Saturday Night Live has employed hundreds of comedy writers in its four decades on the air, but no writer has been associated with the show longer — or had more of a lasting impact — than James Woodward Downey. If Lorne Michaels is the face of Saturday Night Live, Downey is its behind-the-scenes creative force.
Called by Lorne Michaels the best political humorist alive, Downey has been responsible for most of the political-centered pieces during Saturday Night Live’s run (many of which he co-wrote with now Senator Al Franken), starting with Jimmy Carter in the mid-’70s and ending, six administrations later, with Barack Obama. The power of Downey’s political comedy extends beyond laughs; more impressively, his work has influenced the actual political landscape. In 2008 — during a live, televised debate seen by millions — Hillary Clinton referred to one of Downey’s recent sketches to make her point that perhaps the press was going just a bit too easy on her opponent. “I just find it curious,” she said, “if anybody saw Saturday Night Live . . . maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow?”
In 2013, after working on SNL off and on for thirty-three of its thirty-eight seasons — and serving as head-writer for Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, for two years (where he created the Top Ten List) — Downey retired from the show, and now divides his time between New York City and rural, upstate New York, where he hopes to achieve his goal of “harmless eccentric.”
You worked at SNL longer than any other writer in the show’s history. And yet as respected as you are, you were actually fired by NBC for a season, beginning in 1998.
Well, that was all due to [NBC executive] Don Ohlmeyer. Norm Macdonald, the anchor for Weekend Update, and I were writing a lot of jokes about O.J. Simpson, and we had been doing so for more than three years. Don, being good friends with O.J., had just had enough.
Your O.J. jokes were not light taps on the head. These were jokes that would often end with: “Because O.J. murdered two people.”
Yeah, we weren’t holding back. [Laughs] That’s the thing I kind of liked about Don, actually: his friendship with O.J. was so old school. It was so un-showbizzy. He ended up firing me, as well as Norm, but I can’t honestly say that a part of me doesn’t respect Don for his loyalty. Most people in show business would sell out anyone in their lives, for any reason at all, including for practice. Don was the opposite. He threw a party for the jurors after the 1995 acquittal. And he stuck with O.J. through it all.
I don’t know that Norm enjoyed the experience of the firing quite as much as I did, but to me it was exciting. It was certainly the best press I ever received. We got tremendous support from people I really admire, some of whom are friends and some I didn’t really know that well, but who stepped up and called me. It was a fun time.
You had been on the show for twenty years. Being fired must have stung a little.
To tell you the truth, Norm and I had done Update for three and a half seasons. I felt like we had made our point. What I did like about the way we approached Update was that it was akin to what the punk movement was for music: just real stripped down. We did whatever we wanted, and there was nothing there that we considered to be a form of cheating. We weren’t cuddly, we weren’t adorable, we weren’t warm. We weren’t going to do easy, political jokes that played for clapter and let the audience know we were all on the same side. We were going to be mean and, to an extent, anarchists.
Shouldn’t there be some connection with the audience? Can you be a complete anarchist when it comes to humor?
Yeah, well, that’s Norm Macdonald. He does things for the experience of doing it, and he doesn’t fear silence at all. Take his performance at the 2008 Bob Saget roast where he did jokes that could have come out of a 1920s toastmaster’s manual: “[Comedian] Greg Giraldo is here. He has the grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle. Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds! [Actress] Susie Essman is famous for being a vegetarian. Hey! She may be a vegetarian, but she’s still full of bologna in my book!”
One summer, when SNL was on hiatus, Norm and I read a story about a newspaper published by and for the homeless. We were improvising around that idea, doing the tough newspaper editor handing out assignments to his homeless reporters: “Edwards! I want a thousand words on going to the bathroom in your pants! You! Davis! How about a human interest feature on urine-stained mattresses! Bernstein! Can you give me a long ‘think piece’ on people whose brains are being monitored by the CIA?!”
I had forgotten all about this conversation, but the first SNL episode back that fall, Norm says to me, “Hey, Downey. Remember that homeless idea we had? About the newspaper by and for the homeless? Well, I was out in L.A., you know? And I was doing this benefit for the homeless . . . ”
And I’m thinking, Oh no . . .
And he says, “Yeah, I did that bit for the audience . . . at this benefit, you know? And they hated it!”
He’s just the most courageous performer. Norm would sometimes hang on an Update joke because he wanted to make it clear to the audience that yes, the joke was over, but we still thought it was funny. He didn’t make the panic move of quickly jumping to the next joke so he didn’t have to hear the silence. He wanted to give people a chance.
I’m not sure how big a fan Lorne was of our Update. I think it was probably too mean for his sensibility, and he didn’t like the deadpan aspect of it. But he supported us as long as he could, bless his heart. And I stand by it. I’m proud of what we did there. Nearly all of those Update segments have been edited out of repeats, by the way.
Photo by Jim Dalton.
This interview is excerpted with permission from Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks, available for purchase right this very moment.