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For a long time now, Saturday Night Live has skewered politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. However, the show has survived for more than forty years on the air because it has always strived to be fair with the potshots at various celebrities and has—mostly—succeeded. In a recent interview, former SNL writer Michael Schur explained that Lorne Michaels has a pretty specific set of rules when it comes to writing segments like “Weekend Update” and putting together other topical sketches. You can check out what Schur had to say about Michaels’ biggest rule for writing political jokes, below.
The biggest rule was: you attack whoever’s in power. Don’t bring your personal bias to the table. This show was forged in the cauldron of Watergate, when the world became cynical and skeptical of politicians. Lorne’s thing was: it doesn’t matter what your political leanings are, you go after whoever is in power; you go after the power structure.
It’s advice that has become more important over the years, as political impressions have become a mainstay on the late night sketch series—especially around election years. This year, for instance, we’ve seen the series poke fun at Republican hopefuls like Donald Trump and ‘young’ Ben Carson, along with Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and that other guy whose name no one can remember from the Democrat side. And while SNL doesn’t always get the formula right, it’s clear the show is always trying to be as fair and fun as possible, even for the celebrities who are being spoofed.
There are more rules, of course, and in the interview with Believer Mag, Schur also spoke out about the writing process related to taking shots at celebrities.
You make those calculations about jokes about celebrities: is this a fair hit or not? The stakes were higher because the whole world was crumbling around us, but in terms of joke-telling, it’s all about feel. Lorne Michaels has many excellent rules about comedy, and his rules for “Weekend Update” and topical-sketch writing were incredibly rational and well reasoned.
Schur went on to write for The Office and later co-created NBC’s Parks and Recreation, where the political jokes were often confined to Pawnee, Indiana. But it’s clear that his work on Saturday Night Live impacted him a great deal. You can catch more about the man’s time on The Office, here. In addition, you can check out the full list of upcoming SNL hosts, which includes none other than Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting together, here. Yes, we said hosting together.
Saturday Night Live airs over at NBC at 11:30 p.m. ET.