The lively primary season and pivotal presidential election have been very, very good to “Saturday Night Live,” making the 33-year-old late night show appointment viewing again.
Luckily, Lorne Michaels and company saw the opportunity coming, jumping in last spring to extend this season’s schedule to 22 live shows, from a typical 20, with seven of those first-run episodes leading into the Nov. 4 election. And beginning this week, “SNL” went live in prime time with half-hour “Weekend Update”-driven episodes, which continue at 9:30 p.m. EDT on the next two Thursdays.
With so much live content front-loaded into the season, how are they pulling it off?
“With the help of the presidential candidates,” Michaels says. “We’ll just follow events.”
So far this season, “SNL” has capitalized - and how - on the uncanny resemblance of former cast member Tina Fey to the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Fey gets particular kudos for mimicking Palin’s voice so precisely.
Portrayals of the two presidential candidates have been more problematic. Darryl Hammond does a believable, if not dead-on, version of Republican Sen. John McCain and continues to be pressed into service as former President Bill Clinton.
But the choice of Fred Armisen to play Democratic Sen. Barack Obama drew criticism because Armisen is white. (He jokes that the point is moot because “I grew up on a hippie commune and things were pretty loose there. My dad told me we don’t really know who my mother is, so she can be one of many races.”)
A big hurdle for “SNL” to get past was the heroic aura that surrounded Obama and made it difficult for some comics to make fun of him. “But sooner or later, everyone does something to irritate us,” Michaels told TV critics this summer.
Ratings to date have rewarded the show’s focus on politics. Viewership for the first three episodes of the season was up 52 percent from last year, NBC boasts.
And with two more weeks in the Thursday prime-time slot, “Weekend Update” co-anchor Seth Meyers sees more opportunities.
“Sometimes stuff comes up and by the time Saturday rolls around, it’s gone cold. So it will be exciting for us to have two shots during a week. That will be exciting.”
Don’t expect a weekly, prime-time “SNL” spinoff, though.
“I wouldn’t like to see it turn into a weekly,” Michaels says. “Most things can wait until Saturday.”