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Boring Candidates, Viral Videos: The Tough Life of SNL's Political Comedy Guru

As soon as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squared off on Tuesday night, the debate’s few funny moments exploded on the web. By Wednesday morning, Romney’s “binders full of women” had already been wrung dry by a thousand GIFs and memes. Then “The Daily Show” pegged Romney as Wile E. Coyote and Obama as the Road Runner leading his opponent into a trap. Colbert coined the term “Libya-gate.” In a media landscape so saturated with satire, it is hard not to wonder: By the time Saturday night rolls around, will there be any jokes left to make? 

For Jim Downey, the longest-running writer on Saturday Night Live and the brains behind most of its political sketches, this poses a particular challenge. Audiences are swamped with YouTube supercuts, Buzzfeed memes about assorted political fumbles, and looping gaffe replays on all the major talk shows. It’s getting harder and harder, Downey says, “to tell the audience something they never heard before and in the same instance, make them laugh about it.” And to top it all off, we are now facing candidates trained to avoid YouTube-able slip-ups. “We’re on the verge of having presidents who have been watching SNL for their entire lives,” said MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, a friend of Downey’s since their days at Harvard. “Basically, they will have grown up on The Daily Show; they’ll be very media savvy and aware of what comedy is looking for in them.”

This election cycle, Downey says, is one of the most boring he’s seen. Biden and Ryan might provide entertainment on the sidelines, but the candidates themselves—when they know they’re on camera, at least—are preternaturally restrained and dull. “I think Obama is a lot tougher,” Downey said. “What helps us is people who are goofy or have some loose threads.” Downey sees the president as something like a European jewel thief in a 1950’s heist movie: “He’s just so smooth. There are no toeholds to grab onto.” Romney isn’t much easier to mock. “He’s perfectly well-spoken. It’s not that he’s inarticulate. He can be a little clueless. He’s a guy who’s an awkward first date.”

For most of Downey’s nearly 37 years at SNL, politicians have given him and his colleagues a lot more raw material. Dan Aykroyd didn’t even have to shave off his mustache to nail Richard Nixon. To many viewers, Dana Carvey’s impersonation of George H.W. Bush, whose pinched, Telegram speech patterns slid at times into Dada nonsense (“Not gon’ do it. Nah gah dah ah”) is inseparable from memories of the man himself. Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush was such an unforgettable parody of the Connecticut preppy-turned-Texas good ol’ boy that many people still think W. actually misspoke the term “strategery,” a joke that Downey wrote in 2000. 

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But today, Downey finds increasingly that the best source for parody is not the politicians themselves, but the media circus surrounding them. In 2008, Downey put then-candidate Obama in a Democratic debate sketch with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, but the jokes were all the expense of media figures. As Downey saw it, the most obvious fodder for laughs was the sight of journalists like Brian Williams and the late Tim Russert in full-on swoon for Obama. After asking Obama a softball question, Darrell Hammond as Russert said, “If I seemed a bit nosy there or made you uncomfortable, I sincerely apologize. It's not my intention.”  Obama, played by Fred Armisen, is cast as the straight man to the media’s bumbling outrageousness. And the most traction Downey has gotten this election season was with a political sketch that did not even mention the names Obama or Romney once: a parody of a Super PAC ad for Low-Information Voters of America, a group of well-meaning but utterly oblivious citizens who ask inane questions like,  “What are the names of the two people running? And be specific.”

Following its airing, The Huffington PostThe Daily CallerBreitbart, and other political sites all linked to the sketch. It was discussed on several cable news shows. And many of the most popular political sketches in recent memory have focused on the hijinks of Fox News and MSNBC anchors rather than the presidential candidates. Following the president’s lackluster performance in the first debate, one SNL sketch featured MSNBC anchors spinning, rationalizing, and commiserating over what Rachel Maddow (played by Cecily Strong) called “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened Anywhere.” Political satire on the whole seems to have drifted away from straightforward sendups of politicians, toward making the media the butt of its jokes. Satirizing the media circus, after all, is “The Daily Show”’s comedic bread and butter; the show could hardly exist without easily digested news clips and sound bites for Stewart to mock. 

But for a man tasked with keeping his finger on the pulse of the political news cycle, Downey is something of an anachronism. He says he tries not to write for SNL viewers, preferring to aim his work at a clubby network of friends in the business, “a loose group of 25 or 30 people” like O’Donnell, Simpsons producer Al Jean, Senator Al Franken, MSNBC’s Willie Geist, and others in politics, punditry, and entertainment to whom he has his assistant email early drafts of sketches. He writes his sketches longhand at home in New Canaan, Connecticut—he’s long given up on SNL's 80-hour work weeks and junk food-fueled all-nighters—and dictates them to his assistant who types them up and sends them out.

Downey doesn’t even have his own email address or use a computer. He prefers books and magazines to Twitter and RSS feeds. When everyone was getting online in the '90s, he had other things to do. How could he have known that, three decades down the line, he’d be writing sketches that would compete with Buzzfeed for laughs? The internet, he says, “didn’t seem like the world’s greatest invention at the time.”

But he may not have to compete with the newstream for long. Now, Downey acknowledges that his time in the business is just about up. He may finally be ready to retreat from the changing world of political satire. “I think I’ve sounded all the different notes,” he says.