The Nov. 3 cover story of TV Guide Magazine takes a close look at how Saturday Night Live has helped drive America's obsession with this year's historic presidential campaign. Along the way, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels shared some thoughts with us about the show's political hot streak.
TVGuide.com: Saturday Night Live has made a lot of noise in past presidential election years, but it feels much bigger in this cycle. Why do you think that is?
Lorne Michaels: When you get 70 million people watching a debate with rapt interest and you have the echo of it all on the Internet and the 24-hour news channels, almost everything gets seen. You don't need to worry about the straight line. On [the second] debate that we did on the Thursday show, Darrell [Hammond, as Sen. John McCain] wandering into the shot was an immediate laugh. There was no setup to it. You had to have watched the debate to laugh at that.
TVGuide.com: It seems like Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin did what the press was reticent to do. It became a gateway to really examining the candidate. Are you surprised?
Michaels: I'm not. Both campaigns were so used to giving us the official version. Everyone stays on message. You hear the same thing coming out of different mouths. How many times do we have to hear every major Democrat mention that John McCain was George Bush? You stop seeing anything that even seems remotely their own opinions. Every party was more or less giving us an official kind of propaganda. The news people who want to keep getting interviews can't take shots. We're not partisan. We're not saying, "Let's get so-and-so." All campaigns do awful things and our job is to point that out.
TVGuide.com: But do you agree the show has had an effect on the dynamic of the election?
Michaels: We're just a counterbalance; I don't think we change anything. What we do is contribute to whatever everyone is already thinking, but we sometimes get to articulate.
TVGuide.com: Do you hear from the campaigns on the Monday after the show?
Michaels: I hear occasionally that so-and-so watched it and they couldn't believe you did that. And I go, "That's what we do." What I try to do is put everything through the prism of clean hit. If I think it's unfair or cheap, I stop it. You wouldn't get laughs at all if it was just strident or it was just an attack. If it doesn't seem fair the audience recoils from it as well.
TVGuide.com: The casting of Fred Armisen (who is of Japanese and Venezuelan descent) as Barack Obama was a complicated decision.
Michaels: [I had] a lot of sleepless nights. I felt that Fred's take on it would be benign and keep it in a comedy zone in the way Darrell's Bill Clinton was. I thought that of the available cast, he would be the best. We auditioned a lot of people for it. I thought he would get the comedy of it. The Obama people signaled to us that they kind of liked it the first time we did it.
TVGuide.com: NBC must love the ratings for the prime-time Thursday shows. I've got to believe they'll want more than the three you have scheduled.
Michaels: I don't think they're getting more than that. I can't tell you how punishing it is.... You can't run us into the ground.
TVGuide.com: Do you think Sarah Palin and other candidates "had" to do the show to prove to America that they are good sports?
Michaels: I think it definitely helps. You're less likely to trust someone who doesn't have a sense of humor about themselves. Nobody likes when someone is making jokes about them, but they're going to face considerably tougher things once elected.
TVGuide.com: Does having a candidate on the show change the dynamic at all behind the scenes?
Michaels: You have 30 or 40 Secret Service [agents] as well. The moment your evening begins with bomb-sniffing dogs, you know it's going to be an exciting night.