NEW YORK -- For three decades, “Saturday Night Live” has prided itself on skewering politicians of all stripes with equal zeal, from Chevy Chase’s clumsy Gerald Ford to Darrell Hammond’s sighing Al Gore.
Executive producer Lorne Michaels has long maintained that the show risks its comedy credentials if it appears partisan. So he is troubled by the recent chatter that the venerable late-night program has exhibited a pro-Hillary Clinton bent.
“That’s a major concern,” Michaels said. “I can assure you that there’s no agenda, that there’s only a reaction to what’s going in the world.”
Since returning to the air in late February after a hiatus forced by the writers strike, the NBC comedy showcase has zoomed back into the political zeitgeist.
When media toughened its coverage of Sen. Barack Obama after a “SNL” sketch portrayed the press as fawning over him, analysts credited the show in part for the shift. (Obama even joked that he was going to call Michaels to complain.)
A series of other bits in recent weeks have contributed to the perception that the program is trying to sway public opinion toward Clinton. Guest host Tina Fey gave a shout-out to the New York senator, saying women like her “get stuff done.” The candidate herself made a lighthearted appearance the following week, appearing in a matching brown tweed suit with cast member Amy Poehler, who plays Clinton on the show.
Two days later, Clinton performed strongly in the Ohio and Texas primaries.
Seth Meyers, one of show’s three head writers, said he was amused by suggestions that “Saturday Night Live” changed the momentum of the race.
“We don’t quite feel we’ve affected it as much as people want to give us credit for,” he said.
“The show happens too quickly for any of us to have an agenda,” added Meyers, who donated $1,000 to Obama in January. “And our egos as comedy writers are too big to ever let our own political loyalties get in the way of a joke. So we aim for whatever is the richest to be satirized on any given week.”
Michaels, a political independent who donated to both Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd and to Republican Sen. John McCain last year, said the personal politics of the show’s 23 writers don’t influence its content. “I really don’t believe anyone walking around up there thinks, ‘What can we do for Hillary right now?’ ” he said.
In fact, the show’s mantra is that it’s against “whoever is winning,” said Poehler.
“There is a certain amount of being able to poke fun at everyone equally that’s kind of nice,” she added. “And so I think that anything more than that would be giving us too much responsibility and making us seem much smarter than we actually are.”
The renewed focus on the 32-year-old program and the discussion of whether it has shaped the presidential race has helped lift its ratings. In its first two shows back on the air since the strike, “Saturday Night Live” averaged 6.8 million viewers, compared with its pre-strike average of 5.8 million viewers.
“We’re hoping for a dead tie in the delegates so it, like, goes on for another year,” Meyers joked. “They have to postpone the general election.”
But the scrutiny has also forced the late-night institution to contemplate whether it has a responsibility to provide equal doses of satire in a tightly fought race.
Michaels believes one of the factors fueling the perception that “SNL” has a bias toward Clinton may be Poehler herself, who plays the New York senator as a woman laboring valiantly to ignore the jibes sent her way.
“People can confuse the charm of the character with the person,” he said.
For her part, Poehler noted that “people forget that we did two full years of kind of slamming her in a lot of stuff.”
“I’ve certainly done her in other situations before on the show in not so flattering ways,” she said. “I think there’s been a history of different takes on her.”
Still, the show’s writers were divided when Clinton’s campaign called and said that the candidate was interested in making an appearance on the show March 2, right before the Ohio and Texas primaries.
“Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea,” Michaels said. “Would it appear partisan?”
In the end, he felt it was only fair, since Obama had been on the program in November. But he added that “we were very clear that she was doing something that would be written for her and that it was not a campaign appearance in any sense.”
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the candidate is not concerned that his rival is getting a lift from “SNL.”
“Frankly, Barack Obama knows he’s good enough, smart enough and, gosh darn it, he’s won more states, more votes and more delegates, and that’s what probably matters more anyway,” he quipped, a la Stuart Smalley.
For the most part, the writers said they believe the show’s balance is apparent over time, although the program did consciously try to spoof Clinton last week. Playing off her ominous “3 a.m.” ad that suggested Obama lacked the experience to handle a crisis, the piece showed stark black-and-white photos of a panicked President Obama calling Clinton at home for help.
“If anything, it was sympathetic toward Obama,” Michaels said, though he admitted not everyone saw it that way.
This Saturday’s program, hosted by actor Jonah Hill, will likely include more sketches about the 2008 race, although Meyers noted “that the governor of New York will probably take it worse than either of the candidates.”
“I also promise that by the end of the campaign,” he added, “both candidates will feel that we’ve portrayed them unfairly.”