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A History of Saturday Night Live Casting the Next President

The show's current era of stunt-casting POTUS is a change of course for the comedy institution.
  • (Photos: Broadway Video/NBC)
    (Photos: Broadway Video/NBC)

    For the last four years, we've been living under a dark cloud of uncertainty in this country, plagued by questions and insecurities that have only intensified over the past eight months. As the calendar turns to October, with the election only weeks away, one question seems to be on everyone's minds: why can't Saturday Night Live cast one of their own regulars as the President of the United States? SNL, which returns to Studio 8H for its season premiere this week, recently announced that Jim Carrey will be portraying Joe Biden in its political sketches this year. This means that, with Alec Baldwin still entrenched in the role of President Donald Trump, the two candidates for President in the 2020 election will be played by big-name actors who aren't regular SNL cast members.

    This is a first for the series, which has cultivated a well-earned reputation for being must-see television during election seasons. In 2016, Baldwin began showing up in cameos to play Trump, opposite cast member Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton. During the Democratic primaries last year, Woody Harrelson, another guest cameo, was brought in to play Biden. And if Biden hadn't won, candidate Bernie Sanders would be played by Larry David. Senator Kamala Harris, Biden's V.P. selection, will continue to be played by Maya Rudolph, an SNL alum but not a current cast member, following in the footsteps of alum Tina Fey stepping in to play Sarah Palin in 2008. As has been discussed elsewhere, this reliance on outside cameos to play prominent political figures has been an increasing staple of SNL during the Trump years, with Melissa McCarthy guesting as Sean Spicer, Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh, and Brad Pitt as Dr. Anthony Fauci. It's been an easy way to get attention, with clips reliably going viral the next day, but it's also kept SNL from making stars of its own cast members. Often, playing the President on SNL has been a huge boon to careers. In the last couple decades, though, that particular path to stardom has become less and less certain.

    The Ford and Carter Years

    Not to indulge in that hoariest form of Saturday Night Live criticism, but things really were pretty special with those original Not Ready for Primetime Players. Casting Chevy Chase as President Gerald Ford makes very little sense on paper: Chase isn't an impressions guy, and he didn't naturally resemble Ford in any way. Chase's bumblesome version of Ford, however, became iconic in its own irreverent way, and it set the standard to which all subsequent presidential impersonations would follow — namely, to be memorable above all else.

    Chase's Ford was followed by Dan Aykroyd's Jimmy Carter, an impersonation that isn't quite as woven into our cultural fabric but which nonetheless also embodied SNL's renegade style at the time. The genial, goodhearted President Carter was met with Aykroyd's harsh southern accent and an indifference to looking the part (with Aykroyd's mustache killing any kind of visual illusion) that felt as much an act of bratty defiance as everything else on the show at the time. To wit, Aykroyd's "Ask President Carter" sketch (in which Carter expertly talks a teen down from a bad acid trip) remains an all-time classic SNL sketch to this day.

    The Reagan Years

    After Ford, Carter, and the first big SNL casting shake-up, the show took a while to find its true voice for Ronald Reagan. The two-term president was played by Charles Rocket in 1980-81 before being handed over to Joe Piscopo for the remainder of his first term. Piscopo was a solid but mostly unmemorable Reagan, and the show would later turn to Harry Shearer, Randy Quaid (and Robin Williams in one sketch) to play the President. it wasn't until Phil Hartman joined the show and began portraying Reagan in 1986 that the impersonation was at last definitive. Though Hartman was only around for the last few years of the Reagan administration, his version of a faux-doddering secret mastermind was the one that finally took hold in the popular imagination.

    The George H.W. Bush Years

    Here's where Saturday Night Live began to re-fashion itself as not just satirists of sitting Presidents, but as chroniclers of the political conversation as it unfolds. This is when the show first began tracking the election campaigns and the debates. Jon Lovitz's Michael Dukakis ("I can't believe I'm losing to this guy") is an underrated piece of this moment, but he's understandably overshadowed by Dana Carvey's turn as George H.W. Bush. Even more than Chevy Chase's clumsy Ford, Carvey's pinched, prudent impersonation came to define Bush in the cultural imagination. Cold-open presidential addresses became more common, there were catch phrases galore, some of which came from Bush himself ("a thousand points of light") and some which were Carvey's ("not gonna do it"). Bush's term in the White House, followed by the '92 campaign where Carvey played both Bush and challenger Ross Perot, is when SNL's presidential politics became the public institution it is today.

    The Bill Clinton Years

    While other Presidents have had multiple portrayers on SNL over the years, Bill Clinton is the only one with two separate iconic impersonations. Phil Hartman picked up the Clinton mantle for the 1992 campaign, and his glad-handing, McDonald's-scarfing vision of the man was an instant hit. After Clinton was elected, Hartman left the show in 1994, and there was a brief wilderness where SNL's lack of a Clinton impersonator was acutely felt. This was the infamous 1994-95 season where Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley were on the way out and Chris Elliott and Janeane Garofalo were brought in. It was a mess, and the show almost got cancelled. But then they cast Darrell Hammond, whose A+ Bill Clinton impersonation provided the perfect slickster to take into the Monica Lewinsky scandal and beyond. Everything that Carvey's Bush did to cement SNL as a real-time chronicler of American politics was enhanced further by Hammond's Clinton.

    The George W. Bush Years

    What's wild about Will Ferrell's George W. Bush was that Ferrell left the show in 2002, when the second Bush presidency had barely begun. But in that short time, Ferrell came to completely define Dubya in the public consciousness. The 2000 campaign between Bush and Al Gore featured Ferrell and Darrell Hammond at the peak of their talents, with the show's writing staff picking out details great and small for their sketches. SNL spent the next six years bouncing between various Ferrell successors in the Bush role, from Chris Parnell to Will Forte to Jason Sudekis, but none of them ever broke out of the shadow of Ferrell. This inability to find a second Dubya to do what Darrell Hammond did for Bill Clinton was the first indicator in a long time that SNL's presidential prowess might be struggling.

    The Barack Obama Years

    The election of Barack Obama did at lot of things for America, but the specific thing it did at Saturday Night Live was to help shine a light on one of the show's most glaring weaknesses: their lack of cast diversity. For the first three years of the Obama administration, SNL's only Black male cast member was Kenan Thompson, and so the show turned to Fred Armisen to play Obama for his entire first term. Armisen is Venezuelan, German, and Korean, and the show took an increasing amount of flack for the fact that the person portraying the country's first Black president wasn't Black. (To be fair, Dwayne Johnson's guest appearances as "The Rock" Obama during this same period were pretty inspired.) Starting in 2012, new cast member Jay Pharoah played Obama. Pharoah was a skilled impressionist and his Obama was more than solid, but it never reached the heights of Ferrell's Bush or Hammond's Clinton, and during this time frame Key & Peele were able to deliver a far more era-defining Obama.

    The Donald Trump Years

    During the Obama era, SNL got very good at spreading the political impersonations around. There was Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, of course, which was a media sensation. Amy Poehler's clenched, furious Hillary Clinton gave way to Kate McKinnon's pantsuited, awkward dynamo. The 2016 campaign introduced Larry David's note-perfect Bernie Sanders, an impersonation so uncanny and — just like Tina Fey's Palon — seemingly preordained that nobody gave a thought to chiding the show for seeking outside talent to play a recurring character.

    But then came the issue of Donald Trump. Saturday Night Live, like much of the country, and certainly the media, didn't know what do to with him, besides asking him to host the show in the fall of 2015, a decision they'll likely never live down. Due to Trump's place in pop-culture before his presidential run, the show had already delivered two memorable Trump impressions, courtesy of Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond in years past. After an aborted attempt to have Taran Killam take over Trump in 2015, Hammond returned for some cameo appearances, a steady hand in the Trump role at a time when SNL desperately needed to keep up with the all-Trump, all the time news cycle.

    In October of 2016, Alec Baldwin debuted as SNL's Trump in a parody of the first Trump/Clinton debate. The media went nuts for Baldwin's ultra-grotesque version of the Republican nominee. The assumption was that Trump would lose the election and that Baldwin's run of cameos would be a momentary run, similar to Fey's and Larry David's. But then Trump won the electoral college, the nation lost its collective shit, and suddenly SNL needed to come on strong with a take on Trump that was harsh enough to counteract the charges that they helped legitimize him in 2015. Baldwin was their answer, and with so many in the country starved for any kind of levity, SNL's Trump-heavy content put SNL back at the forefront of conversations. The show enjoyed its biggest Emmy success ever the following year, with Baldwin winning Outstanding Supporting Actor despite never officially joining the cast.

    The Joe Biden (?) Years

    No one can say whether we're about to embark on the next era of SNL's presidential political sketches, but they've selected their man to play Joe Biden in this year's election sketches, and it's Jim Carrey. Carrey takes over for a cameo-ing Woody Harrelson, who in turn assumed the Biden role after Jason Sudeikis played Biden during the Obama era. As with Baldwin, this is SNL abdicating any sense of building up a new cast member by giving them a featured political impersonation. The Biden/Trump debate sketch will be a face-off between two guest performers, each of them A-List Hollywood stars. The SNL regulars will be reduced to supporting players, no one will get a bump in visibility, and Lorne Michaels alone will reap the benefits. It's a far cry from Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond, and Will Ferrell taking turns defining the American presidency in the cultural mindset and becoming bigger stars themselves in the process. It's Saturday Night Live's new normal, but is it sustainable?

    Chris Rock hosts Saturday Night Live's 46th season premiere Saturday night at 11:30 PM ET / 8:30 PM PT on NBC

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Dan Aykroyd, Darrell Hammond, Donald Trump, Fred Armisen, Jay Pharoah, Jim Carrey, Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson