With a tempting target in the White House and budget cuts looming, the “Saturday Night Live Helena” show took on added urgency this year.
Helena thespians, singers and dancers put the show on every two years when the Montana Legislature is in session. The aim is to battle the perceived failings of state and national politics with one of the oldest of weapons: satire.
This year’s show was reeled off in a snappy two hours, and if not every joke worked, no problem; another followed within seconds. Periodic news updates (Grizzly bears are reported fleeing public schools since the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) and parodied beer commercials for Goose Kill and Berkeley Pit IPA help held the disparate parts together.
All four shows at the Myrna Loy Center sold out this year, and a pass-the-sombrero break on Saturday brought in $900 in donations. With the theater’s approximately 250 seats selling for $20 a ticket, and with performers working for free, the four-day run brought in more than $20,000 to fund the center’s operations.
The center opened in 1991 after a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped launch a capital campaign. Another NEA grant helped build a $688,000 endowment for the center.
No wonder President Donald Trump had to bear the brunt of the show’s skits and musical sendups. Trump has proposed a budget that would eliminate all funding for the NEA and for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Shots at the president included skits about a fake sale that offered tiny gloves and about a session at the Watson Memorial Sexual Dyspepsia Clinic, where a suffering patient was treated for small hands with pastries and sausages. A “Lyin’ King” sketch featured a dead-on imitation of Trump presiding over a jungle in which Vladimir Putin appeared as a hyena, and President Barack Obama was sent away after fighting for “truth, justice and the African way.”
Trump also was the victim of a brilliant parody of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” with the audience invited to sing along to a chorus of “We didn’t vote for Liar.” Deb Halliday danced and sang a parody of “Putting on the Ritz” called “Putin Is the Pits.”
The show aims to lacerate politicians of all stripes, but Republicans clearly got the worst of the evening’s jokes, much to the approval of the full house. When Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock opened the show with a video showing him vetoing bill after bill, the audience laughed and applauded loudly.
But when a video of Republican Sen. Steve Daines presiding over the U.S. Senate opened the second half of the show, he drew mostly murmurs—until the crowd exploded when Daines was replaced by a shot of Sen. Elizabeth Warren telling the senator to take his seat.
State legislators also took a beating with limericks like this one:
“The office of Senate president
Befits not its present resident.
Under evil Scott Sales,
His rulings so seldom intelligent.”
Another skit showed a clueless Elsie Arntzen, superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction, getting tips from a slightly less clueless Sarah Palin. Arntzen’s complaint: Newspapers keep reporting what she actually says.
While Democrats got off relatively lightly in the show, they did not go unscathed. One skit depicting a meeting of Liberals Anonymous showed liberals trying to shed their addictions to Birkenstocks and lattes and overcome their aversion to fossil fuels. Democratic acquiescence to Republican-backed legislation was described as “Silence of the Dems,” and Kathy Bramer and John Moore joined in a plaintive parody of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” called “State Employees.”
Other skits took aim at both parties. KTVQ’s Jay Kohn appeared as Yehudi Kohnhead in a video about the recovery of the ancient dinosaur bones of embedded Republicans and Democrats. Ian Marquand, wearing a “Je suis Charlie” T-shirt, wrapped up the show with a perennial favorite: his inventive creation of Spoonerisms, which this year concluded with the observation that many of our political leaders are “nightly sluts.”
Mokey McNeilley, who was the co-director with Randy Fuhrmann, saved one of the highlights for the cast party that followed the show. He accompanied himself on keyboards as he flawlessly covered the voices of both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in their duet on “Girl from the North Country.”
Afterward, he said that he has been involved with the Helena show for about 20 years, and it had been a well-established show long before that.
It is certainly a biannual highlight of Montana life. Even if the amateurism shows in spots—“Saturday Night Live Helena” is the only show some regular participants ever take part in—that actually adds to the pleasure of the experience. These aren’t professionals trying to make a few bucks off easy snark; they are just citizens making a point, and providing a relief valve for the fermenting mass of American politics.