that week. It was news to me on Saturday. I can see how if you look for a common theme between my piece and that, you might go, wow, the show’s really jumped on board the Hillary campaign. But I sort of interpreted that piece as more of a premise piece, like it was a girl-power thing they were doing and not to be read literally. It was more like the Tina Fey character and the Amy Poehler character doing a ‘that’s right, deal with it’ pro-Hillary thing and not the show doing an endorsement. I mean, I don’t have anything against Hillary Clinton, but I certainly wasn’t trying to help her in my piece.

Q. What do you sense going on now in American politics now in terms of symbols, rhetoric compared to campaigns in the past?

A. One thing I’ve noticed different, and I’m not the only one, although it’s not written about very much—with Sarah Palin, you’ve got like the first sort of authentic blue-collar person running for president. Everybody who’s ever run for president have all sort of been from the same political class and they tend to be well educated, went to good schools, or else over time in Washington got some polish. But we’ve never had anyone who talks like Sarah Palin, which is to say talks like a Midwestern mom. I mean, Obama’s going to win anyway, but if this were a close race, this has to be something for his supporters to step on some people over, but a lot of the criticism of Sarah Palin has taken on just a pure class thing, and it’s sophisticates shitting on the declassé.

Q. What is the comic essence of her?

A. I would argue that what the show has addressed is more to some extent issue positions, but I don’t think we’ve embraced a shitting on her because of her class. That’s something I pick up in conversations with people—‘Can you believe that kind of fucking trailer-trash kind of thing?’ It’s more just Manhattan yuppies in general. But the way she’s been made fun of at the show is more the way she doesn’t think that well on her feet, and she’s been heavily programmed—although I suspect they should’ve left her alone, because she seems to do much better with people one-on-one. I’ve never heard anything come out of Alaska that as governor, she was constantly locked in on five talking points and relentlessly answered every question with reference to the same talking points. It seems to me that she was regarded as more or less a normal human being in Alaska. But to me the funniest moment of any of Tina’s impressions was in the debate piece with Biden—would you like to respond to Senator Biden? ‘No, thank you!’

Q. Would it surprise you if Sarah Palin winds up going on the show?

A. It would. I’m always surprised when candidates go in the show. I wasn’t as surprised when Obama went on, because I knew that he knew he didn’t have that much to fear from us. And of course, they’re never going to have to do anything they [don’t want] to do. I mean we can’t make them—they don’t work for us, so we can’t say, ‘Hey, that’s the script, Jack, read it as written.’

Q. How about the comic essence of the other two?

A. With McCain, to me it’s been—it’s the same word that Obama’s been using, his campaign seems very erratic and just jumping from gimmick to gimmick. I addressed this in a debate piece I wrote; there seems to be a lot of stunts involved. I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t have a few things that he could point out. He could talk about that some of the things on the Obama agenda are well to the left of anything the American people have ever knowingly voted for. It seems like he’s doing it day by day or week by week. What was always funniest about Biden was just the pomposity combined with the gaffes. And his vice presidential debate, there were a number of preposterous things he said that, I’m sorry to say, weren’t really fact-checked very well by the media. And Biden is a very mellifluous and smooth speaker, but he has never really been tested in an environment where he’s been challenged on positions he’s taken because he’s always had runaway victories in Delaware and has never been pressed closely.

Q. So she’s obviously the most inherently funny one.

A. Oh, absolutely. Palin far and away has the most to work with, because for one thing she’s got that voice in that manner that you’ve never seen from anybody running for president or vice president before, and some people call it refreshing; other people, it’s scandalous. She has a flirtatious kind of thing, she wears heels and skirts as if to deliberately, you know, ‘Say something about it, I dare you.’ I would be inclined to get her to pretape something that we could use at the opening of our two-hour political ‘bash’ we’re doing Nov. 3. If I have access to her specifically, because I’m producing that along with some other people, I would like to get her on tape doing something, along with Biden, a split-screen—we did with Bush and Gore for the special eight years ago. I would like to use her for that.

Q. How much raw transcript of Palin do you use?

A. Keith Olbermann was making a big deal out of this, and I don’t quite understand the relevance. In one of the two Palin pieces they actually mined a lot of the actual Katie Couric interview, but the stuff [that] got the laughs was not from the Katie Couric interview, that was filler, it was packing material, bubble wrap. What got the laughs was the stuff that Tina and Seth [Meyers] or whoever came up with. I don’t know if the question is, does she write her own bits for us? The answer is no. I’ve heard from idiots who say, ‘Oh my God, you could just have a tape of Sarah Palin talking and it would be hysterical!’ And I go, Really? I don’t think so.

Q. What do you make of the idea that McCain and Palin are stirring up a lot of potentially dangerous forces in America by the suggestion that Obama is not truly American? Does Palin remind you at all of Joe McCarthy?

A. O.K., well—no, she doesn’t remind me of Joe McCarthy. Only in the sense that the discussions of it remind me in the sense that one of the other things about McCarthy was that again, there was a class thing. Alger Hiss was a Groton and Harvard graduate and an elegant gentleman, Whittaker Chambers was a public high-school product, kind of a tubby nerd, and McCarthy was considered, like, a lowbrow demagogue. I mean, as it happens, it turns out some of the things McCarthy said turned out to be true, and Alger Hiss turned out to be guilty. I don’t know; I always thought that the intellectual elites of Manhattan and L.A. have very soft lives, let’s say, and they love to relive the glory days of the ’50s when they felt persecuted and hunted and they showed remarkable courage at fending off this assault—and you still see in Hollywood, when Aaron Sorkin did that short-lived show Studio 60 or whatever that was? Me and my friends were taking bets on the over-under on how many shows it would take before there was one about the blacklist. He got to show six before he did the blacklist show.

Q. If William Ayers comes up in the next debate, could that come up on SNL?

A. Yeah, but the problem is one of the interesting things about the coverage. To me, the relevance was not what Ayers did 30, 40 years ago, it’s that he believes idiotic things. Like he believes that the purpose of education should be to create future community organizers as opposed to kids who can read, write and do math. The relevance is that Obama agreed enough with him to the extent that they gave each other foundation money and none to schools. They gave it to programs that employed imbeciles from HED schools who believe crazy things. That is relevant and worth talking about, and that’s what Ayers believes today, not 40 years ago. So no McCarthyism-like tactics on the part of the McCain campaign?

Q. Do you think Al Franken will be an effective, universally liked and admired senator from Minnesota?

A. I don’t know, I understand he’s ahead and obviously the better Obama does, the better Al will do. Probably Al’s getting along with people is going to be his biggest issue that he’ll face, in the Senate.

ggurley@observer.com