In early October 1978, less than a year into the first of his three terms as mayor of New York, Ed Koch appeared before millions on national TV, delivering the opening monologue during the fourth-season premiere of "Saturday Night Live."
New York, he declared, "is going through a great renaissance. Saturday Night is one reason for this renaissance – an insignificant reason, but a reason nevertheless."
The comedy gig underscored Koch's quick rise as a national figure – and presaged how the gangly, bald, nasally voiced politician would become a pop cultural symbol of the city, using New York as his stage.
The former mayor, who died Friday at age 88, will be remembered as much for his reign during one of the city's most turbulent periods as for the outsized personality that led him to a second life as an entertainer of sorts, through books, TV, movies and, in his later years, the Internet.
Koch, who took office three years before Ronald Reagan's inauguration, was no actor. He thrived by playing himself: defiant, outspoken (he called Reagan a "wacko" during his second "SNL" monologue in 1983) and never lacking for self-confidence (his trademark phrase "How'm I doin'?" seemed at times to be a rhetorical question).
While Koch never met a spotlight he couldn't grab by sheer force of personality, he instinctively knew that the key to his success was serving as a nervy, tart-tongued stand-in for all New Yorkers, no matter how they thought he was "doin'." He occasionally grated on even his biggest fans, but even those who didn't like him viewed him as a formidable force.
When Koch first appeared on "SNL," the city was three years from a low point, as summed up by the classic New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." New York’s reputation as a bastion of crime, sleaze and insolvency played out in the popular culture in quips by Johnny Carson, who moved "The Tonight Show" from 30 Rock to Burbank in 1972 ("Last night, it was so cold, the flashers in New York were only describing themselves," Carson once cracked).
As New York began its painfully slow climb out of an urban abyss, Koch used the media – and his own personality – to reshape the city's image, marshaling his smarts and combativeness to signal New Yorkers were battling back. He acerbic style was satirized in "Ghostbusters" in 1984, the same year he played a fuzzier version of himself in "The Muppets Take Manhattan." Koch also appeared as mayor on the big screen in "New York Stories" – the Woody Allen segment, of course, in which a giant Jewish mother, spewing guilt, looms over the city.
Koch embodied chutzpah to those who had never heard the word – perhaps no more so than when the march of commuters he led over the Brooklyn Bridge during a 1980 transit strike made for compelling TV far beyond the subways. Still, he more than occasionally self-immolated in the spotlight. An infamous 1982 interview with the then-powerful national platform of Playboy, in which he derided the suburbs as "sterile" and scoffed at rural life as "a joke" – torpedoed his chances to become governor and forever took him out of the running for higher office. His arrogance almost certainly played a role in blinding him to the corruption that marred his final term in office, leading to his defeat in the 1989 Democratic primary by the decidedly lower-key David Dinkins, who would go on to succeed him.
Koch, characteristically, proved no shrinking mayor-emeritus, speaking out politically and keeping in the larger public eye. He replaced Judge Wapner on "The People's Court" in the late 1990s. He made cameos on shows like "Spin City" and “Sex and the City.” He made TV commercials (he pitched Snapple). He reviewed movies for local papers, and later on his own web show (“The Mayor at the Movies”), never holding back ("The film is simply dopey, devoid of interest, and boring. Do not encourage more of the same by adding to its cash receipts," he wrote of "Spider-Man 2").
Illness in the days before his death kept him from his final curtain call at the premiere of "Koch," a one-word-says-it-all documentary about his life.
Leadership in the face of tragedy would make Rudy Giuliani, in many eyes, "America's Mayor." But Koch, during his prime, was only second to perhaps the Statue of Liberty in representing to the world the city he loved and that sometimes loved him back. As accolades and remembrances pour in for Koch, check out his monologue from his 1983 hosting stint on "SNL":
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: AP