James Downey Biography
2012 First Amendment Award Winner
at the Ford Hall Forum
James Downey has ridden the waves of social change churned up by “Saturday Night Live” for nearly 40 years. As a writer for the renowned late night classic, Downey is one of the last remaining original members of the comedy showcase.
Downey joined SNL in its second season. So did actor Bill Murray, as an indelible member of the ensemble. He and Downey became good friends and roommates during those early years. Murray joins the Ford Hall Forum to help honor Downey. In 1976, Downey was also colleague of star writers Michael O’Donoghue, Robert Smigel, Jack Handey, George Meyer, Tom Davis and now-Minnesota senator Al Franken. As a survivor in a volatile business, Downey went on to a stint as head writer of SNL (1986-87). He was the show’s producer (1988-1995); fired (1998) and rehired (2000). He performed on-air during one season (1979-1980). Downey quit SNL in 1980 and went on to become the head writer for “Late Night with David Letterman,” (1982-83), where he was responsible for the “Top Ten List” among other things. He returned to NBC and “Live” in the mid-80s.
Today, James Downey remains a veteran stalwart with “Saturday Night Live.” His longevity earns him, along with executive producer Lorne Michaels, long distance runner status in SNL’s epoch chronicling the culture. Downey has seen two centuries of celebs and fads; cast members celebrated and dismissed; the untimely deaths of comic icons Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Phil Hartman and Chris Farley. He’s heard the demise of “Saturday Night Live” foretold many times. He’s watched as NBC has been sold and resold. He has outlasted network CEOs and censors. Skewering seven U.S. presidents and countless political candidates, Downey was writing political sketches when cast member Dan Aykroyd smooth talked his way through Jimmy Carter. Anyone for a slippery Obama barb or an awkward Mitt Romney address? Downey still writes much of the show’s political spoofery.
Born in 1952 in Berkeley, Calif., Downey, 59, graduated in 1974 from Harvard University with a degree in Russian, which, in light of his subsequent career, was a complete waste of his parents’ money. He also came away from Harvard with a coveted pedigree from the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s humor magazine where he was president in 1973. Downey cleared the way for Lampoon alums to work for “Saturday Night Live.” The Lampoon’s alumni include such other literate luminaries as John Updike, Robert Benchley, Ian Frazier, George Santayana, Owen Wister, George Plimpton, Robert Sherwood, and the writing staff of nearly every comedy show currently on television.
Downey has guest-starred on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with Larry David, his old friend and former “SNL” writer. He has appeared in the films, “There Will Be Blood” with Daniel Day Lewis (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007); “Dirty Work,” with Norm MacDonald (1998); and, in one of his his best-known contributions to pop culture, he was the principal in “Billy Madison,” (1994). Downey’s speech in the “academic decathlon” scene can still be recited almost verbatim by approximately 70-percent of American men (and some women) who were aged 13-19 in 1994. He was also the voice of Mike Myers’ Asian father-in-law in “Wayne’s World.”
In the realm of political satire, Downey shines most brightly. As Norm McDonald, former SNL cast member, told authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller in their definitive oral history, “Live From New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” Downey is the “brilliant guy. He was the funniest guy there and the smartest.” Says McDonald: “He knew about politics, which I had no interest in at all. So he could think politically.” “Downey taught us our taste,” says Adam Sandler, movie mogul and former SNL player, to Shales and Miller.
Downey is responsible for such classic SNL send-ups as vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s debate with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton’s pique about cosseted Barack Obama’s comfort during the 2008 debates, a 1988 Republican Presidential debate with Dan Aykroyd as Senator Bob Dole, and numerous Presidential proclamations by “SNL” chief executives Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama. In a piece about the late night show’s influence during the 2008 campaign, the New York Times put the spotlight on Downey: “When Mr. Downey has taken aim at the presidential debates, he has consistently defined the candidates before they could define themselves.” Downey has also coined totemic malapropisms such as the non-word “strategery” out of the mouth of former president George W. Bush.
“When I do political stuff, I just want it to be first and foremost funny,” Downey told the Harvard Crimson, “And, second, not idiotic so someone who knows politics would say, ‘Yeah, it’s funny and it actually makes sense.’”
Downey, the father of a son, lives in Connecticut. He is working on a book, (as a family project) about a colonial New York ancestor who was tried for treason in 1691, sentenced to be hanged, and later pardoned by King William III. Most of the money Downey has saved has been put into restoring 18th-century houses in Connecticut and upstate New York. And, depending on whether you believe everything you read in Wikipedia, he could be the uncle of actor Robert Downey Jr.
As James Downey sharpens his pencil and lays out his yellow legal pads (reportedly, he uses old-fashioned implements to ply his trade) to dig into Campaign 2012, a TV nation anticipates freewheeling farce defining political parties, the candidates and national discontents. In Downey’s acerbic observations, free speech prospers.
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