Ever since Saturday Night Live made its grand debut in 1975, we’ve lived in a world where there are effectively two Presidents of the United States: the one who lives in the White House and steers the ship that is America and the one who lampoons them from the friendly confines of Studio 8H. The impressions can be hit or miss, and while some fictional Commanders in Chief have been able to garner more favor with the general public than their real-life counterpart, that’s not always the case.
For the last four years, Saturday Night Live has been trotting out Alec Baldwin to play Donald Trump. He was initially brought on board to portray the Republican nominee in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election (a year after the man he was impersonating hosted the show), and while it seemed like it would be a short-term gig based on how most people assumed the race would ultimately play out, most people were wrong, and as a result, he’s been routinely stopping by 30 Rock ever since.
Baldwin has made it pretty clear he doesn’t exactly enjoy the job and you have to imagine someone else will step into the role if Trump secures a second term. There’s no telling who that someone would be, as Lorne Michaels has been doing a fair amount of outsourcing and stunt-casting over the past few seasons. He most recently brought in Jim Carrey to play Joe Biden (even though I’d argue SNL alum Jason Sudeikis would’ve been a better choice based on his killer impression) but it’s hard to imagine he’d stick around for four more years if Biden wins.
SNL has traditionally tapped a cast member to play the president before Baldwin shook things up, a move Michaels would lead you to believe was the best decision from a creative standpoint but that plenty of other people see as a shameless ploy for ratings. Regardless, viewers have now come to expect comedic mercenaries to pop up when it comes to poking fun at people in the world of politics—whether it’s Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer, Maya Rudolph portraying Kamala Harris, or Brad Pitt channeling Anthony Fauci (and getting an Emmy nomination as a result).
Again, there’s no telling how things will play out following the election, but instead of looking forward, let’s take a step back and reflect on the other impressions whoever ends up playing whoever wins this year will have to compete with by ranking all of the SNL presidents to come before them.
12. Ronald Reagan (Charles Rocket, Randy Quaid, Joe Piscopo)
After coming out swinging with memorable takes on Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, SNL got as lost in the weeds as Beck Bennet did after he encountered David S. Pumpkins when it came to tackling Ronald Reagan. Reagan became president around the same time Eddie Murphy was taking the world by storm and the show wisely leaned on the comedian more than anything else in pursuit of laughs.
When you consider having Murphy portray The Gipper would’ve been a bit of a stretch, these sketches weren’t a top priority. Reagan was also fairly non-descript and well-liked at the time, which made him a tough target to tackle. When the show decided to incorporate him into a bit, it opted to go with the bullpen-by-committee approach; Charles Rocket, Randy Quaid, and Joe Piscopo all tried their hand (Robin Williams even gave it a shot when he stopped by to host) but none of them really managed to make much of a mark.
At the end of the day, these were really just filler until it was time for Eddie Murphy to shine. It didn’t matter what Gumby was up to but you could be damn sure it was definitely better than anything involving Reagan.
11. George W. Bush (Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis)
When Will Ferrell left Saturday Night Live, he left several pairs of big shoes that needed to be filled—the largest of which was his portrayal of George W. Bush. The show first tried out the reliable Darrell Hammon and then gave Chris Parnell a shot before settling on Will Forte.
In James Andrew Miller’s excellent oral history of the show, Forte revealed he wasn’t exactly amped about landing the part because outdoing Ferrell was an almost Herculean task, saying:
“I didn’t want to see anybody else come in and do George Bush after Will Ferrell did it. It was almost like somebody coming in and taking over the role of Church Lady. That’s Dana Carvey; nobody else can do Church Lady.”
Forte’s Bush was more childish and despondent than Ferrell’s, which was a reflection of the country becoming increasingly displeased with the man he was playing. As his second term wound down, the show found more luck with sketches involving Vice President Dick Cheney (played by Hammond,) leaving Forte more time to focus on original characters like MacGruber, which turned out to be for the best when everything was said and done.
After Forte, the show briefly ran with Jason Sudeikis as Bush.
It was perfectly serviceable but nothing compared to his eventual takes on Biden and Mitt Romney.
10. Barack Obama (Fred Armisen)
Armisen was the first SNL cast member to get a crack at playing Barack Obama. He held onto the gig from 2008 through 2012, and while it wasn’t a bad run, it wasn’t a particularly memorable one.
Quantity doesn’t mean quality, my friends. Armisen will always be considered an all-time great when it comes to SNL cast members, but when explaining why, no one will be quick to call attention to his Obama impression.
In fairness, Saturday Night Live struggled to portray President Obama the entire time he held office, as he just didn’t really give them that much to work with; other presidents had particular quirks and major scandals the show could use for material but for the most part, the sketches involving him largely poked fun at him for trying a bit too hard to come off as a cool and normal guy, which wasn’t exactly a fountain of comedy.
However, I still commend Armisen for his efforts and thank him for his service.
9. Jimmy Carter (Dan Akyroyd)
Jimmy Carter was the second president to hold office during Saturday Night Live’s run and Dan Akyroyd was the second cast member to play one. Like Chevy Chase before him, authenticity wasn’t high on the to-do list when it came to impersonating the president. Politics weren’t really a priority and Carter was more of a vehicle for humor than anything else; just another character for the show to use to get laughs during its wild formative years.
In Miller’s book, he still credits Akyroyd and Chase for helping to pave the way for future SNL presidents, saying that “if Chevy hadn’t been as good with Ford and Danny hadn’t been as good with Carter, I don’t think SNL would have rocketed off in terms of political satire and impersonations the way it did.”
I do think it’s worth noting that Akyroyd only had to play Carter for four years, meaning the impression never really got stale, which likely made it easier for people to look back upon it somewhat favorably.
8. Barack Obama (Jay Pharoah)
In a head-to-head match between Armisen and Jay Pharoah based on comedic prowess alone, the former is the obvious winner. Armisen is the greater all-around talent and his ability to create loveable weirdos makes him a national treasure. But in terms of impressions, you’d have to go with Jay Pharoah—especially when it comes to Obama.
Unfortunately, Pharoah was hamstrung by the same limitations that faced Armisen—mainly the lack of juicy source material. It didn’t matter how on point his Obama impression was because if there’s not a lot to work with, then it ultimately doesn’t matter how uncanny you are.
As if trying to squeeze juice from the Obama years was hard enough, SNL had to contend with Key & Peele’s bit featuring Luther, the president’s “Anger Translator” They found a hook and way to have fun with the president and SNL took some inspiration from (or arguably ripped off) the show on a couple of occasions by having Dwayne Johnson play an Incredible Hulk-style version of Obama.
It was a valiant effort but it never came close to topping the Key & Peele approach.
7. Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin)
Hammond was the first person to play Trump in the early days of his campaign before he handed the reins to Taran Killam, who was a great impressionist who expertly honed in on his mannerisms but he lacked the physical stature to pull it off convincingly enough.
Enter Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin was brought in with great fanfare in the fall of 2016 to play Trump. At first, it was pretty fun. We had some laughs and enjoyed ourselves. Again, this wasn’t supposed to be a long-term thing, as the assumption was Baldwin would help pass some time for a bit until Kate McKinnon’s kicked off her tenure as Hillary Clinton.
Instead, she ended up covering “Hallelujah” in character in one of the weirdest moments in the show’s history and Baldwin found himself needing to stick around until SNL found someone else to play the now-president—which he’s been doing ever since.
Baldwin has done a decent job but he’s run into the same problem SNL encountered during the Bush presidency, as it can be hard to find humor in many of the events that have transpired since the last election and the behavior and personality of the person who won it. I don’t want to get too political here (which is easier said than done considering the topic at hand), but by this point, a lot of people would like to be able to use the show as an escape from our current reality as opposed to being reminded of it during basically every single cold open.
I don’t know if going with a more absurd take on Trump would have helped or not (I personally always wished they would have given the gig to Kyle Mooney), but either way, Baldwin can only do so much when it comes to tackling the inherent issues with the role he’s shouldered.
6. Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman)
Phil Hartman joined the cast of Saturday Night Live two years after Eddie Murphy departed in 1984, and over that span, Reagan was reelected and found himself dealing with the Iran-Contra scandal that made him viewed less lovably as he had been toward the beginning of his presidency. At the end of 1986, Hartman debuted his Reagan impression and would spend the next few years portraying the president as duplicitous and two-faced; charming and affable at one moment and conviving and duplicitous on the other.
In his book, Miller says Hartman’s Reagan helped usher in a new era of SNL’s political comedy in a similar way Chase and Akyroyd had a decade earlier. It helped that the show had some master impressionists in the cast—people who could really nail the subjects they were portraying and then making them characters themselves as opposed to just stock impressions—and Hartman’s turn as Reagan kicked off the Golden Age of SNL presidents.
5. Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase)
Do you know anything about Gerald Ford? I don’t know anything about Gerald Ford. I know he was president and I know his name was Gerald—or maybe his name is Gerald. Is Gerald Ford still alive? After a quick search, it appears he is not and has not been for 14 years. You learn something new every day.
I do, however, know that Chevy Chase played Ford during Saturday Night Live’s first season. His stint as Ford (which he reprised a handful of times in later years) is notable because of how it helped shape the president’s public image. Ford was a stern dude—a real rock of a man—and if you were to Google him (like I just did) you’d probably think that he was a fella who was at the very least, steady on his feet.
However, Chase elected to portray him as a major clutz. He may not have been a huge buffoon in real life, but as Miller notes, that didn’t really matter, because that’s how people started to view him:
“Chevy was able to turn him (Ford) into this guy who was always falling down and hitting his head. I remember meeting people who had worked for Ford later on and they said, ‘He’s a great jock! He’s so fantastic!’
But after Chevy got done with him, a lot of people thought of Ford as a stumbling, bumbling guy. It showed right away that SNL had a real ability to take people and create a whole persona for them.”
Tina Fey managed to do the same thing with her portrayal of Sarah Palin, but Chase was the real trailblazer for not only her but another cast member you already knew was going to be near the top of this list before you started reading it—but you’ll just have to wait and see exactly where.
4. Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman)
Hartman took a break from SNL presidential duties for a few years after Reagan’s term ended before assuming them in once again 1992 following the election of Bill Clinton.
Hartman was a good guy and that goodness tended to shine through in all of his impressions. That included his take on Clinton, which was generally light-hearted and funny. This worked because it was during a stretch of the Clinton presidency where things had yet to go veering off the rails. He played him like the fun-loving, good ol’ boy we all assumed Clinton was and it was a damn good time when he did it. You wanted to grab a beer and watch some college football with both the real Clinton and the SNL Clinton.
3. George W. Bush (Will Ferrell)
As Forte mentioned when he talked about having to do what Ferrell mastered, it was basically impossible to top his fairly iconic impression, which he did for a much shorter period than I think most people realized. Ferrell left SNL halfway through Bush’s first term and did most of his work as Dubya in the couple of years that preceded the 2000 election but he put that time to very good use and left an indelible mark in the process.
Part of what made Ferrell’s Bush so memorable is that it wasn’t just an impression—it was a genuine character. Yes, it was loosely based on the actual president, but the facets of Bush that Ferrell utilized and employed were only jumping-off points. His version possessed a lot of the qualities that were encapsulated by many other characters he played on the show, including the cluelessness, bravado, chest-puffing, and subtle insecurities that defined his Bush.
This approach is what separates the great SNL presidents from the more forgettable ones and Ferrell gave the writers more room to kick around ideas and to take chances they couldn’t or weren’t able to take when a cast member was doing a more routine impression.
Of course, the landscape changed drastically in the wake of 9/11 and the show had to tread a little lightly with how the president was portrayed as a result. Thankfully, Ferrell’s Bush could always be viewed in one of two ways—as an incompetent moron or the everyman with a fair amount of flaws but who ultimately meant well—and Ferrell never failed to deliver regardless of which route he took.
2. Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond)
How the president is largely viewed by the general public and what events are happening at the time obviously plays a role in shaping the SNL version of the president and there is perhaps nothing that illustrates that better than Hammond’s Clinton.
By the time Hammond stepped into the role in 1995, Clinton wasn’t viewed the same way as he was when Hartman had the gig. The shine was gone and covered by a little sleaze that coated a number of scandals that SNL steered straight into. The show had largely played nice when it came to its portrayal of the president, but with Clinton, the gloves came off.
Hartman’s Clinton was a fun guy to be around, a good hang. That was not the case with Hammond’s version and it made for a very entertaining ride. Because SNL played into certain perceptions of Clinton, it felt as if the audience was in on the joke. When Hammond did his pattened thumbs up and bite-the-lip move and directed it at the camera, it read like a sign between him and the audience; an acknowledgment that whatever he was doing at the time was funny because hell, it was probably true.
1. George H.W. Bush (Dana Carvey)
If it wasn’t for Carvey’s time playing the elder Bush, Hammond would easily have had the top spot here but part of the reason he doesn’t is that Carvey paved the way for the cast members who would portray all of the presidents after him. You have to give respect where respect is due and Carvey gets all the respect in the world for what he pulled off during his time in the fake Oval Office.
The role featured a lot of the things Carvey’s characters would become known for—especially catchphrases. In recent years, SNL seems to have drifted away from relying on recurring sketches and characters but they were at the heart of the program in the 1990s, and for Carvey, Bush was just another tool in a box that was filled to the brim with them.
As was the case with other successful SNL presidents, Carvey took parts of the real Bush and ran with them, whether it was his speaking style, interesting mannerisms, or general lack of coolness and suaveness. While his son might have seemed like a cool dude you could see yourself inviting to a party, Bush Sr. was the guy you stopped on the street to ask for directions to the party.
Carvey capitalized on this, making his version of Bush a lovable dork. He never went too dark, generally poking fun at him by taking aim at relatively easy targets. Bush himself was a fan of Carvey’s take on him and as Miller points out, the two men “had several appearances together” where Bush would openly laugh at the comedian’s impression.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next for Saturday Night Live no matter who wins the upcoming election, but if I was in charge, I’d be giving Mooney the gig regardless of the end result. Just do it, Lorne. You won’t be sorry (or you might be, but hey, you can always call some famous celebrity if it doesn’t work out).