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. READ MORE