Television

When Gerald Ford Went on Saturday Night Live

Long before Between Two Ferns

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Since the topic of Presidents Going On Comedy Shows is hot this week, I thought I'd pass along the tale of Gerald Ford's appearance on Saturday Night Live (or as it was then known, Saturday Night). Ron Nessen, Ford's press secretary, hosted the program on April 17th, 1976, and Ford agreed to pretape a few lines for the episode. Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad tell what happened next in their entertaining book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live:

The resemblance is uncanny.

The taping was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. in the Cabinet Room down the hall from the Oval Office. [Director Gary] Weis stopped off in an adjacent bathroom to snort some cocaine. The film crew, provided by the NBC News bureau in Washington, set up their equipment and waited. At 3:30 on the dot Ford marched into the room. It was clear to [producer] Lorne [Michaels] and Weis that this was but another stop in a blur of engagements the President walked through every day. With a glimmer of recognition in his eyes, Ford shook Lorne's hand and said, "Chevy, how are you?"

As Weis attached a microphone to Ford's lapel, Lorne tried to put the President at ease. "Mr. President," he said, "if this works out, who knows where it could lead." The President smiled vaguely.

Ford had three lines to deliver that would be integrated into the show: "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night," "Ladies and gentlemen, the press secretary to the President of the United States," and "I'm Gerald Ford and you're not." Weis had to urge the President gently to put a little more feeling in hs readings, and it took several takes to get them down.

When they were through, Ford got up to leave for the next event on his schedule. He forgot, however, to remove the microphone from his lapel. The NBC News crew had used a relatively old-fashioned microphone, one that attached by a wire directly to the camera. When the President reached the full length of the cord, he was jerked backward, faltering a step while the camera swayed and almost tipped over.

Ford regained his footing, removed the microphone, and left. Nessen implored Lorne, Weis, and [Dick] Ebersol never to mention the incident to anyone.

A story is only as accurate as its sources, and it is of course possible that, say, the bit about Gary Weis snorting coke in the White House bathroom is an invention. I prefer to believe.

Elsewhere in Reason: Watch Weis' greatest feat of filmmaking here (*), and learn why Ford was the Ramones of the presidency here.

(* Arrg, sorry, I got my SNL directors mixed up.)