News & Politics

How DC Insiders Ended up on SNL

Screenshot of Ron Nessen on SNL via Hulu.

Few thought a major political figure would ever make a cameo on the show when SNL was a new late-night oddity back in 1976. But that didn’t stop producers from asking Gerald Ford’s administration. They didn’t get the President to host, but they did get his press secretary, Ron Nessen—and from there, a precedent for politicos to appear. Nessen, now 83 and living in Bethesda, describes how that 17th SNL episode, in 1976, came together:

“Ford had some teenage kids living in the White House, so he knew about the show, and Chevy Chase had kind of made his reputation by doing this imitation of Ford as a stumbling, bumbling guy tripping and falling. Lorne Michaels asked Ford to be the guest host, and [Ford] didn’t feel that was right for the President. . . . Ford suggested they ask me to do it. What Ford did do was he recorded the ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.’

“I had worked at NBC for 12 years and was very familiar with 30 Rock. So we did the thing, and afterward they have this party at one of the clubs at 30 Rock and they invite all the sponsors and so forth. Then they have the party after the party, which was in Lorne Michaels’s apartment, and there was a lot of marijuana being smoked there that night. I didn’t partake.

“A lot of Ford people were really unhappy for me to do that. Ford had a pretty good sense of humor.”

Famous-for-Washington Cameos That Followed

Senator Paul Simon / December 19, 1987

The wonky Illinois lawmaker showed up to do a monologue alongside the more famous Paul Simon, the singer who was actually hosting that night.

John McLaughlin / October 26, 1991

Dana Carvey’s McLaughlin, dressed as the Grim Reaper, keels over during the Halloween episode, allowing the real TV yakker to come on in relief—black cloak and all.

Janet Reno / January 20, 2001

Mere hours after the end of the Clinton administration, the former attorney general showed up for a sketch called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” a gracious gesture after several years of graceless portrayals of her on the show.

Jon Huntsman / November 19, 2011

Anyone who’d ever observed a presidential campaign instantly recognized Huntsman’s New Hampshire pandering when he dropped by the “Weekend Update” desk to pepper Granite State native Seth Meyers with forced New Hampshire references.

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.