TV URBAN LEGEND: Did Barack Obama personally quash a Saturday Night Live sketch?
While Saturday Night Live has been tackling political humor since virtually the beginning of its nearly four-decade history (Chevy Chase first portrayed Gerald Ford on the fourth episode), but the spotlight intensifies whenever it comes time to elect the president. Sometimes this spotlight results in the show raising its game and producing sketches that tap into the zeitgeist (like in 2000), while other times the results are forgettable (2012). One of their more prominent election seasons was the 2008 presidential race, which featured both a pitched battle for the Democratic nomination between senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and then a controversial running mate for Republican nominee John McCain.
Reader Matt K. wrote to ask whether it was true that then Sen. Obama had the show kill a sketch during the campaign. I love how suspicious my readers are: Matt specifically noted to me that he thought it sounded like a sound bite that could be so misleading that it was basically false. Were Matt's instincts correct? Is the story too good to be true? Read on to find out!
The answer is: "basically, yeah."
The story came out in August, when The Hollywood Reporter featured an excerpt of the new edition of Live From New York, the 2002 oral history of SNL by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. It’s an excellent piece of historical writing, and naturally enough, someone thought that a dozen more years of material was worth putting out a new updated edition of the book. The excerpt published by The Hollywood Reporter spotlighted the political sketches of SNL over the past decade.
One notable tidbit was that Clinton specifically asked to be on the 2007-08 season premiere, only to suddenly bail the week of the episode. This naturally irked SNL producer Lorne Michaels. A few weeks later, they instead did an opening sketch featuring Obama.
That episode was where the whole "Obama killed an SNL sketch" story comes from. The hilarious Robert Smigel was a longtime staff writer on SNL, but by 1996, after a decade of writing for the show, he was pretty much only doing a regular animated feature called “TV Funhouse,” which would do political and cultural satire. Smigel continued on the project for more than a decade before budget cuts and the rise of other pre-recorded content on SNL (primarily Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island "Digital Shorts") led to the discontinuation of the feature at the end of the 2007-08 season. Even before the feature officially ended in spring 2008, it was featured only sporadically that season -- just two features made it to air. That season also included the first “TV Funhouse” that NBC refused to air (the feature had always been controversial, as Smigel would occasionally go after his comedic targets pretty hard). Smigel discussed the sketch with Miller and Shales:
It wasn't until my last season that the network refused to air a "TV Funhouse." It was a live-action one that was meant to be about racism and profiling, an airline-safety video with multilingual narration, and whenever you heard a different language, they would cut to people of that nationality. First, typical white Americans, then a Latino family, then a Japanese family, all being instructed about seat belts, overhead compartments, et cetera. Then it cuts to an Arab man, and the narrator says, in Arabic, "During the flight, please do not blow up the airplane. The United States is actually a humanitarian nation that is rooted in the concept of freedom," and so on. … When the standards people freaked, Lorne fought them. Standards pushed back hard. They even got someone at NBC human resources to condemn it. … Lorne said, "I have a plan." Obama was doing a cameo in the cold open. Lorne told me he would show my sketch to Obama. "If Obama thinks it's OK, they won't be able to argue it." I thought it was a brilliant idea, except why would Obama ever give this thing his blessing? What if word got out? "Hey, everybody, that guy over there said it was cool. The one running for president of the country." But I loved Lorne for caring this much and being willing to go that far to get this thing on TV.
And as Michaels then noted:
Obama said, "It's funny, but no, I don't think so."
So the sketch was killed. But there you go: Is that really Barack Obama killing the sketch? I think Matt is absolutely correct that the sound bite "Obama kills sketch" is SO misleading that it is essentially inaccurate. Obama didn’t kill the sketch; he simply didn’t go out of his way to SAVE it. It was already going to be killed. It was not like Obama said "You have to pull that sketch."
I think, therefore, that I'm going to go with a …
STATUS: False (even if it is sort of technically true)
Thanks to Matt K. for the great suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!