Did Barack Obama Personally Squelch a Saturday Night Live Sketch?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Barack Obama personally squelched a Saturday Night Live sketch

While Saturday Night Live (SNL>) has been doing political humor since pretty much their first episode (Chevy Chase first portrayed Gerald Ford on the fourth ever episode of the series) every four years or so there is an extra spotlight cast on the show when it comes time to elect the President of the United States. Sometimes this spotlight results in the show raising their game and doing sketches that permeate the zeitgeist (like in 2000) and sometimes the results are forgettable (2012). One of their more prominent election seasons was the 2008 race for the Presidency, which featured both a pitched battle for the Democratic nomination between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and then a controversial Vice-President candidate for Republican nominee John McCain (a candidate who happened to look a lot like former SNL head writer Tina Fey).

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Reader Matt K. wrote in a little while back to ask about a story he had heard earlier this year about whether it was true that then Senator Obama had the show kill a sketch during the election (I love how suspicious my readers are – Matt specifically noted to me that he thought it sounded like a sound bite that could be so misleading that it was basically false). Were Matt’s instincts correct? Is the story too good to be true? Read on to find out!

The answer is – “basically, yeah.”

The story came out back in August when the Hollywood Reporter featured an excerpt of the new edition of Live From New York, the classic oral history of Saturday Night Live by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales that first came out in 2002. It is an excellent piece of historical writing and naturally enough, someone thought that a dozen more years of material was worth putting out a new updated edition of the book. did an opening sketch featuring Senator Obama.

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That episode was where the whole “Obama killed an SNL sketch” story comes from. The hilarious Robert Smigel was a longtime staff writer on SNL but by 1996, after a decade of writing for the show, he was pretty much only doing a regular animated feature on the show called TV Funhouse, which would do political and cultural satire through cartoons designed to look like typical cartoons of the past.

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Smigel continued on the project for over a decade before budget cuts and the rise of other pre-recorded content on SNL (primarily Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island “Digital Shorts”) led to the discontinuation of the feature at the end of the 2007-08 season. Even before the feature officially ended in the Spring of 2008, it was featured only sporadically that season – just two features made it to air. That season also included the very first TV Funhouse that NBC refused to air (the feature had always been controversial, as Smigel would occasionally go after his comedic targets pretty hard). Smigel discussed the sketch with Miller and Shales:

It wasn’t until my last season that the network refused to air a “TV Funhouse.” It was a live-action one that was meant to be about racism and profiling, an airline-safety video with multilingual narration, and whenever you heard a different language, they would cut to people of that nationality. First, typical white Americans, then a Latino family, then a Japanese family, all being instructed about seat belts, overhead compartments, et cetera. Then it cuts to an Arab man, and the narrator says, in Arabic, “During the flight, please do not blow up the airplane. The United States is actually a humanitarian nation that is rooted in the concept of freedom,” and so on. … When the standards people freaked, Lorne fought them. Standards pushed back hard. They even got someone at NBC human resources to condemn it. … Lorne said, “I have a plan.” Obama was doing a cameo in the cold open. Lorne told me he would show my sketch to Obama. “If Obama thinks it’s OK, they won’t be able to argue it.” I thought it was a brilliant idea, except why would Obama ever give this thing his blessing? What if word got out? “Hey, everybody, that guy over there said it was cool. The one running for president of the country.” But I loved Lorne for caring this much and being willing to go that far to get this thing on TV.

And as Michaels then noted:

Obama said, “It’s funny, but no, I don’t think so.”

So the sketch was killed. But there you go – is that really Barack Obama killing the sketch? I think Matt is absolutely correct that the sound bite “Obama kills sketch” is SO misleading that it is essentially inaccurate. Obama did not kill the sketch, he simply did not go out of his way to SAVE it. It was already going to be killed. It was not like Obama said “You have to pull that sketch.”

I think, therefore, that I’m going to go with a

STATUS: False (even if it is sort of technically true)

Thanks to Matt K. for the great suggestion!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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