The longest-running writer in the history of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Emmy winner Jim Downey contributed much of the political humor for 27 seasons of the sketch comedy series. A former writer for The Harvard Lampoon, Downey began contributing to "SNL" in 1976 before leaving with producer Lorne Michaels during its tumultuous shake-up in 1980. After stints with "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993), he returned to "SNL" to oversee some of its best years, and produce sharp and powerful commentary via the "Weekend Update" segment. In 2008, he returned to prominence for his sketches skewering the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. His status as the backbone of the show's writing staff, and one of the strongest voices in political humor on television, remained untouched for over three decades.
Little was known about James Downey's early life; reports varied on his birth year, which was cited as either 1952 or 1953, and by all accounts, he was born with the surname Elias, like his brother, actor-director Robert Downey, Sr., who changed his last name to match that of his stepfather, who was also named James Downey. The elder Downey brother attended Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1974 or 1975 with a degree in Russian or folklore. During his time at Harvard, he was a major contributor to the school's humor magazine, The National Lampoon, and helped to re-direct its focus in the 1970s to more mainstream subjects. The Lampoon's founder, Doug Kenney, was friendly with producer Lorne Michaels, who in 1975 was in the process of launching a new variety series called "Saturday Night Live," and invited Downey to join its writing staff at the beginning of its chaotic, drug-fueled second season.
Downey soon gained a reputation as one of the quickest wits on the "SNL" writing team, often producing fully formed sketches from memory for the likes of Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin, among others. His initial tenure with the program lasted until 1980, when the series lost many of its key players, including John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd. Prior to his departure, Michaels had tapped several of the writers, including Downey, Al Franken & Tom Davis, and Alan Zweibel, to appear on-camera as well. But when Michaels left the show in 1980, Downey, along with most of the performers and writers, loyally followed suit.
In 1981, Downey became the head writer for "Late Night with David Letterman," then reunited with Michaels for the short-lived "The New Show" (NBC, 1984) before returning to "SNL" in 1984 to serve as its head writer and later producer for the newly revitalized comedy series. There, he focused on the show's political satire before turning his attention to the "Weekend Update" segment with Norm McDonald as its mock anchor. Their collaboration was among the show's highlights during the decade, as well as a political hotspot for the network: Downey and McDonald directed much of their comic ire towards O.J. Simpson and his 1995 murder trial, which in turn angered Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC's West Coast division and a friend of the former football great. According to Downey, Ohlmeyer demanded that he be fired, which prompted McDonald to request his own dismissal as well. Both men were removed in 1997, but Downey returned to the series in 2000 after Ohlmeyer stepped down from the network.
In addition to his writing and producing credits, Downey appeared frequently in bit parts on the series, most notably in a "SNL Digital Short" as Andy Samberg father, who reveals to his son that he was carrying on an affair with guest host Jonah Hill. He also had small but memorable turns in episodes of Jane Curtin's sitcom "Kate and Allie" (CBS, 1984-89) and in the "SNL"-related features "Billy Madison" (1995) and "Dirty Work" (1998), with Norm McDonald. In 2007, he appeared in a straight dramatic role as a financial advisor to Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood."
Downey's political sketches received their greatest attention during the 2008 presidential election, when candidate Hillary Clinton name checked "Saturday Night Live" for its withering put-downs of her competitor, then-Senator Barack Obama. The quote was picked up by the media, which in turn generated numerous articles citing that the show - and by proxy, Downey - was pro-Clinton. However, he cited his preference for Mr. Obama in interviews, despite being described in numerous articles as a Republican. However, a New York Times interview listed him as a registered Democrat. Whatever the case, Downey's work brought the series some of its highest ratings and greatest critical acclaim in decades. For his 27 seasons of work on "SNL," Downy collected four Emmy awards for writing or producing between 1975 and 2002, and an additional pair of Writers Guild of America awards in 2009 and 2010.