The Politics of Presidential Impressions
As you know, I often pontificate about politics without any professional experience, inside expertise, or anyone listening. So today I thought I’d change things up a bit by writing about a subject I actually do know something about: political comedy. Or, as it’s known in the industry, political comedy.
In my distant past, I’ve written for dozens of TV series and major bombs, including election year stints at Saturday Night Live and Fridays, a truly unmemorable sketch comedy show that ran from 1980 to who cares. So my professional bona fides clearly qualify me to make stuff up on this topic.
Starting with SNL in 1976 AD, it’s been an American tradition for sketch comedy shows to mock and humiliate presidential candidates, much to the chagrin of everyone involved but Donald Trump. And what I’ve noticed is that you can predict a lot from the impression the actors do. For instance, I can predict with fair accuracy that these debate sketches will happen every four years, except February. And that Morning Joe will show clips without either host understanding them.
Let’s take a look at the record. Since 1976, there have been a lot of years. And a lot of political impressions – some done with affection, some done with derision, and most done with makeup. Now, let’s take a closer look at some words:
- 1976 – Jimmy Carter (Dan Aykroyd, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 1976 – Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase, SNL) – derisive – LOST
- 1980 – Ronald Reagan (Charles Rocket, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 1980 – Jimmy Carter (Joe Piscoyop, SNL) – affectionate – LOST
- 1980 – Ronald Reagan (John Roarke, Fridays) – derisive – WON
- 1980 – Jimmy Carter (Fred Raker, Fridays) – affectionate – LOST
- 1984 – Ronald Reagan (Harry Shearer, SNL) – derisive – WON
- 1984 – Walter Mondale (Gary Kroegen, SNL) – affectionate – LOST
- 1988 – George Bush (Dana Carvey, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 1988 – Michael Dukakis (Jon Lovitz, SNL) – derisive – LOST
- 1992 – Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 1992 – George Bush (Dana Carvey, SNL) – affectionate – LOST
- 1992 – Ross Perot (Dana Carvey, SNL) – affectionate – LOST
- 1992 – Bill Clinton (Jim Carrey, In Living Color) – affectionate – WON
- 1992 – George Bush (Jim Carrey, In Living Color) – affectionate – LOST
- 1992 – Ross Perot (Jim Carrey, In Living Color) – derisive – LOST
- 1996 – Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 1996 – Bob Dole (Norm McDonald, SNL) – derisive – LOST
- 2000 – George W. Bush (Will Ferrell, SNL) – derisive – WON
- 2000 – Al Gore (Darrell Hammond, SNL) – derisive – LOST
- 2004 – George W. Bush (various, SNL) – mixed – WON
- 2004 – John Kerry (Seth Meyers, SNL) – derisive – LOST
- 2008 – Barack Obama (Fred Armisen, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 2008 – John McCain (Darrell Hammond, SNL) – affectionate – LOST
- 2008 – Sarah Palin (Tina Fey, SNL) – derisive – LOST
- 2012 – Barack Obama (Jordan Peele, Key & Peele) – affectionate – WON
- 2012 – Barack Obama (Jay Pharoah, SNL) – affectionate – WON
- 2012 – Mitt Romney (Jason Sudeikis, SNL) – affectionate – LOST
Now what have we learned from this list? Well, we know that WordPress offers colored fonts. We also know that generally, when an impression is done with some degree of affection – or, dare I say it, “love” – that candidate usually wins. But why is it so hard for me to say the word “love?” And why do I write it in “quotes?”
The exception, of course, was Ronald Reagan. He won two presidential elections (three if you count one twice), even though most impressions of him were fairly derisive, if not downright fairly derisive. But interestingly, caricatures of Reagan became much more likable after he became president. And took control of the FCC. And IRS. And CIA. Now I’m not saying there’s a cause and effect here. But there’s a cause and effect here.
Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush was also decidedly derisive. Yet Bush won the 2000 election by negative 540,000 votes. So he both proves and disproves the rule. Which is another way of saying this theory sucks.
As for President Obama, he had three different comics do affectionate impressions of him, two black men and a caucasian. Yet Obama only won the presidency twice. I hope you can see the racial implications of that. Because I can’t.
And then there’s Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. I only mention them for the Google keywords.
I call this the Theory of Likable Impressions. Stated simply, the theory shows that if a likable impression runs against an unlikable impression, the candidate with the likable impression generally wins. If both major party candidates are depicted with likable impressions, as was the case in 1992 and 2008, the taller candidate wins. And in any year when there are three major candidates, Dana Carvey will have to play two of them.
Except on In Living Color, where every presidential candidate will be played by the white guy.
And if all the presidential candidates are depicted as highly unlikable, onerous, and unpleasant to be around, it’s 2016.
In summation, I began writing this essay on political comedy thinking I had some grand insight to share. In the middle, I realized I did not. By the end, I was simply trying to find a way to justify wasting a Friday afternoon writing this tripe.
But what I can say with 100% confidence is, no matter who plays Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein on SNL this coming fall, Leslie Jones will be chewing up the scenery.
I just hope they cast her as Joy Reid and not Tamron Hall. God help us if she’s Megyn Kelly.
Kevin Kelton is a former writer for Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon and dozens of OKCupid profiles. When he’s not name-dropping, he enjoys hanging out with Larry David.