Being a new comic on the road isn’t easy, but Tennessee’s Weird Al won’t give up. He’s cranking out jokes at vaudeville pace, giving New York’s tough crowds all he’s got at the local chuckle shops: Letterman (CBS), The Daily Show (Comedy Central), and now Saturday Night Live (NBC). Presumably, Gore’s gags, skits, and one-liners are designed to correct the widespread perception that he is stiff or strange. But so far all he’s managed to prove is that he knows people think he’s stiff and strange. I find that warped self-knowledge impressive; as I’ve said before, Gore’s efforts at reinvention strike me as profoundly endearing.
Gore kicked off SNL on Saturday with an uxorious, life-threatening embrace with his wife Tipper, followed by a monologue, on the poinsettia-decked set, in which he reminisced about his Bachelorlike seduction of Joe Lieberman (Chris Parnell) in a steaming hot tub. He then visited the set of The West Wing,where the show’s cast (Sheen, Janney, et al.) let him sit in Martin Sheen’s chair and pretend to be president while they went out for sushi. (“He wants to sit at the desk for a while.” “Well, he did win the popular vote.”)
Gore also made a mock Hardball appearance in which he, throwing caution to the wind, impersonated Trent Lott, well-wigged and with hints of a pinched, Deep South accent. “Chris,” he said to Darrell Hammond’s Chris Matthews. “When I said our country wouldn’t have all these problems if Strom Thurmond had been elected president, it had nothing to do with segregation. I simply meant that things would’ve been better because he would’ve kept white people and black people separate.”
Later, Al Franken—Gore booster and speechwriter, possibly the chief architect of his off-balance schtick—reprised his Stuart Smalley therapist role, coaxing the failed presidential candidate to face the mirror. “Hi, me,” Gore said. “I am sad about not being president. And that’s OK. I don’t have to be the most powerful man in the world. All I have to do is be the best Al I can be. Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”
To show humanity, Gore has had to show humility, and to show humility, he’s had to risk humiliation. Two months ago, John McCain breezed through his SNL host gig. But Gore, for his sins, doesn’t breeze through anything, and I know many find the striver Weird Al as irritating as the striver Candidate Al. But I’ve discovered I like to watch him because he tries so hard—and his new comic self-awareness is sympathetic, laudable, even funny.
Too bad we won’t see it on the stump. Gore spent the entire evening poking fun at his presumed frustration at not being president. But this wasn’t the performance of a man who wants the job—not even candidate Clinton could have gotten away with making homoerotic jokes and impersonating senators (some boundaries were observed, and cannily so: George Bush wasn’t mentioned even once). So, it wasn’t surprising when the news arrived today that Gore won’t run in 2004. Last night was his kiss-off, and you’ve got to admire that he delivered it sitting in a hot tub and wearing a silly wig.