Saturday Night Live has always channeled its sharpest political humor leading up to each Presidential election – and once the ballots have been cast, the focus usually returns to less barbed sketches outside of Weekend Update, treating some politicos and the POTUS like recurring characters. But there’s little customary about the show’s continued laser-like focus on all things related to the Trump administration long after November came and went.
One need only look at Melissa McCarthy’s recent take-no-prisoners impression of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to see the show’s continued skewering of our current dystopic political landscape – and witness how her fierce take on the White House press agent has been hailed as an instant classic caricature. Even in the era of Peak TV, streaming stations and asynchronous consumption of content, SNL still exerts a powerful, almost gravitational pull in the pop culture landscape when it comes to parodying both those in power and the smaller players on the political periphery.
In lieu of McCarthy’s recent gum-gobbling, podium-thrusting triumph, we’re looking back at 20 of the more notable political figures (presented in alphabetical order) that the show has sharply portrayed over the decades. Some merely suffered flesh wounds; others were practically skewered on a spit. But all of these impressions made a lasting impact, and help define the history not only of SNL but the country itself over the past five decades.
Michelle Bachmann (Kristen Wiig)
The former Minnesota representative’s increased appearances on the show coincided with the initial rise of the Tea Party, and rather than overplay Bachmann’s mannerisms, Wiig focused on making her seem wildly unprepared for the national stage. The blandness with which she spoke in cold opens and “Update” segments conveyed platitudes without any connection to reality. Wiig normally excelled at playing larger-than-life figures; here she did a lot more by doing far less.
Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis)
If Barack Obama left SNL puzzled as to how to satirize him (though we are fans of the Rock’s hulked out version), then Biden left them plenty of easy openings. Sudeikis played the Vice President as a man with an infinite capacity for life and a total inability to censor his thoughts. If Biden’s real-life tendency to go off-message caused grief in the White House, it gave the show the chance to portray him as a runaway freight train with a penchant for tough-love shouting and a short fuse. “True story: I was once stuck in an elevator with two guys for only 15 minutes,” his Biden says, before bellowing the punchline, “and both of those guys said it was the worst experience of their lives!”
George H.W. Bush (Dana Carvey)
When more people remember a president via his portrayal on SNL than his real-life persona, you know you’ve done a good job. Carvey’s Bush 41 was a collection of tics and mannerisms that overshadowed the real figure – it eventually became the de facto way millions of people saw the leader of the free world. By the time the President started using the comedian’s catch phrases as an act of self-deprecation, it had the uncanny effect of sounding as if Bush was doing a bad impression of himself. That’s how potent Carvey’s performance was.
George W. Bush (Will Ferrell)
Ferrell put so much dimensionality into his fratboy-ish Dubya performance that he often did a better job selling Bush’s humanity than the President himself. Yes, the show once portrayed our 43rd president as being easily distracted by a ball of string. But damned if didn’t Ferrell’s Decider-in-Chief didn’t always try his best to overcome his experiential shortcomings. It wasn’t as savage as some viewers might have hoped, or as many thought that the man who lead us into two wars and a near-economic collapse deserved – though we’ll point you to this sketch from 2000, in which the show envisioned a possible Bush 43 future characterized by him breaking the Hoover dam and California had become, under his watch, a detached “New Iraq.” Ouch.
Ben Carson (Jay Pharoah)
You always wished Pharoah (and the show) had been able to find his footing a bit more with his take on Obama – but his somnambulistic version of the good doctor Carson was immediately on point. On SNL, the former presidential candidate was more like a Conehead than a future Cabinet member – a being from another planet who spoke our language but couldn’t pass a Turing test upon even casual inspection. “He’s a pretty creepy dude,” Darrell Hammond’s Trump says of Carson during a sketch, at which point Pharoah tucks his head down and folds his hands inward – and you swear he’s about to ask to be phoned home in the most deliberately paced monotone voice you’ve ever heard.
Dick Cheney (Darrell Hammond)
One of the most gifted mimics in the show’s history, Hammond not only brought his voice skills to playing the man some thought was actually running the country during the Dubya years; he helped recast the V.P. as a moonlighting Prince of Darkness. Whether conducting an interview atop an in-flight missile or coercing Ferrell’s George W. Bush to do his bidding, Hammond didn’t move so much as slink. He oozed contempt in every frame.
Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman)
Hartman is a strong contender for the greatest pound-for-pound not-ready-for-primetime utility player ever, and his Bubba-centric performance as Bill Clinton turned the 42nd president into a man fueled by his insatiable appetites – see the infamous and still hilarious 1992 McDonald’s sketch. Informed by his Secret Service agent that they should not tell the First Lady about this impromptu fast-food stop, the ruddy-faced leader informs him that “there’s gonna be a whole bunch of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton.” Darrell Hammond ended up playing the part for literally decades after, but it’s Hartman’s Bill that we remember first and foremost.
Hilary Clinton (Kate McKinnon)
With all due respect to Ana Gasteyer and Amy Poehler, McKinnon has assumed the mantle of the quintessential SNL Hillary portrayal at this point. A lot of it has to do with timing: Playing the woman who had a major shot at being the first female POTUS now adds gravitas and immediacy that the other two simply can’t match. But it was McKinnon’s fearless way of putting Mrs. Clinton’s raging ambition, empathy problems and attitude that this was her divine destiny (“Why won’t the people just let me lead,” she moans at one point. “Just give me the hammer and the nails and I’ll fix it all!”) front and center that made her the perfect Hilary circa 2016. She played her in full boss-campaigner mode – even when she memorably bent an elbow with “Val,” a.k.a. the real deal.
Bob Dole (Norm MacDonald)
It wasn’t really an impression so much as Norm MacDonald dressing up like Bob Dole and then acting more or less like himself – which, oddly enough, turned out to be the correct approach. Sitting in a chair and awkwardly holding a pencil, MacDonald rarely gesticulated, made large movements or varied his cadence. Instead, he used Dole’s relatively lackluster public persona to his advantage, crafting a figure you had to lean in to truly hear. And those that did manage to catch his low, grumbling patter were rewarded with some very Dole-like crankiness and the promise that, after undergoing several medical procedures, he’d campaign “not as a man, but as kind of a half-man, half-woman … an androgynous sex-neuter.”
Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase)
The original SNL Presidential impression really wasn’t really an impression at all – it was basically Chase dressed in a suit while falling over desks and Christmas trees, stapling his tie to piece of paper, dumping water on himself and mangling the English language. And yet, the bumbling, stumbling “Klutz in Chief” that was featured prominently in the program’s inaugural season still colored the perception of Ford among viewers – and even how the President viewed himself. (The leader once appeared at a D.C. dinner with Chase and purposefully grabbed a table cloth, spilling cutlery everywhere. You can’t say he wasn’t in on the joke.) It helped cement the show’s ability to define public opinion on powerful figures, a legacy the show has obviously carried on through the present day.
Al Gore (Darrell Hammond)
As devastatingly dull as Ferrell’s Bush was endearingly dim, Hammond did more with the word “lockbox” than many comedians achieve in an entire career. SNL is often accused as having an inherently liberal bias, but it’s difficult to argue that the show treated the Vice President with preferential treatment leading up to the 2000 election. The show treated Gore like an insufferable bore, less a human being than a lecturing robot. It’s still one of the more savage satirical jabs in the program’s history of political mockery.
Katherine Harris (Ana Gasteyer)
As the controversial Florida Secretary of State, Harris helped set in motion events that are in some ways still reverberating to this day. One of the truly unsung members in the annals of SNL performers, Gasteyer played her as a woman who could barely disguise her Machiavellian delight at being so central to Bush winning Florida – and thus the election. In Gasteryer’s hands, this bit player in one of the more egregious political disasters of the pre-Trump era also appears to be sucking on a lemon throughout her Hardball appearance.
Monica Lewinsky (Molly Shannon)
Most folks treated the intern who had inappropriate relations with the then–commander-in-chief as little more than a one-note punchline – basically, the sum of all her stained-dress jokes. SNL went a slightly different route, with Shannon playing her less as a Lolita than a wide-eyed girl caught up in a situation she was too young to understand (ditto the consequences). This Lewinsky was more of a sounding board for other people’s bad behavior, whether it was Bill Clinton’s Saddam-baiting phone chats or Linda Tripp (played grotesquely by John Goodman) trying to gather information to use as collateral. Then you get to this 1998 sketch in which Lewinsky visits Oprah to promote her book “How to Give the President a Hummer,” and suddenly, the gloves had come off.
Sarah Palin (Tina Fey)
If you had a Mt. Rushmore of SNL political impersonations, this would be right smack dab in the middle of it. Fey would be the first to tell you that she was not an inherently skilled impressionist. But she was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and with the right take on the most polarizing political candidate of the 2008 election. The show didn’t even have to invent most of its satirical dialogue: Oftentimes, simply having Fey repeat what Palin said during the week was enough. (And her delivery of “And I can see Russia from my house!” made it a bona fide comic slam dunk.) You could feel the show shaping how people viewed the political “maverick” from week to week, one folksy, incomprehensible going-rogue statement at a time.
David Paterson (Fred Armisen)
Both offensive and giggle-inducing at the same time, Armisen’s take on the New York Governor recast him as a Catskills comic with a mischievous (and inexplicably mean) attitude towards New Jersey. His shortcomings as a political figure were skewered in his “Weekend Update” appearances; the comedian’s constant riffing on the fact that the politician was legally blind, however, often skirted the boundaries of good taste. Seth Meyers deserves a shout out for his assists with every one of these bits – his onscreen shock mirrored that of the audience, and often kept the entire thing from outright bombing. But this was all Armisen’s impersonation, the good, bad and ugly of it. He sold the gruff Governor’s Garden State animosity and shock-jock sense of humor like a champ.
Ross Perot (Dana Carvey)
Not content to be playing one major candidate running for President in 1992, Carvey stepped in and played another as well … often at the same time. The Texas businessman’s third-party run for office may feel like an interesting footnote now, but it’s impossible to overstate how much of a monkey-wrench he was to the notion of a two-party system back in the early 1990’s. And Carvey’s Perot was part strict grandfather, part carnival barker and 100-percent loose cannon – a motor-mouthed munchkin who talked loud and said folsky-cutesy nothings, prone to dominating the conversation by constantly reiterating that he was never allowed to complete a sentence (“Can I finish? Can I finish?”). In other words, he was the shape of things to come.
Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman)
Everyone from Robin Williams to Randy Quaid have played the Gipper on SNL, but once again, Hartman bested all competitors thanks to a classic 1986 sketch. Folks always joked about Reagan being an absent-minded president, one who believed he’d served in WWII because he’d once starred in a war movie. Hartman, however, plays him like an evil mastermind who, once the photo opps are over and reporters leave the room, starts barking orders and brokering deals with the Iraqis. It’s a genius move of comedic counterprogramming: have that bumbling personality revealed as a giant ruse designed to fool the American public. Even his former administration wonks have expressed admiration.
Janet Reno (Will Farrell)
Why have the Attorney General host a teen dance show? Maybe the better question is, “Why not?” Ferrell played as her an unstoppable – and very butch – force of nature; his interpretation suggests that she’s basically a Sherman tank let loose in the Beltway. But in the fictional world established by this recurring sketch, Reno wasn’t any less intelligent or capable just because she loved to boogie, and the notion never undermined her role as Attorney General. (If anything, it may have oddly bolstered it.) What might have started as a silly excuse to get Ferrell into a dress and jerk his body around ended up becoming a somewhat affectionate tribute to a lady that got shit done. Bonus: Reno herself gave his alpha-female counterpart her blessing.
Bernie Sanders (Larry David)
Fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm may have to wait a little while longer to get new episodes of that show, but the rest of us got to see Larry David all but take over every political sketch he guest-starred in last year. As subtle as a sledgehammer, this version of Sanders was a bull in a china shop, cutting down people through sheer force of will and volume. If you had never saw the senator and would-be presidential candidate as a typical David-esque kvetcher, you sure as hell did after his spot-on impersonation. And that “Bern Your Enthusiasm” skit remains one of 2016’s SNL highlights.
Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin)
Numerous cast members had portrayed Trump over the years with varying degrees of success (the less said about his hosting gig, the better); it was Tina Fey who supposedly suggested to Lorne Michaels that Baldwin would make a good SNL avatar for the man who’s currently in the process of gutting our democracy. And thanks to her, one of the show’s most beloved hosts is currently turning in one of its most iconic impersonations. His original take was all go-for-broke bluster and aggression; since the election, Baldwin has brought a combination of swagger and barely-concealed panic to his portrayal. He’s practically a glorified cast member at this point, and given that he’s set to host this week, we imagine the knives are getting sharpened even more. But if nothing else, no presidential parody has received as much real-time feedback – especially from an actual sitting President.
From “Gina” trade deals to beating ISIS with Siri, here are Alec Baldwin’s most spot-on Donald Trump impressions.