The sketch opens with White House press secretary Jen Psaki (Chloe Fineman) giving some bad news about unwatched town halls and plummeting approval ratings to President Biden (feature player James Austin Johnson).
“I don’t understand,” Johnson’s Biden says. “People used to like me. The press would call me Uncle Joe. I miss the old me. Where the hell did that guy go?”
On cue, guest host and former SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis bursts into the office through a plume of smoke.
“I’m you from eight years ago, man! The ghost of Biden past,” Sudeikis’s Biden says. “Boom!”
The current Biden wonders aloud why the past one is so happy — and, well, “lucid.”
“Where I’m from, we’re still VP! Easiest gig in the world,” Sudeikis’s Biden says. “We’re like America’s wacky neighbor, you know. You just pop in with an ice cream cone, some aviator shades, just finger guns. You know, shake a few hands, rub a few shoulders.”
“What happened to us?” he adds. “We used to be fun!”
Soon after, Biden No. 3 appears, this one portrayed by current repertory player Alex Moffat, whose time as the president was extremely short-lived.
“Who the hell are you?” Sudeikis asks.
“I’m Joe Biden,” Moffat responds.
“From when?” Sudeikis asks.
“Hmmm, March 2021,” Moffat says.
The sketch, one of the more clever cold opens in recent memory, underscored SNL’s troubles with parodying Biden: They can’t decide who should portray him — or more importantly, how. Thus far, seven actors have taken shots to varying effect at impersonating the politician over the course of his long career.
Kevin Nealon was the first to take Biden on in a one-off sketch from 1991 that finds the then-senator leading the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Nealon doesn’t attempt to transform into Biden, but is instead primarily used to anchor the sketch, which finds the various senators arguing over what they feel is the best way to pick up women.
It wasn’t until Biden became vice president that the show truly began grappling with how to satirize him. Over the course of the Obama administration, Sudeikis portrayed him as Cool Uncle Joe, an aggressive, fast-talking, aviator sunglasses-wearing loose cannon known for both his loud guffaws and his inappropriate faux pas.
“It’s all the teeth. It’s all teeth,” Sudeikis said of taking on the impression, for which he used large prosthetic chompers.
His take was most reminiscent of the Onion’s, which imagined Biden as “Diamond Joe” and “The President of Vice,” a blue-collar deviant who washed muscle cars on the White House lawn, sang Pearl Jam songs during security briefings and had a leather vest-clad dude named Worm sit in for him at Cabinet meetings.
Fashions, of course, change over time. When Biden beat out many of his more progressive opponents and won the most delegates on Super Tuesday in 2020, the Onion ran a markedly different headline: “Biden wondering where all this support was when he still had a functioning brain.”
The shift was so seismic, one of the writers responsible for Diamond Joe apologized for its creation.
“If you’ve ever thought of Joe Biden as a clueless but lovable clod, a well-meaning klutz who is predictable, friendly, and ultimately electable, I am in small part responsible for that image,” former Onion writer and features editor Joe Garden wrote in an essay published by Vice. “And I’m sorry.”
“Instead of viciously skewering a public figure who deserved scrutiny, we let him off easy,” he added. “The joke was funny, but it didn’t hit hard enough.”
In 2019, with Sudeikis gone and Biden running for president, SNL seemed to be grappling with the same question as the Onion: What do we do now?
Presidential impersonations have been an integral part of SNL’s DNA since it debuted in 1975, and cast members have followed various comedic philosophies when shaping them.
The show’s first major impression, which came less than a month after the show premiered, was Chevy Chase’s portrayal of President Gerald Ford as a klutzy, bumbling fool. The impression was memorable for what Chase didn’t do: attempt to replicate real-life Ford in any sort of meaningful — or even insignificant — way, in either his mannerisms or his voice.
As the New York Times noted, “Ford was an accomplished football player, skier and golfer and was not considered unusually awkward by those around him. But he contributed to his own boneheaded persona in a few ill-timed episodes of camera-range clumsiness, like stumbling down the steps of Air Force One in Austria, wiping out on the slopes in Vail, Colo., and getting zonked on the head by a passing chairlift.”
Similarly, Dana Carvey played a completely absurdist version of President George H.W. Bush in the late ’80s and ’90s, waving his hands around with abandon and nasally reciting made-up catchphrases. The impression “was never mean, though also not particularly flattering,” The Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in a remembrance of Bush in 2018. “In Carvey’s rendering, Bush was a little more weird, a little more out of control with his hands, a little more prone to inexplicable, staccato phraseology.”
Bush so enjoyed the impression, he invited Carvey to the White House. He also appeared on SNL himself, where he jokingly told Carvey’s Bush, “George Bush here. I’m watching you do your impression of me, and I gotta say it’s nothing like me. Bears no resemblance. It’s bad. It’s bad.”
Darrell Hammond famously leaned into the image of Bill Clinton as America’s horniest president, all lip bites and thumbs-ups, while Will Ferrell luxuriated in George W. Bush’s forgetfulness and linguistic stumbles — so much so that he took the character to Broadway.
Sometimes, the show was forced to rely on cast members who couldn’t quite find a good take on a political figure: Fred Armisen and Jay Pharoah both attempted Obama, nailing his speech patterns but without crafting memorable takes on him.
Other times, the stars merely aligned. It was a happy accident that former SNL star Tina Fey looked like Sarah Palin and, in her guest spots on the show, could nail her voice and cadence with a heightened spin on an already headline-making politician.
Arguably the most relevant impression was also the most recent: Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. The divisive, eventually exhausting impersonation came after Hammond portrayed him for nearly a decade.
Baldwin’s approach felt uninspired, particularly compared with previous presidential takes. (It also led to SNL’s extensive overuse of the celebrity cameo.) Rather than offer a particular spin on Trump, who many comedians claimed was unmockable, Baldwin wore orange makeup, pouted his lips and furrowed his brows as he repeated (nearly verbatim) things Trump actually said.
Regardless of what detractors thought, however, it worked, garnering the once-struggling legacy show the best ratings of its 40-plus year existence. Whereas presidential impersonations used to be seasoning for the show, Baldwin’s Trump felt like an entree. He reprised the role in nearly every episode for several years, sometimes more than once a show, and a hungry audience feasted on it.
By the time 2020 rolled around, SNL had grown so fond of hiring celebrities to maintain those stellar ratings, it turned to Woody Harrelson to portray Biden in three different episodes, John Mulaney for one, and then loudly announced that Jim Carrey would take on the role during the pivotal election season.
It was a disaster, to put it mildly.
Carrey played Biden with wide-eyed mania, face twisted and frozen into a pained grin. It felt more akin to his iconic movie characters in “The Mask” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” than the presidential nominee.
“Smart political comedy always has an element of truth,” Chris Lu, who served as a senior Obama White House aide, told The Post last October. “Like any politician, Biden certainly has particular traits that can be caricatured, but he’s absolutely not the maniacal figure that Carrey is portraying.”
After six episodes, Carrey was replaced with Moffat — who played the character a single time before the show seemingly forwent poking fun at the Biden administration at all. Some argued that’s due to the show’s politics, which are no secret. Others have suggested Biden is, in essence, too boring to make for good comedy.
“Biden, so far, has been impregnable,” author and critic Richard Zoglin wrote in The Post. “The voice is too bland and devoid of obvious quirks, and beyond the occasional ‘C’mon, man,’ his conversational manner too muted and self-effacing, to give the parodists much to work with.”
Ironically, Johnson, who was dubbed by Vanity Fair as “the best Trump impersonator,” became the seventh person to take on Trump’s successor when he joined the cast in 2021. Johnson has quickly proved himself a master imitator, and he plays his Biden closer to the real thing (albeit, a rather simple and oft-confused version of him) rather than going for an absurdist impression a la Carvey’s Bush.
He’s only held the gig for a month, so there’s still room to tweak and refine a Biden caricature that sticks. But as Saturday’s cold open reminded us, it’s not an easy job to keep.