The 21 Best 'Saturday Night Live' Political Impressions Ever
Saturday Night Live thrives during political scrums, and the show has provided a decent number of laughs during the 2016 election cycle. With Election Day finally upon us, let's look back at the best impressions of presidents and election-season hopefuls in SNL's long history. (Note: We've selected only one impression per politician, even in cases where multiple cast members had great, differing takes. Sorry, Fred Armisen's Obama.)
Yes, Hartman played Ross Perot's monosyllabic running mate Admiral James Stockdale -- the guy who memorably blurted "Who am I? Why am I here?" during a 1992 vice-presidential debate -- only one time. But his loopy take on Stockdale forever changed the way a generation uttered the word "gridlock," which may be the Perot campaign's lasting legacy.
Hey, remember Michele Bachmann? While her aborted campaign to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is something we'd generally like to forget, it did give us one good thing: Kristen Wiig's impression of the well-coiffed, eerily unblinking Tea Party congresswoman. It's particularly fun to watch Wiig say ridiculous things in her spot-on Minnesota accent, like when she lays out her picture of the America she would like to return to: "One where feral bands of mud people lived in their caves, never worrying that Barack Obama was coming to take their hard-earned pelts or infringe on their right to bear spears." Same!
Ah, the 1996 Republican presidential primaries. With the grizzled, pen-holding presumed front-runner Senator Bob Dole forced to demean himself in debates against the likes of ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan and tee-heeing flat-tax enthusiast Steve Forbes, SNL had ample fodder for parody. Norm Macdonald's Dole, an impression that appears much higher on this list (stay tuned!), is most famous of the three, but Kids in the Hall alum McKinney stole scenes by nailing Forbes' gleeful loopiness and even threatened to make Forbes (who hosted an episode that spring) likable.
Freed from the heightened expectations and pressures that come with his Obama impression, Jay Pharoah impressed during the 2015-16 season's GOP debate sketches, bringing a deadpan grace to the brain surgeon turned Republican hopeful. In many ways, Carson is an easy target, especially for a gifted mimic like Pharoah. But in last season's "Adventures of Young Ben Carson" sketch, which saw Pharoah depicting the absurd tales Carson has told on the campaign, the impression leaped to another level, and it almost made you hope that Carson could have stuck around in the spotlight for a little longer.
Playing Tricky Dick might not seem that tricky, given how many Nixon quirks a comedian can draw on. But Aykroyd added satirical depth to take his impression (trotted out 10 times during his run on the show) beyond mere "I'm not a crook" shtick.
It’s easy to overplay Dick Cheney’s sinister qualities -- I mean, just look at the guy. But Hammond, the ultimate SNL utility player, didn’t try to make the former vice-president a cartoon villain; instead, he emphasized Cheney's self-satisfied arrogance and hectoring laugh. Picture Hammond’s Cheney seated atop a flying, Iraq-bound rocket, smugly telling Chris Parnell’s Tom Brokaw, "Besides, it’s nice to have a missile this size between my legs." The way he laughs to himself after delivering that line could not be more Dick.
Any discussion of SNL's Obama impersonators warrants the disclaimer that nailing an impression of the 44th US president is really hard to do. Fred Armisen also had a solid take on the POTUS, but we're giving the edge to Pharoah, who delivered one of the more accurate renderings of a politician in SNL history. While he never really managed to crystalize a single comic idea about Obama in the way Ferrell did with Bush or Sudeikis did with Biden, the former cast member found a way into Obama by playing with his measured, deliberate cadence and vocal quirks, and, in the process, got a solid grip on a character that had long felt out of reach.
Hammond was impersonating Trump back when the 2016 GOP nominee was just a humble, salt-of-the-woods real-estate mogul-billionaire reality-star, long before Alec Baldwin took the wheel this season. More subtle than the current Trump impressionist, Hammond deftly nailed Trump's over-the-top mannerisms -- the sneering lip curl, the hoarse braggadocio -- without going overboard.
Mitt Romney was an often awkward, all-American square. To nail the impression, Sudeikis had his work cut out for him. For one thing, he doesn't really resemble the candidate that much, and he has a sense of mischief to him that in no way applies to Romney. But Sudeikis tapped into the simmering rage beneath Mitt's straitlaced Mormon exterior, capturing the underlying quiet desperation -- much like Romney's failed campaign.
Well, it took a while to find someone to harness the Gipper, but SNL hit the jackpot with impression maestro Phil Hartman, who most memorably captured the president's slippery nature in a brilliant sketch called "President Reagan, Mastermind." His Reagan was really two characters rolled into one, a Jekyll and Hyde of a president whose folksy naïveté in public appearances masked his true nature as a Machiavellian evil genius pulling the strings behind the scenes. ("Now, we'll dose Muskie with mood-altering drugs! By the time Muskie knows what day it is, the '88 elections will be over!") The bit is as biting and pointed as any political satire SNL ever put forward.
Not only does Sudeikis kind of look like Biden (if you squint), he's also one of the few recent cast members who can compete with the veep's natural rakish charisma, so he probably could have done a passable impression without too much effort. But Sudeikis managed to elevate his Biden way beyond mere imitation, creating a unique comic character of his own: an oafish, gaffe-prone man-child with a thick Scranton accent and a "No Presidents Allowed" sign on his door, who serves as the perfect bratty teen foil for Fred Armisen’s stern-dad Obama ("You mean President Jerkface?").
Jimmy Carter was the second acting president to be subjected to the SNL treatment, and Dan Aykroyd's impression of the Georgian turned out to be much more faithful than Chevy Chase's accident-prone Gerald Ford, with Aykroyd honing in on Carter's dad-like Southern charm and excessive desire to please. The highlight: a sketch that had him doling out advice to Americans, including talking one person down off an LSD trip. ("Just remember, you're a living organism on this planet, and you're very safe. You've just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside, and listen to some music, OK? Do you have any Allman Brothers?") Bring Jimmy Carter on all your bad trips, kids.
When H. Ross Perot gained improbable prominence as a third-party candidate during the 1992 election, he came off across as a parody all his own -- a loony and larger-than-life, yet notably diminutive, Texan with a booming voice and zany rich-person ideas about how to run the country. This provided ample material for a deft impressionist like Dana Carvey, who joyfully embraced Perot's singular mannerisms and speaking cadence. The screeching voice, the rambling non-sequiturs, the desperate effort to be heard ("Larry, can I finish? Can. I. Finish!?”) -- Carvey crushed them all. Throw in a pair of prosthetic big ears, and you might even consider voting for Perot so that Carvey could keep doing the bit.
Darrell Hammond is one of SNL's most prolific impressionists, and his drawling, lip-biting charmer of a Bill Clinton might be the high-water mark of his 14 years with the show. While Phil Hartman memorably riffed on then-president-elect Clinton stopping at a rural McDonald's, Hammond's impression is the one people will forever associate with the ex-president, as it was featured on the show more than 80 times between 1995 and 2009 -- and he's still nailing it. In particular, his sketches during the Lewinsky scandal offered the defining take on one of the most nutty political controversies in American political culture, and neatly captured the president's intoxicating mix of charisma and sleaze.
Chevy Chase's Ford may not have been the most accurate political impression in SNL history -- OK, it's not accurate at all, as it's little more than Chevy Chase, looking like Chevy Chase, and pratfalling like Chevy Chase -- but it's certainly the show's most iconic, one so powerful that it created a mythology of its own. One little presidential slip on the stairs of Air Force One birthed Chase's take on Ford as a discombobulated, bumbling klutz who could barely keep it together without spilling water down his suit-jacket or tumbling off the top of a Christmas tree. The notion of Ford's incompetency became ingrained in the public's perception and, as some have suggested, it may have cost him the '76 election. Thanks, Chevy.
6. Larry David's Bernie Sanders
Along with Tina Fey's Sarah Palin -- which the 30 Rock star unleashed in a surprise cameo after leaving the show -- David's contribution comes as non-cast member, but such is its pitch-perfect power. Much like Fey's take on Palin back in 2012, his Bernie Sanders impression has come to define, and forever links him to, the presidential-candidate hopeful, whose similarities to David had been pointed out ever since he took the national stage. It doesn't hurt that David only has to channel his Curb Your Enthusiasm persona to portray the straight-shooting, seemingly gruff senator from Vermont.
Much like Obama, the dry George H. W. Bush is an impression that could have been boring in the wrong hands. Thank the comedy gods, then, for Dana Carvey, whose inspired impression took the grayscale Bush Sr. and made him Technicolor. Latching onto little details -- his hand gestures, his nasal voice, and his dissembling, Orwellian language -- Carvey turned Bush into a larger-than-life caricature, whose reliance on cheery, nonsensical political jargon ("wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”) serves as a mask for his baser instincts. "As commander in chief, I am ever cognizant of my authority to launch a full-scale orgy of death there in the desert sands," he says in another sketch, hands flying around like an orchestral conductor. "Probably won't, but then again... I might." Inspired.
A person as seemingly always poised and on-message as Hillary Clinton can be difficult to satirize. Even a comedic genius like Amy Poehler had a hard time nailing down exactly what was funny about her. Luckily, current cast standout Kate McKinnon has a wild-eyed, manic take on the role. By emphasizing Clinton's otherworldly intensity, McKinnon has tapped into something primal that will serve her well if HRC goes on to win the presidency. Bonus: she's already emerged from the dreaded "sketch with the actual candidate" unscathed, so this impression is built to last.
Like Chase, Norm Macdonald isn't interested in mimicry; his hilarious takes on Larry King and Burt Reynolds are absurd anti-impressions. But he cut right to the grizzled old heart of Senator Bob Dole. Though Dana Carvey's George H.W. Bush once teased Norm's Dole for being "spooky" and making "children run away," there was something melancholy and oddly moving about Macdonald's appearances as the doomed presidential hopeful. Whether he was introducing Dennis Rodman as his running mate, appearing on The Real World, or complaining about the size of the nuts on Air Force One, Norm's Dole always had the last, pitiful laugh.
2. Tina Fey's Sarah Palin
Sometimes it feels like the only reason Sarah Palin was put on this planet was so Tina Fey could lampoon her on SNL. When the Alaskan governor first appeared on the national stage, whisked away from her home in Wasilla by presidential hopeful John McCain, her resemblance to the 30 Rock star and former SNL head writer was immediately noted by members of the press. What people didn't know was that Fey -- never known for her impressions during her time on the show -- would nail the impression with such infectious, wicked glee.
It's no surprise that Will Ferrell, arguably SNL's greatest, most versatile cast member, would also be responsible for its best political impersonation. Dubya was in many ways the perfect Ferrell character already: privileged, smug, arrogant, a little dumb, and (maybe?) a little sweet. There's a reason people later claimed that Ferrell's performance humanized Bush for them, turning the man who started the Iraq War into a lovable proto-Ron Burgundy. The impression was so good it had a life after the show, inspiring Ferrell to write and star in You're Welcome America, a Broadway play with Bush as the protagonist. To Ferrell's credit, as often as he returns to the character, he declined opportunities to meet the president, telling the A.V. Club back in 2008, "From a political standpoint, I don't want to meet that guy." That sounds like a good piece of "strategery" right there.
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