Mock Election: 40 years of political impressions in pop culture

Jordan Peele, left, and Keegan-Michael Key appear onstage at The 2012 Comedy Awards in New York, Saturday, April 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Jordan Peele, left, and Keegan-Michael Key appear onstage at The 2012 Comedy Awards in New York, Saturday, April 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — The world of politics isn’t always the easiest place to navigate. There are plenty of topics, issues and policies that can be stressful to figure out. It’s only natural then that so many comedians have tackled the weighty world of the Oval Office.

Gerald Ford

A year before the 1976 presidential election took place, a little program known as Saturday Night Live – you may have heard of it – debuted on NBC. It’s a staple now to see the show lampoon the current Commander in Chief, but it had to start somewhere, and Gerald Ford was the first president to find himself front and center on Saturday nights.

Ford was “portrayed” by Chevy Chase. The better way to describe it, though, is Chase was just being Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford. The most memorable part of the impersonation was that it wasn’t an impersonation at all. When Chase would appear, the screen would flash in big letters “THIS IS NOT A GOOD IMPRESSION OF GERALD FORD.” That would be followed up by the explanation that “Rich Little won’t work for scale.” The charm and humor in the skits, though, ultimately came from the lackadaisical approach to impersonating Ford.

Jimmy Carter and the 1976 Presidential Debate

Sticking with SNL here – and there will be a lot of that because they do love their political satire – the 1976 election was there first crack at putting a spin to the campaign cycle. You now had Chase’s Ford up against Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter. While Ford was still just Chase being Chase , Aykroyd’s Carter was actually an impression.

During Carter’s time in office, Aykroyd portrayed the 39th president as a very smart, and rather smooth, southern gentleman. Honestly, the only real drawback to the performance was Aykroyd kept his moustache when Carter was often clean-shaven. In his defense though, it was a great moustache so you could see why he’d want to keep it.

Ronald Reagan

The actor turned politician, who won in two of the biggest landside elections in U.S. history, was a perfect fit for parody. And there are plenty to choose from. Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show, got into the act.

Political comedian, Jim Morris, popped up left and right with his Reagan antics.

And then of course you have SNL, where seven different people played him. While there are some memorable moments with a few of the actors, none of the “not ready for primetime players” mastered it the way Phil Hartman did. He portrayed Reagan as loveable and dim in the public eye, but behind closed doors, the “mastermind” would come out.

Years later, Reagan is still a popular figure to pop up on the small screen from time to time. In 2015, Ronald Reagan was a character on both Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (played by Michael Showalter) and Fargo (played by Bruce Campbell).

George H. W. Bush

Actor Dana Carvey as President George Bush hosts the ninth annual MTV Music Video Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Ca., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 1992. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
Actor Dana Carvey as President George Bush hosts the ninth annual MTV Music Video Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Ca., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 1992. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

An impression doesn’t have to be spot on to be considered great. No one proved that more than Dana Carvey and his George H. W. Bush impression. Seriously – his “Not gonna do it” catchphrase – Bush never really said that. He didn’t really look like him, he didn’t really sound like him, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was how funny he could be. Especially when diving into some huge topics, like having to announce a new tax after promising no new taxes.

The 1992 Election

The 1992 election was the gift that kept on giving for political humor. Not only did you have Bush, you also had Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. On SNL, Carvey was doing double duty as he continued playing Bush and also had a memorable Perot impression as well.

Perot even popped up on Nickelodeon’s All That sketch show, played by Katrina Johnson.

Bill Clinton

President Clinton, left, laughs with look-alike Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live" at the 53rd annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association, Thursday, April 10, 1997 in Washington. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
President Clinton, left, laughs with look-alike Darrell Hammond of “Saturday Night Live” at the 53rd annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association, Thursday, April 10, 1997 in Washington. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Phil Hartman had such a popular Ronald Reagan impression that it’s hard to imagine he’d have another presidential impersonation that would top it but he did. Hartman’s Bill Clinton personified the laid back nature of the former Arkansas governor.

Hartman wasn’t the only one on SNL to perfect “Slick Willie.” Darrell Hammond played the president at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment process.

Outside of SNL, comedian Tim Watters made a career out of playing Clinton. He played him on the short-lived The Newz and has popped up here and there ever since.

The 2000 Election

It’s hard not to think of the 2000 Election without the words “lockbox” and “strategery.” Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore and Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush turned out iconic impressions for one of the wildest elections in the country’s history.

George W. Bush

Ferrell left SNL during Bush’s first run in office. But he would continue playing W well past that. He popped up on Broadway and even had a special on HBO “You’re Welcome America.”

Outside of Ferrell, Timothy Bottoms is likely the most famous W impersonator. He even played the president on a short-lived Comedy Central show while Bush was still in office.

The 2008 Election

Sometimes you just strike gold with your material. That’s what happened to SNL with Tina Fey’s portrayal of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

In fact, Fey’s dead-on Palin impression actually did some damage to the real Palin in the public eye. I’m not kidding – there is actual research to back this up.

Barack Obama

SNL usually finds someone that can really tackle the current president for sketches. And while they had a decent impression of Barack Obama with Jay Pharoah, it was Key & Peele’s Jordan Peele that truly nailed it.

The 2016 Election

This election season has had plenty to lampoon. On SNL, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump have probably had a harder time figuring out what topics to cut for time, rather than look for something to fill it.

Even before the election cycle was down to two, comedians James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik were making headlines with their faux debates as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as part of their Trump vs. Bernie tour.

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