Jim Downey (comedian)

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James Downey
Born James Woodward Downey [1]
(1952-10-06) October 6, 1952 (age 62)
Occupation writer for Saturday Night Live (SNL), actor
Genre comedy
Notable works SNL political satire[2]

James Downey (born 1952 [2][3]) is an American comedy writer and occasional actor. Downey is best known as a long-time writer for Saturday Night Live.



Downey attended Harvard University, graduating in 1974 with a degree in Russian. While at Harvard, he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, at a time when (as Steve O'Donnell said in 1987) "the proliferation of cable and the proliferation of comedy [led] the sensibilities of the Lampoon [to become] a little closer to the sensibilities of the mass media."[4] Downey, a member of that first generation of Lampoon writers to make a career in television, has been credited with playing a role in that shift. In 1976, 100 Years of Harvard Lampoon Parodies was published in magazine format, edited by Downey and Eric Rayman. In 1976, Downey became a writer for Saturday Night Live. He worked on 27 of the show's first 32 seasons, one of the longest tenures in the show's history.[2] He arrived at Saturday Night Live the same week as Bill Murray with whom he ended up sharing an office overlooking 50th Street, but he mostly began writing at SNL with Al Franken, Tom Davis, and Dan Aykroyd.[5] His first stretch as writer for the show ran from 1976 to 1980, culminating in a brief stint as a featured cast member. By the 1979-1980 season, Lorne Michaels had lost both Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to feature film careers, causing him to look to writers like Downey, Tom Schiller, Dan Aykroyd's brother Peter, Al Franken, Alan Zweibel, and Tom Davis to fill spots as cast members (along with SNL bandleader Paul Shaffer and newcomer Harry Shearer). When Michaels left the show in 1980, so did Downey, along with practically everyone else.

After leaving SNL, Downey went on to become head writer of Late Night with David Letterman for a little over a year during its formative stages. He returned to SNL in 1984, serving for a while as head writer. When Norm Macdonald began as Weekend Update anchor in the mid-1990s, Downey wrote exclusively for that segment of the show. Downey and Macdonald subsequently became a team, working away from the rest of the cast and crew. When Macdonald was fired from the show in 1998, Downey went with him.

Downey returned to the show in 2000. He continued to write for the show until 2013, pausing only in 2005 to work on a novel.[2] For an October 2000 skit satirizing a recent presidential debate, Downey came up with the word "strategery" for then-presidential candidate George W. Bush (played by cast member Will Ferrell) to say, based on Bush's reputation for difficulty with public speaking. The word gained popularity, and soon afterward began to be used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by members of Bush's own administration, as well as by political pundits on both sides, to refer to the Bush administration's political strategy.[6]

Former SNL Weekend Update anchor Dennis Miller has frequently called him the second most important person in the history of Saturday night Live behind only creator Lorne Michaels.[7] In 2013, he retired from Saturday Night Live after the end of 38th season after working part-time, commuting from Upstate New York.[8]

Political views[edit]

In 2008 Downey received attention for his political sketches on SNL. In early 2008, his sketches mocked the Democratic Presidential Debates. The sketches depicted the news media as biased toward candidate Barack Obama. After the first sketch aired, candidate Hillary Clinton referred to it at the beginning of the next debate.

A profile of Downey appeared in the New York Times.[2] In the Huffington Post, former SNL head writer Adam McKay called Downey "right wing" and an "Ann Coulter pal", and suggested that the sketches were a ploy to favor Republicans, since Clinton would be a weaker candidate than Obama.[9] According to the Times article, Downey "said he probably favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton, but that he genuinely felt she was receiving tougher treatment from the news media". He denied that SNL had intended to help Clinton. The SNL sketches may have prompted tougher news coverage of Obama, according to work by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.[10] Downey's political affiliation had been mentioned before in the news. TV critic Tom Shales, author of a book on SNL (Live from New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live),[11] said on CNN in 2002:

Jim Downey, who was kind of running the political humor [in 2000 at SNL], is himself a Republican. You know, we just assume that people in the arts are all liberal Democrats despite the occasional Charlton Heston or whatever. But not the case. Downey is pretty conservative.

Shales agreed with host Al Hunt's opinion that SNL is an "equal opportunity slasher" in political comedy.[12]

Additional and apparently contradictory information about Downey's political affiliation is provided in a New York Times article dated March 13, 2008 titled "Pro-Clinton? 'SNL' Says You’re Joking". The article states "Mr. Downey said he was a registered Democrat."[13] The article also stated that Downey indicated a preference for candidate Obama, "Mr. Downey said that he would definitely vote for him if he were nominated."[13]

On Obama, he stated, "If I had to describe Obama as a comedy project, I would say, 'Degree of difficulty, 10 point 10.' It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled. There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”[14]


Although he was only a credited actor on Saturday Night Live for one season, Downey has appeared in over 40 sketches from 1977 to 2005, his most notable being parody commercials such as Craig's Travellers Checks, First CityWide Change Bank, and Grayson Moorhead Securities. In 2007, he appeared in a Digital Short titled Andy's Dad, where he portrayed the father of cast member Andy Samberg, and had a romantic relationship with guest star Jonah Hill.

In movies, he is probably best remembered for playing the high school principal who judges the "academic decathlon" in Billy Madison. His brief role in that film included a famous monologue in which he insults the title character, played by Adam Sandler. The monologue was based on a response Downey often gave to SNL cast member (and fellow Billy Madison cast member) Chris Farley in the SNL writers' room when Farley presented certain ideas.[15]

He appeared in the Norm Macdonald movie Dirty Work as one of the homeless guys. Downey also had a bit part in Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood, where he plays Al Rose, Little Boston's real estate broker. Anderson's YouTube channel is Al Rose Promotions, a nod to Downey's role. Downey is the second SNL writer to have had a role in a PT Anderson picture, the first being Robert Smigel, who plays Barry Egan's brother-in-law in Punch-Drunk Love.


  1. ^ Sacks, Mike (2014-06-24). "'SNL's James Downey on Working with Norm Macdonald and Getting Fired for Making Fun of OJ Simpson". Splitsider. Retrieved 2014-06-25. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Itzkoff, Dave (2008-03-03). "'SNL' Writer Narrows the Gap Between Politics and Farce". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  3. ^ Downey was 55 years old as of early March 2008, according to a profile published at that time in The New York Times
  4. ^ Belkin, Lisa (1987-03-29). "Harvard's Gift to Gag Writing". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  5. ^ Miller, Dennis; Downey, Jim (2011-12-23). The Dennis Miller Show. Interview with Dennis Miller. 
  6. ^ Dana Milbank (April 22, 2001). "Serious 'Strategery' As Rove Launches Elaborate Political Effort, Some See a Nascent Clintonian 'War Room'". Washington Post. 
  7. ^ Miller, Dennis; Downey, Jim (2011-11-24). The Dennis Miller Show. Interview with Dennis Miller. 
  8. ^ Miller, Dennis; Downey, Jim (2013-05-30). The Dennis Miller Show. Interview with Dennis Miller. 
  9. ^ McKay, Adam (2008-03-05). "Live from New York...Vote Hillary!". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2008-03-03. 
  10. ^ Bauder, David (2008-03-04). "A Harder Look at Obama, Post-'SNL'?". Newsday. AP. Retrieved 2008-03-09. [dead link]
  11. ^ Shales, Tom; James A. Miller. Live From New York. ISBN 0-316-78146-0. 
  12. ^ Shales, Tom (2002-10-30). Tracing 'SNL's' political humor. Interview with Al Hunt. Capitol Gang, CNN. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  13. ^ a b Carter, Bill (2008-03-13). "Pro-Clinton? 'SNL' Says You’re Joking". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  14. ^ http://nypost.com/2014/08/24/why-comedians-and-snl-are-shielding-president-obama/
  15. ^ "Jim Downey interview by Norm Macdonald on The Dennis Miller Show". YouTube. July 16, 2008. 

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