The latest “Saturday Night Live” opened with a barroom full of failed Republican presidential candidates congratulating Mitt Romney on becoming the presumptive GOP nominee – Newt Gingrich, notwithstanding – and reminiscing.
“This campaign was time of my life,” they sang, in a refrain likely amusing to most viewers, save, perhaps, for members of Green Day.
The skit underscored not only a new phase in the campaign, but in political comedy with humor goldmine of the crowded GOP debates and general jockeying for attention among the Republicans now officially shuttered. Not all the laughs were unintentional: This campaign, as we’ve noted, spurred a flurry of late-night comedy circuit appearances by some GOP candidates – and President Obama even sat for an interview with Jay Leno.
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But the show might not be over: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reports that Romney is considering an offer to appear on “SNL.” A guest shot could give him – and political humor – a boost with the election a little under seven months away. Perhaps Obama also should mull going live from New York before voters hit the polls – adding some laughs to what Dowd dubbed a “Tin Man-versus-Spock” contest that’s making life tough for comedy writers.
History suggests candidates playing political comedian probably doesn't hurt their electoral chances. Richard Nixon, not known his sense of humor, became the first major politician to show how TV comedy show appearances can humanize a candidate. A relaxed Nixon joking with his pal Jack Paar and playing piano for the country on “The Tonight Show” in 1963 laid the groundwork for his remarkable comeback from his loss three years earlier to John Kennedy. Less than two months before winning his first presidential election in 1968, Nixon famously spouted the comedy catchphrase, “Sock it to me!” on “Laugh-In,” the prime time “SNL” of its day.
It’s not clear if Romney would walk on to the “SNL” stage before the season ends in the next few weeks, or wait until the fall. It’s also unclear how much timing matters. John McCain and Sarah Palin’s stint on the show shortly before the 2008 election apparently didn’t do much to offset weeks of Tina Fey skits eviscerating the first woman on a GOP presidential ticket. Gerald Ford, the first and only sitting president to appear on “SNL,” didn’t seem to benefit from his taped cameo, nearly seven months before the 1976 election. But then again, Ford was likely hobbled more by his pardon of Nixon than his undeserved reputation as klutz.
Whatever the timing, an “SNL” role could only aid Romney’s efforts to shake his Mr. Bland image (“You’re the only candidate who could ever make me look exciting,” Rick Santorum/Andy Samberg told Romney/Jason Sudeikis during Saturday’s sketch). The former Massachusetts governor previously displayed modest comedy chops by delivering a self-effacing “Top 10 Things Mitt Romney Would Like to Say to the American People” list on “Late Show With David Letterman” in December (No. 9: "What's up gangstas – it's the M-I-double-tizzle").
Obama, a proven strong campaigner who has displayed a latent talent for singing, isn’t exactly known for his comic timing, even if he managed to crack a few jokes in October when he became the first sitting president to appear on “The Tonight Show.” When Leno asked if he’d been watching the GOP debates, Obama quipped: “I’m going to wait until everybody is voted off the island."
Well, the time has come to see which candidate emerges as the comedy survivor.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.