Cut out to be a Cut-up? Essay: With politicans and comics slipping with -- more or less -- ease into each other's roles, it's getting harder and harder to know who it is we're supposed to find funny and who it is we're supposed to take seriously.


Remember when "Saturday Night Live" was funny and politicians served as the object of its comedy, not as the comedians themselves?

It says something both about the state of the show and the state of politics that Steve Forbes was the funniest thing on "SNL" this weekend.

Of course, the erstwhile presidential candidate, with his googly eyes, chipmunk cheeks and oddly daffy demeanor, has always been funny -- it was just unintentional before. He was this year's nutsy billionaire running for president, a political sideshow we've come to expect every four years like another revival of "Hello Dolly."

There's something redundant, then, in asking Steve Forbes to be the host of a comedy show when he already performed that role in New Hampshire and Iowa.

But then, there no longer seems to be a line between politics and entertainment. You're just as likely to see government officials on David Letterman as David Brinkley, hear what passes for public discourse on MTV as "Meet the Press."

Steve Forbes wasn't even the first one-time candidate to appear on "Saturday Night Live" this year: Lamar Alexander beat him to the punch in October, when he was still seeking the Republican nomination. The plaid-shirted one was joined by the real Bill "I'm not running, but do you want me to?" Bradley -- plus actors playing Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton -- in a Halloween sketch portraying the presidential candidates as scary trick-or-treaters.

To his credit, Mr. Forbes was quite the trouper Saturday night, essentially playing off his image as a millionaire geek with a single joke, er, we mean, issue: the flat tax. He had a hilarious turn on a faux "Nightline," in which he was accused of being "Anonymous," author of "Election Colors," a book that portrays "Teve Torbes" as "not a geek with a crooked smile . . . but a babe magnet." He also appeared in a sketch confronting his "SNL" doppelganger, Mark McKinney, who has portrayed him this season as a wimp ever on the verge of a maniacal giggle.

L Mr. Forbes' hosting gig, though, might have had more edge if

he were still actually in the race.

But as a GOP candidate now practically forgotten, his appearance seemed more like a wistful longing for the spotlight to shine on him again. If anything, the show demonstrated how little there is to work with, politically or comically, in a candidate basically running to lower his own taxes.

Perhaps he wanted to lay the groundwork for another run in the year 2000. The show did serve to humanize him a bit -- after an awkward opening monologue, he seemed to relax and lose that brittle, deer-caught-in-the-headlights look in his eyes. He came off as rather sporting, willing to play along with the jokes about his wealth and his nerdiness.

If nothing else, he proved himself truly a politician of the modern era, meaning, one who can't resist a camera, whether it's pointed by CNN or "SNL."

Once leaders led

Once upon a time, there was a difference: We looked to our leaders for, oddly enough, leadership. And we looked to our entertainers for entertainment. But somewhere along the way, something got confused.

Maybe the entertainers started it, wanting their political views taken seriously, even if those began and ended with wearing a ribbon on their Armani lapels. Or maybe the politicians started it, playing to cameras rather than to their convictions.

While the line has been blurring for a while, the current administration has avidly played to the cheap seats. Candidate Bill Clinton donned cool-cat shades and played his saxophone on Arsenio Hall. Vice President Al Gore provided a top 10 list and donned safety glasses to smash an ashtray on David Letterman. And President Clinton told MTV it's briefs not boxers.

In fact, that's what made the White House seem rather disingenuous when it pitched a hissy fit over a bawdy routine by shock jock Don Imus at a recent Washington gathering. Yes, it was tasteless to joke about the president's rumored infidelity while the first lady was sitting right there. Yes, the office of the presidency should command a certain level of respect.

But if the president himself has already publicly discussed his underwear, who, in fact, is responsible for the lowering of this level?

Striking first

There is, of course, a certain defensive posture politicians must take -- the media are going to delve into their personal lives whether they like it or not, might as well beat them to the punch. That, after all, is why the Clintons felt the need to appear on "60 Minutes" during the last campaign to discuss their marital woes. And so it is with non-news shows like Letterman and "SNL" -- they're going to make fun of you anyway, you might as well beat them to the punch line.

It all makes you long for the days when politicians just politicked and left the entertainment to the pros. Not that we want our politicians to be dreary, all-business creatures -- there will always be room for the kind of offhand wit John Kennedy displayed at press conferences, or the perfectly timed quips Ronald Reagan delivered.

But they should leave some of the belly laughs to the actual comedians. In fact, you could make the case that "Saturday Night Live" was much funnier when its cast members did the lampooning of the politicians rather than inviting them on the show to lampoon themselves. There was Chevy Chase as a pratfalling Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey as a gibbering George Bush and Jan Hooks as a wicked-witch Hillary Clinton. Most recently, Norm McDonald has gotten substantial mileage out of playing a dour, third-person-referring Bob Dole.

A regular thing

Occasionally, a real politician would show up -- Mr. Bush in '94 after losing the presidency, and Jesse Jackson in '84 when he was probably running for president. But recently it has become more common. Especially if you're a camera-loving New York mayor, like the current Rudy Giuliani and the former Ed Koch, who are practically regulars on the talk and comedy circuit.

It's become a cliche, of course, to dis "Saturday Night Live," and recall how much funnier it was with Gilda Radner and John Belushi or, more recently, Mike Myers and Rob Schneider.

Actually, this year's cast is not that bad: there are some burgeoning talents on board, it's just that no one can tell them apart. One woman seems to do all the female roles -- that odd cheerleader and the Italian harpie character -- and there's one black guy, as there always is. But who can tell all those bland-looking white guys apart? (The one who does Ted Koppel, whoever he is, has a dead-on, devastating impression.)

Here's a suggested career move for cast members who want a higher profile: Run for office. It'll do wonders for your comedic potential.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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