If there is anything in television that amounts to a tradition, it is “Saturday Night Live,” a program older than any member of its current cast, and one of the traditions within that tradition is the topical cold open, in which cast members play off of some newsworthy, typically political event. Indeed, one way to watch the news is to pick out likely candidates for next Saturday’s satire.
This is the week of the Democratic National Convention, which was to see former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris officially confirmed as running mates. So Maya Rudolph will be working when “SNL” returns from hiatus this fall.
When there are too many parts to go around, or no one in the cast seems to fit the bill, or a new character in the news seems like a good occasion to call in a ringer, “SNL” will reach out to former cast members or its A-list auxiliary of Friends of the Show. It was obvious that Tina Fey would come back to the show to play Sarah Palin, inevitable that Larry David would take the short walk from being Larry David to playing Bernie Sanders. Rudolph, who left the show in 2007 and has returned as host or guest semi-regularly since, was called back last fall to play Harris, whom she does resemble a little, when the senator was running for the presidential nomination. As soon as Harris was announced as the vice presidential pick, Rudolph began trending on Twitter.
“SNL” impersonations have run the gamut from uncanny to … Chevy Chase, whose Gerald Ford was simply Chevy Chase plus slapstick: “This is not a good impression of Gerald Ford, but Rich Little won’t work for scale,” read one title card. But even when the impressions are good, the humor has focused more on mannerisms and public image than on policy; they take an idea and run with it, over and over again.
See Dan Aykroyd’s super-capable Jimmy Carter on a phone-in show talking a caller down off a bad acid trip; Phil Hartman’s Reagan, a doddering fool in public who turns into a vigorous Eliot Ness behind closed doors; Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush, a symphony of clipped sentences and jagged pauses accompanied by semaphore-signal hand movements; Darrel Hammond’s somnolent Bill Clinton, thinking either about food or sex; and Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush, a lost, not unlikable lummox. Hillary Clinton, portrayed by several actors across the seasons Kate McKinnon most recently and sympathetically has been stuck in the character of a sometimes more, sometimes less hysterical, ambitious also-ran for nearly two decades.
It may not have helped her, given our propensity for mixing up the person with the impersonation. Just as Phil Hartman’s Ed McMahon (“You are correct, sir”) or Rick Moranis’ Merv Griffin on “SCTV” (“Oooh, we’ll be right back”) is the one we hear in our head, realer than the genuine item, for many of us our view of Harris will ultimately be colored by Rudolph, the more so the longer she stays in our lives. (It’s all about the election, people.) We listen to the characters but watch the actors. These are not impersonations so much as superimpositions, in which people we know only through the news, with their hair and their guard up, become humanized, for better or worse, through the filter of comedy.
This can be delightful, and in the case of this felicitous pairing, beneficial to the candidate. Rudolph’s Harris describes herself as “America’s cool aunt, a fun aunt I call that a ‘funt’ the kind of funt that will give you weed but then arrest you for weed. Can I win the presidency? Probably not, I dunno. Can I successfully seduce a much younger man, you better funtin’ believe it.” As a thumbnail sketch of Harris’ mix of playful glamour and prosecutorial deadliness, it feels close to the mark. Filled out with blowing hair, a provocatively raised eyebrow, a blown kiss, the impersonation is as good as it needs to be. (Rudolph’s throwaway “I dunno” feels especially right.) The writing casts her charisma in TV terms: “a smooth-talkin’ lady lawyer, I’m a walkin’, talkin’ TNT show.” She may be holding a cocktail. She might rap: “My name is Kamala/It rhymes with Pamela.”
Politically speaking, “SNL” has always been less interested in examining policy than landing jokes, and even when the jokes don’t land, the show floats along on good will: More than anything, “Saturday Night Live” has been an occasion to get together with people you like and celebrate surviving the week. It’s a fundamentally joyful enterprise, and Rudolph was and is among its most joyful, exuberant, can-do players, qualities that resonate with Harris’ own. The fit feels temperamentally right, from both sides. Whether or not the party wins in November, it feels for the moment like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.