In the early ‘00s, former Saturday Night Live performer and political satirist Don Novello sat inside San Francisco’s Caffe Macaroni at his personal “Pope’s table”—dubbed for his iconic character, Father Guido Sarducci—eating a plate of spaghetti and clams. He confided to restaurant owner Mario Ascione that he wanted to run for Governor of California with Ascione as his campaign manager. Together they campaigned on a clams-driven platform. “One clam, one vote” was the tag, Novello glad-handing voters with a clam on his jacket, giving away clam pins.
They collected just 48 of the 65 required signatures. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor.
“Maybe people don’t like clams,” Ascione offered recently, recalling the race.
Many comics have sought elected office: Will Rogers, Pat Paulsen, Roseanne. Some candidacies were strictly for publicity, others to make political points. But in an era of Trump, entertainers kickstarting quixotic bids may no longer be funny. And alumni from Saturday Night Live—a comedy institution at perhaps the height of its political relevance thanks to a complex relationship with President Trump—may be uniquely positioned to put their skillsets to public good.
“The way this country is going, maybe we do need a comedian to run [things],” says Ascione.
After campaigning hard for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, Republican activists in California immediately began courting Ronald Reagan as a candidate for office and, by 1966, he was Governor. In 2017, history may be repeating itself in New Jersey, where former SNLer, radio show host and Trump supporter Joe Piscopo is considering an independent run for Governor, to replace the beleaguered Chris Christie.
Saturday Night Live is a special kind of fraternity; there have been less than 150 cast members in the show’s 42 seasons. A successful transition into politics is even more exclusive. Piscopo has Minnesota Senator Al Franken—the gold standard—and a handful of others as precedents.
Gary Kroeger appeared on Saturday Night Live from 1982-1985, overlapping several seasons with Piscopo. The comic previously known for his “Jersey Guy” character has another reason to heed Kroeger’s words: returning to his native Iowa several years ago, he ran in the 1st congressional district before pursuing a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives in 2016.
Unlike Christie—who’s asserted Piscopo is merely ginning up interest in his radio show—Kroeger believes his former co-star is sincere about the race. Piscopo “loves being one of the iconic characters of New Jersey,” says Kroeger. “He truly cares about the state the way I care about Iowa.”
Kroeger grew up in a Democratic household, where he idolized the likes of George McGovern (“a genuine American hero”). Today he cites McGovern and Joe Biden, who he worked for during the 2008 presidential race, as two major reasons why he sought elected office.
But it’s Senator Franken—catapulting successfully from Studio 8H and talk radio into the political arena—who offers the most curious example.
Describing him as “one of the most researched, brightest and articulate politicians that we’ve known in this era,” Franken was one of the first calls Kroeger made after announcing his candidacy. “He said the most important thing that I’d learned: ‘your job is to listen. Go to the committee meeting, the union organization meeting, the PTA, the EAE—and listen. Hear what your constituents have to say…’ That was the single best piece of advice I got.”
“It’s hard for actors and performers to shut up and listen,” he adds. Still, actors “tend to be great at communicating because that’s what the job is. So when you’re interested in politics, people, policy—and you communicate well—it’s not that big a jump to become a politician.”
Now working in advertising, Kroeger has had a remarkable, varied career. Alongside future Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, he joined Saturday Night Live after appearing in the Practical Theatre Company’s 1982 improvisational comedy revue, The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee.
He credits that training as an actor and comic performer for his eventual political pivot: “It was not difficult for me to get up in front of people, and to share my thoughts and to listen and to be spontaneous and react to a crowd.”
At SNL 40, Piscopo reconnected with Kroeger over drinks, later having him as a guest on his morning drivetime program. Like Kroeger, he was a lifelong Democrat, proudly pro-union. Over time, however, he felt betrayed by the party, while Kroeger maintains his progressive views.
Meanwhile, in contrast to the often-controversial, divisive 45th president, Senator Franken has forged an almost-statesmanlike profile on Capitol Hill. In the wake of his tough questioning of Neil Gorsuch, Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions during their confirmation hearings, he’s fueled speculation about a possible presidential run. Kroeger would support him wholeheartedly: “Franken is someone I believe in… I trust him without reservation.” [Scroll to the bottom of this page to watch Al Franken interview Jerry Garcia in 1980.]
While Trump relishes needling the likes of Schwarzenegger over his Apprentice ratings, Franken has largely downplayed his television roots. A rare exception occurred at last month’s Supreme Court hearing, with Franken making an allusion to his prior life while questioning Gorsuch: “I had a career in identifying absurdity. And I know it when I see it.”
Kroeger sees his television work as more of a feather in his cap: “It’s a way to distinguish yourself somehow.” But did it ultimately hinder him? “There was a bit of a hurdle for a while to be taken seriously. But if you’re a serious person and you really have ideas, people figure that out pretty quickly.”
At a time when access to celebrity is at an all-time high, high profile entertainers with political ambitions can no longer be dismissed as simply one-note. The victories of Trump, Franken and Schwarzenegger underscore exactly that.
“As great as I say I must have been, I didn’t win,” Kroeger chuckles, acknowledging he ran in a Republican-leaning district with several uphill factors, including Trump’s success with blue collar Democrats and a last minute media blitz from the opposition. Nevertheless, Kroeger keeps in touch with party leaders and labor unions about ways to stay involved, whether through speech writing, activism or a possible future run.
While they have not spoken since Piscopo announced, Kroeger sent him a note of encouragement over email. In addition to sharing Senator Franken’s advice, Kroeger offered several tidbits as Piscopo embarks on his first race, concluding: “‘I know we disagree on some things, but you’re a good man who wants to do well, and an honest man.’”
“‘You’re a union guy. Stay true to who you are.’”
In the end, he has no doubt about Piscopo’s passion or willingness to stand up for his beliefs. “That’s what impresses me,” he says, “and that’s why I would go to bat [for him] even with our differences.”
As someone with experience managing an SNL alum’s race for Governor, Mario Ascione pauses before offering advice: “Maybe try a different kind of seafood.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Joe Piscopo had announced a run for governor. He is still considering a run.
Andy Hoglund is a contributor to Playboy, Newsweek and spots like that. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public relations executive. Follow him on Twitter.