If TV writers had been on strike during the run up to the 1976 election, it’s possible that Gerald Ford wouldn’t have lost to Jimmy Carter. Ford was a punching bag for NBC’s new “Saturday Night” (later “Saturday Night Live”) beginning with its debut when Chevy Chase coined a campaign slogan for Ford: “If he’s so dumb, how come he’s president?”
That was hardly the worst of it. Three weeks later Chase played Ford in a sketch in which he bumbled, stumbled, and spoke incoherently:
“My fellow Americans, ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, and my immediate family. First, may I thank you all for being here, and I am, and my immediate family. First, may I thank you all for being here, and I am and my immediate family. Thank you all for being here.”
He tries to drink water from an empty pitcher, bangs his head on the podium, falls to the floor twice, and then hurts his hand pounding the podium. He trips over two folding chairs — a reminder to viewers that four months earlier Ford had slipped on rain-soaked steps while exiting Air Force One. It was a seminal moment in political comedy: Chase’s showbiz career took off, while Ford’s political career crashed.
If members of the Writers Guild of America had been on strike, as they are now, Ford’s image might have remained that of a college football star and Yale graduate with a distinguished 25-year career in Congress, who served admirably as vice president and then president when Richard Nixon resigned.
Joe Biden is a lot luckier. When he tripped over a sandbag — carelessly left on a stage at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs where the president was speaking on June 1 — it got a lot of attention, but thanks to the strike there was no one like Chevy Chase to broaden it into an over-the-top TV comedy routine.
It’s easy to imagine what that might have looked like. Ten days after the Colorado incident, Dana Carvey, arguably history’s most gifted presidential mimic, walked on stage as Biden before 1,300 people at the Golden State Theater in Monterey, Calif., and proceeded to fall flat on his face. He jumped up and walked slowly while pumping his arms furiously which, Carvey pointed out, “doesn’t qualify as jogging.” In his spot-on Biden voice: “Feeling good. Watch me run — cause I know how to run!”
In my book “Playing POTUS: The Power of America’s ‘Acting Presidents’,” I examine how impressionists, led by the cast of SNL, have influenced presidential elections over the years. Darrell Hammond’s droll depiction of Al Gore, obsessing over the term “lockbox,” certainly didn’t help Gore in the extremely tight 2000 race. Eight years later, Tina Fey’s brilliantly brutal Sarah Palin (“I can see Russia from my house”) had such a devastating affect on both Palin and her running mate John McCain, that political scientists refer to it as “The Fey Effect.”
I’m guessing that President Biden is secretly hoping the WGA strike drags on. As Gerald Ford wrote after leaving office, “For those people who wanted to see me in less than ‘grand and presidential’ circumstances, Chevy Chase and ’Saturday Night Live’ provided them with plenty of grist for their mills.”
Copyright 2023 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Peter Funt’s latest book is “Playing POTUS: The Power of America’s Acting Presidents,” about comedians who impersonated presidents.