Sex, Laughs, and Idiots: Thirty-Eight Years of (not so) Presidential Impersonations on SNL

by Lauren Piester

“Good evening.”
“Good evening.”
“Good evening.”
“Good evening. Good evening.”
“Let us begin.”

On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live entered the television landscape and public consciousness with that exchange. A heavily accented John Belushi repeats after the stately Michael O’Donaghue: “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” and “I’m afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?” Eventually, O’Donaghue’s character seems to suffer a heart attack and falls out of his chair. Belushi’s character, believing this is still part of the exercise, does the same. Chevy Chase comes onstage, smiles, and shouts the now famous opening line: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

With that, a phenomenon was born, although maybe it’s a phenomenon that is not best represented with that first skit, which makes almost as much sense on paper as it does on screen. Regardless, Saturday Night Live went on to become a staple of American comedy and late night television. It has stayed with us through many ups and downs, with its main goal being to make us laugh even if there’s not a lot of reason to. The show has evolved with the country over the years, taking on major events with little grace but with a lot of courageous gusto. In effect, it has acted as a continuously updating timeline for shifts in our nation’s sensibilities and sense of humor ever since its premiere.

There are some skits that can be used to define certain decades of the show, based on their relevancy to current events. Throughout most of SNL’s history, these skits tend to be fairly political. While the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live were a little unsure of themselves and hadn’t yet found the style that the show would keep to for the next thirty-four years. They did set the tone for the presidential impressions and endless political jokes that the show would go on to become extremely well known for.

At the time of SNL’s premiere in 1975, American politics were still reeling from Watergate, and the American public was angry at Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, for pardoning the disgraced former President so quickly. Much of the country’s youth was very much anti-government. Young people were all about the counter-culture and alternatives to the mainstream, going against “the man,” and Saturday Night Live was developed to be a voice for that generation. It makes sense that the voice of the anti-establishment would want to make jokes at the expense of the establishment. Chevy Chase’s seemingly gentle ribbing of president Gerald Ford began with the first episode of Saturday Night Live as a joke on the very first Weekend Update:

“Dateline: Washington. At a press conference Thursday night, President Ford blew his nose. Alert Secret Service agents seized his handkerchief and wrestled it to the ground.”

This joke led the way for many more like it that almost always concluded with the Secret Service wrestling something harmless to the ground. It wasn’t until the cold open of the fourth episode, hosted by Candice Bergen, that Chevy Chase began to actually play Ford. What Chase actually played was less of an impression of Ford and more of an invented character of an endearingly dense klutz who happened to be President, but that didn’t matter. Maybe Chase didn’t look like Ford or talk like him, but by simply saying he was Ford, his “impression” was immediately equated in many minds with the man himself. The recurring character of Gerald Ford was an outright idiot who tripped over everything and believed his stuffed dog was pregnant. The basis for the character began with a misstep the President made as he exited Air Force One upon his arrival in Austria. The President was on his way to a meeting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on June 1, 1975. As he got off the plane, he fell down several stairs. He quickly got up and even made a joke to the Austrian chancellor who was there to greet him, but of course, the cameras only recorded the fall. Saturday Night Live premiered four months later, and Ford never even had a chance (Horner 2009). All that was needed at the time was an idea of Ford, not an exact replica. Chase didn’t have to look like him or sound like him, but people accepted and embraced it. His portrayal was all critique and very little mimicry. Chase’s full intention was to convince people that Ford did not belong to be President, and the White House soon realized that it was going to have to do some damage control.

SNL was new territory for a lot of people when it premiered. It was, of course, not the first sketch comedy show. It came in on the heels of Laugh In, but was a little more risqué and a lot more political.  As the show started to make fun of political and media figures, those figures had to figure out if and how they should respond. In 1976, the White House responded by allowing press secretary Ron Nessen to host the April 17 episode, which also featured pre-recorded clips of Ford himself. This episode marked the first of many appearances on the show by political figures, even though it was generally considered a huge mistake on Nessen’s part. Even by SNL’s standards today, many of the skits were quite raunchy. Despite the fact that Nessen had planned to help Ford’s image by appearing on the same show that was damaging it, many believe it did just the opposite. A clip of Ford saying “I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not,” was used as part of a joke about his supposed identity crisis. Nessen appeared as himself alongside Chase as Ford at arguably his clumsiest yet. Nessen’s soft-spoken monologue lamented how often challenging it is to be the press secretary for a president like Ford.

One skit poked fun at a proposed bill to outlaw sodomy by having the Supreme Court watch over an intimate couple and inform them when they were engaging in something illegal. Another skit featured various cast members trying to sell horribly inappropriately- named jam. Larraine Newman did a piece on “presidential erections” on Weekend Update while Chase made more Secret Service jokes. A short film featured a group of men singing at urinals and Nessen made jokes about Oedipus Rex and bestiality in two skits entitled “Press Secretaries Through History.” The episode was absolutely riddled with jokes about Richard Nixon, his press secretary (also named Ron) and Ford’s connections to the former President. At a time when “appropriate” television was a big concern, NBC’s censors largely paid no attention to the episode since they thought the Ford and his press secretary knew what they were doing (Horner 2009).

Some people gave credit to Chevy Chase, Saturday Night Live, and Ron Nessen for helping Gerald Ford lose the 1976 election. Others didn’t see how a late night comedy show could have an effect on real-life politics. In his essay “The First Saturday Night: Saturday Night Live and Gerald Ford,” William Horner sees a different significance altogether in Nessen and Ford’s appearances.

“Ford did not, in fact, do anything to defuse his bumbling image, but by inviting Ford and Nessen to appear on their show, Michaels and the rest of the Saturday Night staff started something that has become a major theme in the study of politics and the media. What was once edgy and anti-establishment has become part of the mainstream (20).”

Regardless of how he appeared on the show, President Gerald Ford still made an appearance and his press secretary hosted the entire episode, proving that at least somebody in the White House approved of what Saturday Night Live was doing. The fact that “the man” approved of the show could have made it less appealing to its demographic of young adults after not even one entire season, but instead it fused mainstream with hip and edgy programming, providing a small preview of what was to come in the eighties across every form of media.

The decade of Reaganomics and MTV got off to a rocky start for Saturday Night Live. The entire cast was replaced after the ’79-80 season and the show was without its creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, from ’80 through ’85. These seasons are widely agreed upon as the show’s worst, and when Michaels returned, he had his work cut out for him. The show had taken a ratings dive and needed to be revamped for a new decade and a new generation. The people the show had originally been aimed at were now ten years older and no longer fit into the ideal television demographic of 20 years and younger, and the show had to adapt to bring in these younger viewers. In a 1985 New York Times article (Bennetts, 1985), Lorne Michaels is quoted as saying, “’What I did was to say, ‘Is this a 70’s show that came of age as an expression of the counterculture movement, or is this a form that any generation could find a use for?” The show had been developed as an alternative to the typical ‘70’s TV show, an argument against mainstream culture, and it had fit in perfectly with the attitude of many young people at the time. In ten years, tastes had begun to change. What used to be anti-establishment was now passé, and SNL needed to catch up.

One interesting thing about the show’s continuing transformation throughout the eighties is a lack of any commitment to political critique. Ronald Reagan was president for eight years, and only a small handful of political sketches had any staying power. Michaels claimed that the public liked Reagan enough that there wasn’t much to do in terms of impersonating him. This is a puzzling excuse because Reagan was “unpopular and controversial in his first years in office, notoriously disengaged with the details of politics, and then became embroiled in two serious scandals later in his administration” (Jones 2009). It seemed that instead of trying to turn SNL back into the voice of the rebellious youth, Michaels was driving the show further into the mainstream by not engaging in serious criticism of politics. Instead of provoking, the show would just amuse.

Towards the end of the decade, Dana Carvey debuted his impression of George H. W. Bush, but it was just that – an impression. He mimicked the President perfectly, drawing humor from the way Bush spoke, rather than what he spoke about. His actual politics didn’t enter into the equation, and he was flattered. Bush used Carvey as White House entertainment and regularly imitated the imitation. Carvey wasn’t doing anything that threatened the public’s view of Bush’s presidency, so he took no issue with it. Bush also regularly brought up other SNL skits, like one that portrayed the press as either “fools or traitors,” in speeches and in response to questions from the press that he didn’t want to answer (Compton 2010). Bush felt that Saturday Night Live was on his side and he used it as much as he could, sometimes to get a laugh or sometimes just to prove that he was playing along (Jones 2009).

Few events over the past nearly four decades have seemed more tailor-made for SNL than the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late nineties. Darrell Hammond and his pitch-perfect Bill Clinton impersonation hadn’t quite broached Clinton’s politics or policies and had instead focused more on portraying the President as an overconfident, sexed-up frat boy who couldn’t keep his mouth (or his pants) shut. So, when it was revealed that the actual President had been engaging in an “improper relationship” with 22 year-old Monica Lewinsky, it was like the comedy gods had thrown a bone right into SNL’s lap. Many of the show’s best moments during that time had nothing to do with Hammond’s portrayal of Clinton, and instead featured Molly Shannon as Lewinsky and John Goodman as Linda Tripp. Saturday Night Live’s penchant for critiquing personality over policy worked perfectly with this story. This was the political atmosphere at the time – ridiculous. The media cared more about Lewinsky than actual politics, and SNL understood that. Lewinsky even made an appearance on the show, milking her “fame” for as long as possible while the Clintons just wanted her forgotten (Borger 1999).

The ridiculousness of the political climate continued through Clinton’s impeachment to the 2000 election, when neither candidate was particularly appealing in personality or in policy. Darrell Hammond, master impressionist, captured Al Gore’s robotic, boring persona to a T, while Will Ferrell took a slightly different approach to George W. Bush. He portrayed a very arrogant George W. Bush with no real brains who just made everything up and tried to pass it off as if everyone else was dumb. Neither candidate seemed that great in real life, and neither candidate seemed that great on the SNL stage either. What the Saturday Night Live portrayals did was help point out to America the state of its politics: the last President was impeached for an affair, and this was now all there was to choose from (Jones,2009).

The show’s political impressions got a huge boost in just before the 2008 election on both sides. Fred Armisen, despite being Venezuelan, German, and Japanese and not African American, took on the role of Barack Obama fairly well, but the comedy gods threw another, less innuendo-filled bone to the show when Republican Presidential candidate John McCain chose Alaska’s cutesy bespectacled “soccer mom” of a governor as his running mate. It wasn’t just Sarah Palin’s accent, her penchant for guns or her unusual word-usage that made her so perfect for the program; it was, in fact, her uncanny resemblance to previous head-writer and cast member Tina Fey. Fey returned to SNL on September 13, 2008 and she, as Palin, along with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, opened the show with “A Non-Partisan Message from Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Hillary Clinton.” The skit’s premise was that Palin and Clinton were holding a press conference to talk about their roles as women in politics. Poehler played Clinton as “an intelligent political figure with sufficient experience” (Breshnahan 2009). Fey played Palin with a gleam in her eye and not a care in the world.

What was most interesting about the skit, and the subsequent skits that followed, was how little truly had to be invented about the character of Sarah Palin in order to make her worthy of comedy. In “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election,” Flowers and Young (2010) detail how direct quotes were taken from various speeches and interviews with Sarah Palin and just slightly rephrased for the purposes of the Tina Fey character. Even the now famous and oft-quoted line “I can see Russia from my house!” isn’t too far off from an actual quote about how much foreign policy experience Palin has due to Russia’s proximity to Alaska. When traits and quotes are compared side by side, the character in general isn’t too far off from the actual Sarah Palin. In fact, the Tina Fey character may actually be more likable than the real life woman, even though the portrayal has mostly been referred to as a rather negative one and could be described as “an unsophisticated, unworldly, inexperienced state politician, talking about subjects beyond her depth of knowledge—and even one who is undereducated with a poor grasp of basic grammar” (Flowers & Young 2010). Palin’s voice, body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, and very distinct manner of speaking were perfectly captured and just slightly exaggerated, but Fey also provided a little of her own charm to the character, and the ignorance and lack of experience became endearing, perhaps even worthy of a little sympathy. She became likable in terms of not being a serious political threat, but at the same time, it became more and more apparent to many viewers that this was not a person fit to be Vice President.

While the sketch, as written, was funny in itself, it almost didn’t matter. Fey is a fine impressionist, but in playing Palin she went above and beyond to truly embody the governor in such a way that almost completely blended the impression with the image of the actual Sarah Palin. The two became nearly indistinguishable in the minds of a lot of viewers and voters (Flowers and Young, 2010).

Palin was unperturbed by the mockery enough to appear on SNL herself, as a guest on “Weekend Update.” She didn’t do much except pretend to refuse to rap, which the very pregnant Amy Poehler did in her place, while Palin bobbed her head along to the music. It was an attempt to show that she was a good sport, but also provided more fodder for the show and its viewers as Palin seemed to be supporting the fictionalized image of her. She helped to prove to the world how unfit she was for the Vice Presidency. McCain lost the election, and many believed that his choice of Palin, and Fey’s subsequent portrayal of her, did a great deal to help him clench that loss. Sarah Palin resigned as governor and developed her own reality show (which was canceled after one season), while her teenage daughter had a baby before becoming a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. The baby’s father posed for Playgirl. It’s as if the Palin clan turned into a real-life SNL skit all on its own.

It’s true that Saturday Night Live has come to rely on simple – but very good – character impersonations rather than serious critiques of politics, but as in Sarah Palin’s case, that is sometimes all that is necessary. Palin could technically be called a politician, but for all intents and purposes, she is a celebrity. All it took was an exaggeration of her flaws and mannerisms, in a similar fashion to how SNL portrays actors, actresses and reality stars like Kim Kardashian, to illustrate her lack of experience and necessary worldly knowledge. While the personalities involved in the 2012 election aren’t quite as big, the approach to the impressions is fairly similar. However, for the show’s 38th season, the overused and ethnically underqualified Fred Armisen passed the job of Obama on to the African American who had previously remained in the background Jay Pharoah. Pharoah could easily be called a world class impressionist, and his Obama is nearly perfect. In Sarah Palin’s case, her personality alone provided enough material for comedic criticism. For Obama, Pharoah seems to focus primarily on neither his personality nor his politics, but more on the shortcomings of the other side.

Jason Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney and Joe Biden impressions are less perfect and far more exaggerated, while Taran Killam’s Paul Ryan seems intentionally more rodent-like than the man himself (evidenced by a recent skit in which he drank from an upside down water bottle usually meant for hamsters). At this point, it’s still too early to tell where this election season will fall in terms of the breadth of Saturday Night Live politics. So far, you could say it’s no 2008, but it’s not the eighties, either. Politics and political impressions remain at the forefront of the show, even without Sarah Palin and Tina Fey.

Over the years, Saturday Night Live has gone through some rough patches and has, at times, struggled to provide the political humor that many have come to want from the show. However, it seems that at least in terms of its politics, either SNL has finally figured out how to balance true mimicry with actual critique or it’s just an indication of the unfortunate types of people in charge in today’s climate. Either way, after more than thirty-seven long years, the show still provides an accurate representation of today’s America and today’s American sense of humor, particularly with regards to the guys running the place.

Works Cited

Bennetts, Leslie. “Struggles at the New “Saturday Night.” New York Times. 12 Dec. 1985.General OneFile. Web. 3 May. 2011.

Borger, Gloria. “Didn’t we make a deal?.” U.S. News & World Report. 126.20 (1999): 32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 May 2011.

Cader, Michael. Saturday Night Live the First Twenty Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.

Compton, Josh. “Live From DC: Saturday Night Live Political Parody References in Presidential Rhetoric.”Conference Papers — International Communication Association (2010): 1. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 May 2011.

Flowers, Arhlene A., and Cory L. Young. “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election.” Journal of Visual Literacy 29.1 (2010): 47-67. Web.

Horner, William. “The First Saturday Night: Saturday Night Live and Gerald Ford.” Conference Papers — Midwestern Political Science Association (2009): 1. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 1 May 2011

Jones, Jeffrey P. “With All Due Respect: Saturday Night Live.Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-network Era. Eds. Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: NYU, 2009. 39-48. Print.

Shoemaker, Mike, and Scott Weinstein. SNL Presents: the Clinton Years. New York: TV, 1999. Print.