Richard Zoglin is the author, most recently, of “Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show.”
The first crisis of the Biden administration could be looming: America may have a president, the first in generations, who is impervious to impressionists.
Oh, they’ve tried. SNL has cycled through a revolving door of Biden impersonators. Jason Sudeikis handled the chore, uneasily, through most of the Obama years. Woody Harrelson took over in the early days of the 2020 primaries, but he offered little more than a set of gleaming white teeth. Jim Carrey’s manic energy was entertaining, but seemed all wrong for a 78-year-old candidate whose prime challenge was fending off charges that he’d lost a step.
SNL cast member Alex Moffat is the show’s latest Biden, but after one appearance, he seems to be missing in action. The late-night comics have barely tried. And where are the YouTube parodies? This cannot be good for the country.
Presidential impressions, it’s worth remembering, are a relatively new phenomenon on the American scene. Before radio, most people didn’t even know what their presidents sounded like. Humorist Will Rogers gamely made a couple of attempts on radio, with Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and FDR in 1934, but he rushed to explain afterward that he meant no disrespect. And trying to imagine an impressionist mimicking Dwight D. Eisenhower is about as hard as trying to imagine, well, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency.
The breakthrough came with John F. Kennedy — whose broad Boston accent and distinctive vocal rhythms made him easy to imitate. In November 1962, a little-known stand-up comic named Vaughn Meader played the president in “The First Family,” a comedy album of satirical sketches about Kennedy and his clan that sold 1.2 million copies in just two weeks — the fastest-selling record in U.S. history up to that point, surpassed only later by the Beatles.
After that, presidents were fair game: Lyndon Johnson, with his syrupy Texas drawl; Richard Nixon, with his hunched, scowling mien. Gerald Ford was a tougher assignment, one Chevy Chase solved by simply falling down. But nearly all the presidents since have had their TV doppelgangers, from President George H.W. Bush, whose clipped, preppy speech patterns were memorialized by Dana Carvey, to Barack Obama’s studied, stop-and-start cadences — which, by the end of his presidency, had become part of nearly every late-night comic’s repertoire.
A good impression can be withering satire. Parodies of Nixon, especially David Frye’s in the 1960s and ’70s, seemed to grow darker and more baroque as the president’s Watergate troubles mounted, solidifying the public’s view of Nixon’s slipperiness and paranoia. And the nonstop lampooning of Trump surely helped to reinforce (for all but his MAGA base) the true weirdness of the man in the White House.
Yet impressions don’t have to be mean: They can help to humanize a president, knocking him off his pedestal, sanding the rough edges. The spoofs of Ronald Reagan’s doddering geniality (like the classic SNL bit in which Phil Hartman’s bumbling Reagan becomes a laser-focused micromanager once the reporters are out of the room) probably helped distract from the crueler aspects of his conservative policies. And impressionists’ portraits of Bill Clinton as a fast-food-loving, “feel your pain” good ol’ boy may well have helped him weather the scandals and impeachment ordeal better than he might have otherwise.
But Biden, so far, has been impregnable. 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. Trump supporters and Fox News pundits would undoubtedly attribute this to the media’s liberal bias. And to be sure, Trump was viewed by the (mostly liberal) satirists not just as an irresistible comic target but also as a dire threat to the nation. Biden’s pleasantly boring presidency has been a welcome return to normality — but hardly great material for parody.
Let’s hope that changes. Can we really survive four years with a president who doesn’t have a vivid enough profile to make the cold open of “Saturday Night Live”? Can’t Joe Biden, in between planning for immigration reform and an infrastructure bill, offer a new conversational tic or catchphrase? “Malarkey” went out with the debate season. A verbal gaffe would be helpful, but Biden has set a modern record for getting this far into his presidency without holding a press briefing. Impressionists need something to latch onto.
It’s either that or another four years of Dwight D. Eisenhower. C’mon, man, your legacy is at stake.