Janet Reno, who died Monday at 78, made history in 1993 when she became the first female U.S. attorney general. She played a major role in the decade’s most high-profile legal entanglements, including the siege in Waco and the investigation into then-President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Even as she blazed trails as one of the country’s highest-ranking female officials, her place within popular culture became synonymous with Will Ferrell’s impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.” But Ferrell’s take on Reno was more of a caricature than an imitation of the actual woman.

Janet Reno, a pioneering lawyer who served as the country's second longest serving attorney general and its first female one, died on Nov. 7 at the age of 78. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In the recurring sketch “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” Ferrell plays a tough-talking, takes-no-crap government official who finds refuge in the dance parties she regularly hosts in her basement. Clinton sometimes shows up to try to persuade her to return to Washington. She rebuffs him, and continues her jerky, enthusiastic dancing with the crowd of teenagers in attendance.

“I really like dancing to that one,” Reno would declare. “I want to dance to that one again.” The rock music kicks back in.

Sometimes, Reno interviews teens who quickly wear on her nerves. “Shut your mouth, you dirty liar,” she would retort.

In one sketch, she challenges then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to a boxing match. In another, she slow-dances with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, played by Kevin Spacey.

Ferrell began playing Reno in 1997. The part carried many characteristic Ferrell SNL mannerisms — loud, angry people whose serious presence bordered on absurdity. Ferrell told The Washington Post magazine in 1998 his only goal with the Reno sketches was to be silly:

The idea crossed his mind because he was interested in doing a part that’s “broad and physical.” Then his girlfriend independently came up with the idea, and that solidified the notion. He liked the visual humor of a “large woman manhandling people.”
“I originally wanted to do this thing where she was almost like a bodyguard for President Clinton,” Ferrell says, “and they’d be in Cabinet meetings and she wouldn’t say anything, and then if Clinton didn’t like the person she’d be like, `Bill, do you want me to get rid of him?’ ”
Instead, he and co-writer Scott Wainio came up with Janet Reno’s dance party. In these segments, Reno is shown in trademark blue dress, partying in her basement, introducing guests mainly for the sake of humiliating them, quizzing teenagers and then telling them to shut up. “We just kind of created this, like, tough woman who lives in this make-believe world,” he says.

The sketch came while the public struggled to figure out what to make of Reno. Here was a tall, serious, quiet attorney who cared little about her public image, who was a woman, who wasn’t married and was in one of the most powerful positions in the country. “The culture gropes for an archetype, a way to understand her, some means of comparison,” The Post wrote in 1998.

Late-night comics joked about her physical stature, her clothing, her sexuality. When some of these barbs were read for her in 1998, Reno remarked, “I think people are having fun.” As for SNL’s take, “I thought it was just kind of a spoof of this 6-foot-1 big old girl,” she told the Post in 1998. “I can’t figure out why anybody’s that interested in me.”

Ferrell, for his part, wasn’t really going for a mirror impersonation of Reno. “I just sound the way she looks,” he told The Post in 1998. He later added: “I hate to break it down into something as simple as the fact that she’s tall, but it’s almost as simple as that.”

Former Justice Department public affairs director Carl Stern, after watching a sketch in 1998 showing Ferrell-as-Reno fantasizing alone in her bedroom, told The Post, “What’s grating is that the attorney general has not only a very normal sort of life but a nice life. Both in Florida and in Washington she has a great many friends whose homes she visits, and she goes to plays, her dance card is full.”

He continued: “To portray her as a wallflower that nobody asks to dance is not only demeaning but inaccurate. She’s a woman with a very active, full life — as I said, her dance card is full.”

Indeed, Reno’s real-life dancing (reports emerged about her impressive moves at a Justice Department party) apparently inspired the dance party theme.

But Reno did get in on the joke. During her unsuccessful gubernatorial run, she held a “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” campaign event at a trendy nightclub in Florida. She referenced the sketch often in speeches. Supporters cited her attitude toward the Ferrell impersonation as evidence of her down-to-earth nature.

And on her last day as attorney general, she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” joining Ferrell playing her alter-ego dance party host to thunderous applause.

“Hi Janet,” Ferrell said.

“Your mouth, just zip it,” Reno said, mimicking the caricature that Ferrell had developed. “I like your dress, Janet.”

“Thanks Janet, I like yours, too,” Ferrell said. “Oh Janet, I can’t believe I have to say goodbye. What do you do when you get sad?”

“I just dance,” Reno said. “Now, hit it!”

“Twist and Shout” begins playing, and they happily dance.

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