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Why Jim Carrey’s Biden impersonation on SNL isn’t quite catching on

Jim Carrey and Alec Baldwin returned as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump on "Saturday Night Live" on Oct. 17. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A decade ago, as the Obama administration oversaw implementation of the Recovery Act, Chris Lu would see Joe Biden in meetings, witnessing how the then-vice president spoke and moved and comported himself. So when he watches “Saturday Night Live’s" newest A-list political impersonator this season, he knows from experience: Jim Carrey is no Joe Biden.

“Smart political comedy always has an element of truth,” Lu, who served as a senior Obama White House aide, says via email. “Like any politician, Biden certainly has particular traits that can be caricatured, but he’s absolutely not the maniacal figure that Carrey is portraying.”

Four episodes into SNL’s 46th season, much of the social media response to the comedian has become a weekend routine: Fans praise Carrey’s abundant comedic gifts. They tune in to see whether Carrey has dialed back his incandescent energy to play Biden. Then they wax nostalgic for two of the show’s previous Biden impersonators, Jason Sudeikis and Woody Harrelson.

An over-the-top impression might appear to be a frivolous concern in these dire times. But some voters say they crave their comic relief in this polarizing and anxious and exhausting year; it is as if many of them want their mainstream political humor, at least, to resemble a common reality.

Sean O’Connor, a Hollywood writer and comedian, weighed in during a recent cold open of “Saturday Night Live,” as Carrey appeared with finger guns ablazin’ in his kinetic and frenetic impersonation.

“I’m almost certain that Jim Carrey has never watched a video of Joe Biden,” tweeted O’Connor (Hulu’s “Solar Opposites”), attracting several thousand “likes” and a flurry of like-minded replies — some of them convinced that Carrey is channeling some of his iconic screen characters (ranging from “In Living Color” to “The Mask”) more than the Democratic presidential nominee.

“I love Jim Carrey. He’s one of the greatest impressionists ever,” O’Connor told The Washington Post shortly before the final Trump-Biden debate, which was spoofed on last Saturday’s SNL episode, hosted by Adele. “The true problem is his energy is totally wrong for Biden. Biden isn’t manic craziness — he’s kind of slow and boring.”

In last Saturday’s performance, the comedian "seems to have toned down his performance,” Lu says. Afterward, he tweeted: “Better tonight. But still too much mugging. Bring back Jason Sudeikis.” (Carrey was not available to comment for this story. SNL declined comment.)

Sudeikis memorably impersonated Biden throughout the Obama years, telling The Post in 2017 that he homed in on one trait: Biden “feels like a people person.” The former SNL cast member said he channeled “the outgoingness and gregariousness of my father.” Simultaneously, the Onion was carving out a not dissimilar caricature of Biden as a big, blue-collar persona — the kind of earthy veep who might wash his Trans Am in the White House driveway. (Last Saturday, Carrey’s Biden even referenced the muscle car.)

“I thought the Sudeikis was probably pretty close — it felt like a bridge between the real Biden and the hilarious Biden that the Onion created,” O’Connor says. “The Woody Harrelson one” — a warm, grounded impersonation — “was actually kinda closest to the real Biden.”

And Vanity Fair wrote: “Harrelson managed to imbue his Biden impersonation with both a car salesman’s glint and his own Woody Boyd (‘Cheers’) guilelessness. Meanwhile, Carrey seems stuck doing uncomfortable schtick at half speed.”

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For the most part, SNL has grown only more polished in its now-uncanny makeup and wardrobe specifics across five decades. In the early years, Dan Aykroyd could play President Jimmy Carter with a broad Southern accent while still wearing his mustache — and Chevy Chase could play a pratfalling President Gerald Ford with little to no facial alteration at all.

A parade of gifted political impressionists raised the bar for thoughtful vocal and visual takes, including Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell (as Bush the Elder and Younger, respectively), Tina Fey (Sarah Palin), Amy Poehler (Hillary Clinton) and Darrell Hammond (Trump, Cheney, Gore, Bill Clinton — who ya need?)

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Carrey, who also draws political cartoons, has a rich history as a guest on the show. “Every time he’s done SNL, he’s always come through brilliantly, and I think what he will bring to this part will be stunning and possibly transcend comedy," SNL creator Lorne Michaels told the New York Times in September. "Because we’re in a period where comedy is only part of it.”

Now, with Election Day nearly here, many are wondering how Carrey might improve, whether he’s called upon for one more week or four more years.

“If I were to put my finger on it — and impersonation is a lot of work, so it’s a complex thing — it’s too energetic,” says Jason Chatfield, a New York-based standup and president of the National Cartoonists Society. “It’s a caricature, but it’s too far towards being an animated cartoon of Biden than being an honest parody of him.

"If you were to properly parody” Biden, Chatfield says, “you’d be better to emphasize his stiff movements, his repetitive ‘go-to’ poses. From what I’ve seen, Carrey hasn’t really capitalized on any of that, and worse — he’s given him a hunch at times. Biden doesn’t hunch.”

Meanwhile, Rob Rogers, a Pennsylvania-based political cartoonist, says part of the difficulty may lie in the candidate’s own qualities.

“I find that the easier someone is to caricature in a cartoon, the easier they are to impersonate onstage,” says the two-time Pulitzer finalist. “Nixon, easy. Clinton, easy. W., easy. Trump, easy. Obama was harder for me, and for SNL.

"Biden is tough to caricature, for me at least, because there is nothing easy to grab onto,” says Rogers, noting that the same challenge might apply to impersonation: "Carrey gets certain things right — like the general tone of his voice, creepiness, etc., but not the whole thing.”

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