We can’t help but wish Saturday Night Live were running during the summer to offer their take on the xenophobic lunacy of the Republican National Convention as well as the celeb-heavy Democratic. From Melania’s weirdly “borrowed” speech to the apocalyptic warnings from Donald Trump to the Broadway medleys in Philly, there was so much fodder for comedy. Saturday Night Live will be back in the fall, but until then, let’s take a look back at the best and sharpest of SNL’s election sketches.
Saturday Night Live’s long history of skewering American politics goes all the way back to the first season, when Chevy Chase began portraying President Gerald Ford as a bumbling incompetent. Chevy’s Ford neither looked nor sounded much like the genuine article (a title card even came up during the sketches that informed viewers, “This is not a good impression of Ford”), but it’s the version many remember to this day.
Season 1 ended in an election year, which brought us more of Chase’s madcap Ford impression and also introduced Dan Aykroyd’s swaggering, incomprehensibly dodgy Jimmy Carter. Their take on the 1976 debates brought us the famous line from Chase’s Ford: “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”
A few years into Carter’s presidency, Aykroyd’s impression had evolved. SNL tends to portray Democrats in a less harsh light than Republicans, so it was fun to see Carter as the president who really could fix all the problems in America, from one small town’s letter-sorting machine to a teenage druggie having a scary trip.
During the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan clung to his avuncular image, acting befuddled about how the scandal even happened. In one of the most biting political sketches the show has done, Phil Hartman played Reagan as a brutal, wheeling-and-dealing, Arabic-speaking warmonger who affects his affably lost persona for the press. His take on a photo op with a Girl Scout? “This is the part of the job that I hate.” Genius.
The 1988 debate featured Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush versus Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis. This sketch had the moment when Bush is required to keep talking for his full allotted time, even though he is desperately trying to avoid saying anything concrete about his plan to help the poor: “Let me just sum up. On track. Stay the course. A thousand points of light. Stay the course.” For his rebuttal, Dukakis deadpans, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
When Bush Sr. had to go back on his campaign promise of “no new taxes,” Carvey opened the show with his wimpy, creepy impression of the president, again speaking in sentence fragments, and this time appearing to get his jollies from taxing the middle class. It’s some of the best work Carvey did as Bush.
One of the more absurd sketches the show did was to put 1996 presidential hopeful Bob Dole on The Real World. Norm Macdonald’s portrayal of the senator as a greedy, unsharing, perverted homophobe who gets kicked out by his diverse housemates was hilarious and had audiences repeating in an angry tone, “This is Bob Dole’s peanut butter.” “Get out of Bob Dole’s chair!” until the election.
In 2000, Dana Carvey returned to the show so his famous George H.W. Bush could drop in on Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush and talk him through the debates. Besides the joy that comes from seeing these two iconic impressionists working together, this sketch brings the added thrill of watching George W. get repeatedly slapped by his dad.
Six years after Al Gore lost the (electoral college) election to George W. Bush, he made the best political cameo the show has had to date, sending a message from an alternate universe where he had reversed global warming, ended war, produced an economic surplus, and invented a machine that prevented hurricanes. It was a bittersweet look at what might have been, and it skewered Bush’s presidency without even mentioning him.
When Sarah Palin popped out of Alaskan obscurity to become the first woman on the Republican Party's ticket, audiences couldn't help but notice her resemblance to SNL alum Tina Fey. Fey came back to the show and lampooned the Republican governor to the point where some believe she may have ultimately given the final nudge that decided the election. In the best of these sketches, Palin stands alongside Amy Poehler as a rightfully bitter Hillary Clinton in a sketch that highlights the disparity in the two women’s qualifications for office.
During this year’s election cycle, the show answered fans’ wishes by bringing in Larry David as a pitch-perfect Bernie Sanders, a cantankerous version who needs your "vacuum pennies" and starts out by dialing it up to 10. Add in Kate McKinnon’s desperate-to-please Hillary Clinton, and the two get lost in hilarious metaphor about geese and what’s the deal with email passwords anyway? “I don’t have a super PAC. I don’t even have a backpack. I have to carry this stuff around loose in my arms like a professor.” This is absurdist fun with everyone firing on all cylinders.