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James Downey, ‘SNL’ veteran writer, mines politics for comedy

James Downey on the ‘‘SNL’’ set with Fred Armisen (left) and Amy Poehler.
James Downey on the ‘‘SNL’’ set with Fred Armisen (left) and Amy Poehler.ROBERT BENNETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES/FILE 2008
Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.
Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2008

“Saturday Night Live’’ writer James Downey knows political comedy. A veteran writer for all but five of the show’s 37 seasons, Downey, 59, has worked with every generation of “SNL’’ performer, from the John Belushi and Gilda Radner era to Billy Crystal, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, and Tina Fey. Winner of the 2012 Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award, the Harvard University and Harvard Lampoon alumnus comes back to Boston on Tuesday for “Strategery: SNL’s Remarkable Influence Over Politics Through Satire,’’ a free event sponsored by Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University. Downey spoke with the Globe recently about the event, at which he will appear with longtime friend Bill Murray.

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Q. I suspect you’re getting this First Amendment Award because your writing at “SNL’’ has helped shaped the political process and public discourse.

Will Ferrell as George W. Bush.
Will Ferrell as George W. Bush.ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2008

A. Well, I hope not. I would have a lot on my soul to atone for. Every now and then something I write somehow finds its way into the coverage of elections. It’s interesting to see what people find compelling and what they don’t. I never really have any idea. All I’m really trying to do is just be funny without being stupid. Which is a full-time job in my case. It takes every ounce of effort on my part.

Q. Are some politicians more fun to parody than others?

A. I tend to like the against-the-grain guys. I thought Gore was much more interesting [than Bush] in terms of there was some interesting weirdness there. . . . Obama is a different set of problems. He’s just really difficult because he’s very smooth. He doesn’t have a lot of, as we say, handles to grab onto. The degree of difficulty, he’s 10 out of 10. George W. Bush would be 2 of 10.

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Q. What are some of your favorite performances over the years?

A. When I look back at entire run of the show, there were certain things that Dan Aykroyd did, like his Bob Dole. . . . Dana [Carvey] doing Ross Perot. Both Phil Hartman and Darrell [Hammond] did great aspects of Clinton, but obviously we did a lot more with Darrell. Dana’s doing George W. Bush was right up there. . . . Tina’s Sarah Palin or Darrell doing Al Gore or Dan Rather - pretty much hard to hard to top that.

Q. How important is physical appearance?

A. It’s not really necessary, but it can be a nice thing. We once did Phil Hartman as Mario Cuomo and he looked exactly like him. It was a Madame Tussauds kind of phenomenon. Then sometimes you have a situation where we don’t have anyone who’s even remotely close to this person. . . . The audience gets that. They understand that we have a resident cast, that we don’t go out and hire look-alikes. It’s like a sliding scale, but along like 12 different axes.

Q. There are times when an “SNL’’ sketch enters the political lexicon. Like the faux malapropism “strategery,’’ which in fact George W. never said. But Will Ferrell, playing Bush, did.

A. It got sort of complicated. . . . Someone in the White House said they would “own’’ the problem. So they started referring to briefings as “strategery sessions.’’

Q. Talk about your time at the Harvard Lampoon.

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A. Nowadays there are so many people from the Lampoon who are all over the place. It’s become the West Point of comedy. It was a good training ground. . . . I suppose had I not sunk [so] much of my time into the Lampoon, I would not have been in a position where I maybe even considered doing this for a living. Or I might have had more options [laughs].

Q. As a comedy writer, who would you prefer to see Obama take on in November?

A. I think Santorum’s funny because he’s got that tortured [look], he always looks pained, like people are being unfair to him. He’s got that chip on his shoulder. He likes mixing it up with people. But Romney has his own goof[iness]. . . . Our take is, essentially, that he just tries very hard to sound like what a regular person is like and it’s not working.

Q. Are you a Jon Stewart fan?

A. I love Jon Stewart, but I have to confess I only see his show like twice a month because I get enough of it at work. It’s not my first choice for a vacation. Like bus drivers don’t take their family on cross-country driving tours. Or they shouldn’t.

Q. You and Bill Murray go way back to 1976, to the second season of “SNL.’’

A. We were hired the same day. . . . We had shared the office there for four years. I’ve been close to others. I am close to [Dan] Aykroyd too, but Billy probably the most. We’ve just remained very close.

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Q. What can the audience expect from you and Bill Murray on Tuesday?

A. We’re talking about maybe performing a piece together. Doing a reading of a piece written for John Belushi. . . . Or a piece written for Paris Hilton when she hosted the show and she refused to do the piece the night of the show. She threw a tantrum and locked herself in her dressing room and would not come out. She was allowed to get away with that. We didn’t do the piece. Joey Buttafuoco, who was going to be in the piece with her, was part of the issue, I guess. . . . I’m going to show one [filmed] piece that I’m determined to show that was cut from a dress rehearsal. It will be like a world premiere. A John Kerry piece. . . . Basically, he’s just obsessed with ending prenuptial agreements. Our audience did not really understand the background. Or maybe they did and didn’t find it was funny.

Q. Well, you’re in John Kerry country, so the audience will get it.

A. That’s what I’m hoping. Of course it might be one of those things where the only people who get the piece are the people mostly likely to be upset by it.


This interview has been condensed and edited. Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.

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