by Richard Gunderman, IUPUI
For about a decade beginning in 1965, NBC late night weekend programming consisted of Best of Carson reruns. Then in 1974, Johnny Carson announced that he wished to stop using The Tonight Show on weekends, instead airing them on weeknights and allowing him to take more time off. Network executive Dick Ebersol approached Lorne Michaels, asking him to put together a comedy sketch show that would attract young adult viewers. Titled “Saturday Night Live,” initial cast members included its first standout, Chevy Chase. The first episode, hosted by George Carlin, aired October 11, 1975.
At the time, Gerald Ford had been serving as US President for 14 months, an especially difficult time for the nation. South Vietnam had collapsed, punctuating the United States’ controversial involvement in the conflict with what to many seemed a defeat. The economy was in its worst shape at any point since the Great Depression, mired in a recession and facing rising inflation. Both Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon had recently resigned, paralleling sharply undermined trust in government, and Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon had garnered him considerable ire.
Several months earlier, during a visit to Austria to meet with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Ford had slipped and fallen while descending the final five rain-soaked steps of the boarding stairs of Air Force One. The incident played prominently on evening news programs, and it was widely reported that later that same day that Sadat had saved Ford from a second fall down another flight of stairs. Ford had emerged from both incidents unhurt, except for his pride, attributing them to a combination of a trick knee, the result of an old football injury, and fatigue.
Then, during SNL’s fourth episode, Chase’s comedy and the Ford presidency collided. It was the “cold open” of the November 8, 1975 episode. As a caption flashed across the bottom of the screen, “This is not the President of the United Status, but he thinks he is,” Chase stepped onto the stage, sporting a tuxedo but making no other effort to resemble Ford. He later admitted that he believed Ford, who had not been elected to the office, should not have been president. Over several minutes, Chase elicited guffaws by knocking over the flag and falling several times.
Egged on by the popular attention the skit drew, Chase reprised his portrayal of Ford several more times during that first season. In subsequent episodes, he coughed into his tie, committed numerous verbal blunders, answered the phone by picking up a glass of water and holding it to his ear, sported a syringe embedded in his shoulder, repeatedly responded to questions by failing to stay on point, and appeared perplexed when, attempting to pour water for his debate opponent, the glass did not fill, instead wetting the papers on the desk. In Chase’s hands, Ford appeared a hopeless and hapless nincompoop.
Of course, Chase’s portrayal could hardly have been at greater odds with reality. During his college years, Ford was widely considered a star player on the University of Michigan’s football team, where he served as center, long snapper, and linebacker. In the 1932 and 1933 seasons, the team went undefeated and won national championships. Ford was without doubt one of the fittest and most athletically gifted individuals ever to serve as president, and also happened to be a graduate of Yale Law School, a member of the Michigan bar, and a member of the US House of Representatives for over 25 years. Ford, in other words, was no dummy.
The most remarkable feature of Chase’s portrayal of Ford was his distinct lack of effort to capture Ford’s appearance, mannerisms, or way of speaking. The Chase impersonation was not about Ford – it was about Chase and how amusing he could be. He seemed to be winking at the audience, letting us in on the joke, and inviting us to sneer right along with him at the absurdity of all things establishment, including government, elected officials, the news media, and even the entertainment industry itself. Only by seeing right through it all did we stand any chance of rising above it.
Chase and “Saturday Night Live” took a substantial toll on the 18- to 34-year-old demographic they and their advertisers hoped to attract. To the wounds of those struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, SNL applied a balm of self-assured satisfaction and cynicism. No institution or official could be trusted, it intimated, and even the sincerest declarations served as little more than fodder for ridicule. Everything was a joke, Americans were all jokers, and nothing – with the possible exception of television ratings and the revenue they generated – really mattered.
Of course, Chase and his cast mates fared rather well. While now widely reviled in the entertainment industry for being difficult to work with, Chase went on to star in films and accumulated a personal fortune estimated at $50 million. His castmate Dan Aykroyd is worth an estimated $250 million, and SNL creator and showrunner Lorne Michaels boasts an estimated fortune of $500 million. There is a great deal of money to be made in producing laughs, and when controversies arise, they often merely inflate ratings even further.
Yet SNL’s ruthless lampooning of everything and everyone, its comedic refusal to take anything or anyone seriously, and its smug sense of its own superiority took a real toll on Ford. Although he attempted to defuse his critics by playing along, Ford was in fact damaged by Chase’s portrayal. In many young minds, the President of the United States appeared a laughable buffoon. SNL suggested that because viewers could chuckle at his expense, they were somehow better than him, well within their rights to revel in ridicule. As SNL enters its 49th season, it is a toxic brew that US culture is still reeling from.
Americans are fortunate to reside in a nation where the First Amendment establishes the right to criticize and even laugh at the government and those who occupy its offices. This ability to critique and correct itself is one of democracy’s greatest virtues. Yet when such criticism descends into mere derision, cynicism supplanting sincerity and citizens robbed of anything worth really believing in, the rule of the people is jeopardized. As C.S. Lewis presciently warned, to see through everything is to see nothing at all, rendering what matters invisible and its advocates as good as blind.
Richard Gunderman is John A Campbell Professor of Radiology; Bicentennial Professor; and Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic.
- How important is making fun of political leaders to protecting us against tyranny?
- At what point does humor cease to be funny? Chase’s humor was “effective,” but did it have the subtlety and element of surprise we associate with good humor?
- What would be the best way for a politician to deal with humor at this or her expense?