Saturday Night’s Children: Jim Downey (1979-1980)
Aside from having the best set of lines in Billy Madison, Jim Downey is best known for having a long writing tenure at SNL second only to Lorne Michaels. Downey joined the show at the same time as Bill Murray in 1976, and with only a few exceptions (including a break in the early ’80s to serve as head writer at Letterman), he was a regular fixture on the writing staff until the end of last year, serving as the show’s longest-running head writer from 1986-1995 and knighted ruler of SNL’s political cold open sketches. Despite being better remembered as a writer, Downey also spent a single season as a cast member in the often overlooked one-time writer/cast member fifth season takeover alongside fellow scribes Peter Aykroyd, Brian Doyle-Murray, Alan Zweibel, Tom Schiller, and Don Novello.
Downey attended Harvard University, where he also wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, becoming the satirical paper’s president in 1973. He was recommended to Lorne Michaels by National Lampoon magazine founder Doug Kenney, making him one of the first Lampoon grads to make the jump from college paper to SNL writer. He joined the show for its second season and most often penned sketches with Dan Aykroyd and writers Al Franken and Tom Davis. Following Aykroyd and Belushi’s exit in 1979, Lorne Michaels attempted to keep the spirit of the original cast alive by promoting Downey and a group of other writers to featured players, adding new player Harry Shearer, and even promoting bandleader Paul Shaffer to the cast.
While Downey’s stint as an official player found him mostly doing voiceovers, bit parts, and the occasional George Bush Sr. impersonation, his true impact as an SNL performer lies in his capabilities as a writer, hirer of talent (he essentially kick-started the idea of the Harvard-filled writers rooms on SNL, The Simpsons, Parks and Rec, and more) and driving force behind SNL‘s creative direction over the last near-40 years. While he briefly left along with Michaels and most of the staff in 1980 to work as head writer for Late Night with David Letterman then Michaels’s short-lived SNL spin-off The New Show, Downey returned in 1984 and became the mind behind almost every political sketch or presidential appearance parody since (including Tina Fey’s 2008 Sarah Palin sketches; Will Ferrell’s famous word “strategery” as George W. Bush is also a Downey invention). He also helped hone Weekend Update into the sharp political weapon it is today and wrote most of Update anchor Norm Macdonald’s O.J. Simpson trial material in the ’90s, which culminated in 1998 when NBC exec (and friend of Simpson) Don Ohlmeyer fired Macdonald, and Downey left too in solidarity. He returned to the show two years later. After Macdonald’s O.J. Simpson controversy, Weekend Update became a regularly covered segment among “real” news outlets everywhere and, along with Downey’s presidential/political sketches, became the cultural arbiter of celebrities’ and newsmakers’ trademarks, tics, and personalities among viewers and news coverage alike.
Downey’s closest semblance to an SNL recurring character didn’t come until long after his stint as a player ended. Aside from roles as fake audience members and dry-humored pre-tape narrators (which are nearly impossible to find now that full ’70s SNL episodes are no longer on Netflix), between 1995-2005 he showed up sporadically as the stuffy and overly matter-of-fact investment bank CEO Arthur Grayson of “Grayson Moorhead Securities” as well as the very similar Paul McElroy of “First CityWide Change Bank.” Years later he undid all that conservative prestige in a shocking turn as Andy Samberg’s father in the Digital Short “Andy’s Dad,” in which he begins a relationship with Samberg’s friend Jonah Hill that gets extremely physical.
Standing out as calmer, older, and more politically conservative than most of his SNL coworkers, it’s Downey who has helped keep the show at its delicate ideological balance. Though he reportedly sent all his scripts to almost 20 media figures and politicians like Tucker Carlson, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Senator Al Franken on a regular basis, his focus always stayed on what was funny versus what fell into his personal political beliefs. “My approach is to do something that’s funny and not politically idiotic, as opposed to saying something profound,” he told The New York Times in 2008. “Something that passes muster as a common-sense understanding of the state of play.” Downey even spoke out when a right-wing blog published one of his rejected 2012 sketches that poked fun at Obama and claimed an anti-conservative conspiracy when the show aired a Fox News parody sketch instead: “Comedy is so subjective. I’m sure the people who made the decision will say the piece they ran was funnier.”
With the exception of a very small role as a real estate broker Al Rose in There Will Be Blood, Downey’s kept his big screen acting choices mostly restricted to SNL alum projects, having shown up in work by or starring Jane Curtin (Kate & Allie), Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (Wayne’s World 2), Adam Sandler (Billy Madison), Norm Macdonald (Dirty Work, as Martin the philosophical homeless man), Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Tina Fey (30 Rock). Nearly everyone involved with SNL has exalted Downey as “a great guy” (Garofalo), “the best” (Macdonald), and according to Sandler in Live from New York, the writer who best tutored his younger collaborators in the SNL style. Elsewhere in Live from New York, Downey recounts walking in public with his friend Bill Murray and observing the crowds of adoring fans he’d always draw, only for him to point to Downey and say “Well, he’s the guy who writes the stuff.” Such is the life of a writer destined not so much for onscreen SNL stardom, but to be its true voice — both literally and as its most influential writer — behind four decades of usually funny, occasionally intellectual, and more often than not, brilliant socio-political satire.