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SNL’s Spirit of ‘76

A new book reminds us of one of America’s most underrated elections—and of when funny shows were fun.
SNL Ford Carter

A few months ago, I was alerted to the publication of a new book on the early glory days of Saturday Night Live that focused on the show’s inaugural presidential campaign. That would be the signature sketches depicting the bicentennial battle between liberal Midwestern Republican Gerald Ford and conservative (certainly by 1970s standards) Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter.

It got me to thinking not only about one of my favorite seemingly non-political subjects—classic 1970s television shows, which I wrote a rather nifty book on a few years ago—but about just what a real-life Plinko game political history can be.

Forty years ago, overtly political satire was still a comparative rarity on primetime television. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Laugh-In was the league leader, along with Dean Martin, Flip Wilson, and Sonny & Cher, and eventually the imported PBS/British sketch comedy of Monty Python and Benny Hill. Johnny Carson cracked jokes at politicians and sometimes delivered some real zingers (especially when he had an agent provocateur guest like Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley). But for the most part, even after Vietnam and Watergate, TV was still using the “safe” Bob Hope/Friar’s Club humor of gently ridiculing both sides.

There were a couple of notable exceptions, including Mort Sahl and George Carlin on occasional PBS gigs. The biggest one of all came in early 1967, when CBS put what critic David Bianculli called the “dangerously funny” Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on the air. The two youthful folk-singing siblings—and their cast of young up-and-comers like Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, plus guest stars like folkies Joan Baez and Pete Seeger—made no secret of their peace movement politics. And they were swiftly canceled for their troubles—despite high ratings—just two and a half years later.

CBS quickly realized what a mistake they’d made. They’d blown off the youth audience at the same time that Woodstock, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and “existentialist” novels were taking over pop culture. In 1971, they famously “de-ruralized” their aging country comedies and launched All in the Family, a show that went even further than the Smotherses did by showing both sides of the famed “generation gap”: a middle-aged white working class Greatest Generationer, his loving but submissive wife, his feminist daughter, and his “commie pinko” hippie son-in-law.

Yet by the time Saturday Night Live debuted in October of 1975, even what had remained of swinging or sophisticated sketch shows had come and gone. The big primetime variety show hit of early 1976 was the teenage bubble-gum camp of Donny & Marie. And the most popular and highest rated remaining variety formats were the highly enjoyable—but far from countercultural—Saturday night bookends of Lawrence Welk and Carol Burnett.

It was into this vacuum that SNL launched its characterizations of Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase) and Jimmy Carter (Dan Aykroyd), along with their signature satirical “newscast” parody Weekend Update. While Dan Aykroyd made some slight attempt (a blond wig and a Southern gentry accent) to look and act like Jimmy Carter, Chevy Chase made no attempt (other than continuing to be another tall, big-boned white guy) to truly impersonate President Ford. Yet it worked because Ford was so genial yet blandly pragmatic in his personality, the quintessential “country club” Rockefeller Republican. Aykroyd later performed ruthlessly brilliant satires of Richard Nixon in his “final days” and during the David Frost interviews.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu2vdE0z7ds&w=560&h=315]

Aykroyd would continue to impersonate Carter until he left the show in the spring of 1979, but it was Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Ford as a stumbling, clumsy, accident-prone goofball that was probably the most remembered. In the spring of 1976, one of SNL’s most offbeat choices for host was Ron Nessen, Ford’s press secretary. The president himself gamely taped a “cold open” where he said “I’m Gerald Ford—and you’re not!” a play on Chevy’s Weekend Update opening as a hilariously egotistical pretty-boy anchorman who opened his newscast with, “I’m Chevy Chase—and you’re not!” (Nessen regretted the appearance—he accurately said in his memoirs that the good-sport attempt to smother the media image of Ford as an incompetent stumblebum was “a failure.”)

At this point, with your permission, I’d like to interrupt this TV review for a bulletin from the Alternate Universe. It’s worth considering that 1976’s Ford versus Carter tied Bush versus Gore as the closest election in modern history, with less than a 1 percent difference in the popular vote between the two men.

Had Ford been re-elected in 1976—as he almost was—he would have termed out and been forced to retire in 1980, effectively assuring that his chosen running mate for the ’76 race, legendary Senator Bob Dole, would have been the nominee. And that would have meant adios, amigo for any realistic chance of a President Ronald Reagan (or, for that matter, a President George H.W. Bush—Dole and Bush were far from buddies.)

But what if a re-elected President Ford had been faced with the same dilemmas Carter had crash down on him from 1977 to 1980—gas lines, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, sky-high property taxes, 12 percent inflation, and 15 percent mortgage and car loan rates? And what if he’d dealt with them even half as ineffectively? (Ford wasn’t exactly known for his Steve Jobs-like competence, after all.) By 1980, the Republicans would have ruled for 12 years straight, including the last chapter of Vietnam and with the Watergate scandal hanging over them. And with Carter out of the way, the almost sure-thing Democratic nominees (Chappaquiddick notwithstanding) would have been—get ready, TAC readers:  Ted Kennedy for president and Jerry Brown for vice president.

Just imagine what a government might have looked like if President Ted Kennedy and Vice President Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown had been the ones to oversee the final days of the Cold War, instead of Reagan and Bush. How about Supreme Court Justices Mario Cuomo and Rose Bird? Attorney General Barbara Jordan? Secretary of State Shirley Chisholm? Defense Secretary George McGovern?

In order for the Reagan-Buckley Revolution to take the cockpit, both the economically pragmatic Eisenhower/Dewey and the socially liberal Rockefeller/Harry Blackmun wings of the midcentury GOP had to be discredited by a Democratic win in 1976. Then that same Democrat had to do poorly enough that drastic measures were required to replace him four years later.

So the next time you get to hating on Jimmy Carter, just remember—without him winning in ‘76, everything else might have gone down for the count.

Back to Saturday Night Live, which (in 1976 at least, and still often today) was funny. For all its counterculture cred and surface edginess, it did what variety shows had been doing since the days of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and the Barnum & Bailey circus: it entertained.

Can anyone really say the same thing about Samantha Bee and John Oliver, Cenk Ugyur or Jimmy Dore, or any of today’s cable/talk radio hosts of virtually any political preference? Today’s shows exist to get people all psyched up, to preach to the choir, to leave them shaking their fist at the tube about this outrage or that. Indeed, today’s political and social media is now apt to criticize comedy shows for not being “serious” enough. Witness the way SNL alum Jimmy Fallon was ripped a new one for “normalizing” Donald Trump with innocent fun and games just before the 2016 election.

As political as it may have been, SNL’s fun bicentennial battle between “Ford” and “Carter” reminds us of a time when late night talk and variety shows were still humorous slices of life, rather than partisan revival meetings or whiny grievance showcases. Maybe those days are gone with the wind, or perhaps they’re only as far as your Amazon queue or YouTube or Netflix playlist. Either way, the classic Saturday Night Live sketches of ’76 give a bittersweet yet fun glimpse back at where political comedy was 40 years ago—and even more ominously, where it had the potential to go.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”