Q&A | ‘SNL’ writer talks comedy

Political satirist Jim Downey of “Saturday Night Live” arrived in New Haven on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon to speak to Suzanne O’Malley’s “Writing Hour-Long TV Drama” seminar. Downey, who has written over 1,000 “SNL” skits in the past 32 years, is best known for his political sketches of the 2008 presidential election, such as the Hillary Clinton LAW ’75–Barack Obama skit that aired before Super Tuesday.

The 1975 Harvard College graduate talked to the News about late-night comedy, breaking into the world of satire, and working at the Harvard Lampoon, the humor magazine at Harvard.

QHow did your time at the Harvard Lampoon prepare you for your career?

AThe first thing I saw that I really liked was the Harvard Lampoon’s Life parody, and I decided to join. The Lampoon was a vital activity that shaped the rest of my life rather than anything else that I did at the Crimson. It was a humor magazine that had the elements of a social organization. We would always have crazy dinners, and alumni from the magazine shaped the creation of the National Lampoon and “SNL.” For me, it was a way of avoiding the things that you were supposedly supposed to do at college. I did that very well — I focused on everything but my studies.

QWhen did you start writing for “Saturday Night Live,” and how did you land the coveted job?

AWhen I was at Harvard, Michael O’Donoghue had come to Harvard to have dinners with the Lampoon staff. He sort of offered me a job for their vision of “Saturday Night Live,” but I surprised everyone by winning a traveling fellowship to the former Soviet Union. I came back a year later and “SNL” had started without me and had become a big hit. I roomed with Doug Kenney of the National Lampoon and he told me to submit my stuff to the show. I did and I was hired as a writer.

QYou left “SNL” for another late-night show. How did you end up writing for the “Late Show with David Letterman”?

AWell, in 1980 my fellow writers and I had all decided that [“SNL”] had run its course and wanted to leave. We were young and naïve and thought that NBC would understand and take this gigantic hit show off the air for us, but they didn’t. So, I went to work for David Letterman for a couple of years and then came back to “SNL.” I have been writing for the show steadily since I returned to it in 1984.

QYou said you were there steadily, but were there seasons when you did not write for the show?

AWell, let’s just say I had a couple of interruptions. I was fired a couple of times by the network due to disagreements. The head of the network had a particular antipathy towards me and I think I teased him more than I should have. I was blacklisted for the network and returned in the fall of 2000 when I was asked to do the election specials for Gore and Bush. Since then I’ve been fairly happy.

QHow did the writer’s guild strike affect you?

A“SNL” was shut down from November 2007 to about mid-February in 2008. I feel that the problem in show business is that with the constantly changing technology, we, the writers, are always fighting the last battle. But since the strike, the unions have improved things — we now have pensions and health coverage.

QWhat is your advice to people who are interested in becoming writers for “SNL” or another comedy show?

AGet in while you still have teeth in your mouth. It seems impossible to get work after a certain age in television. In most industries you’re more valuable because of your experience, but in show business the rule of thumb is “younger is better.” They love the idea of having very young people in charge of shows — it’s a selling point.

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