11 of the Best Political Sketches in SNL History

Presidential elections are always gold mines of comedy riches for the writers of "Saturday Night Live," but this year’s Trump-led pack must be like a dream. When the 41st season of "S.N.L." premieres this Saturday, it seems safe to assume there will be a cold open featuring Taran Killam in a Trump wig, the jokes barely exaggerated versions of quotes from the campaign trail. "S.N.L." has a long history of making politicians into recognizable caricatures whose foibles and follies are played up for laughs. This election season, the heavy comedic lifting has already been done by the candidates themselves.


To welcome the show back, here’s a look at some of the best political sketches featured in its more than four decades on air. There are plenty more where these came from, but among the list that follows are 13 moments both classic and overlooked, chosen from both the early days of "S.N.L." and more recent seasons.

1. Palin/Hillary Press Conference, 2008.

The instant Sarah Palin appeared on the political scene, with her 'Aw, shucks' style and word salad interview answers, she was destined for comedic roasting. Tina Fey had already departed "S.N.L." for "30 Rock," but she so thoroughly looked the part that it only made sense for her to return and take on the role. Though she only appeared as Palin in a handful of skits, they remain among the most memorable — and widely watched — political sketches in the show’s history, and researchers claim a little thing called “The Fey Effect” may have helped keep McCain out of the White House. While this sketch mocking Palin’s famously poor showing during an interview with Katie Couric is equally hilarious, the skit below edged it out thanks to the presence of the now iconic misquote, “I can see Russia from my house."

2. Ronald Reagan: Mastermind, 1986.

As the real-life Reagan feigned ignorance of the Iran-Contra affair and kept up his grandfatherly public image, "S.N.L." offered this alternate take on the President as a ruthless political puppet master behind the scenes. Phil Hartman, one of the show’s most prolific talents, is pitch-perfect as a Jekyll-and-Hyde Reagan who, depending on who’s in the room, switches between the kindly Gipper to a hotheaded genius mastermind. It’s very nearly impossible not to laugh when Hartman’s Reagan, his evil scheming interrupted by a photo-op with a Girl Scout, shouts, “This is the part of the job I hate!”

3. A Message from President Gerald Ford, 1976.

Chevy Chase — an "S.N.L." cast member only for its inaugural season — portrayed Gerald Ford as a bumbling klutz who spent most of his time falling down and being confused by relatively easy concepts. In this sketch, Chase’s Ford mucks up a call between Kissinger and Anwar Sadat, mistakes a cup of water for a telephone and effectively ends up, as always, in a heap on the floor.

4. George H.W. Bush Gives Debate Advice to George W. Bush, 2000.

Two of "S.N.L."’s most iconic Bushes — Dana Carvey as George Sr. and Will Ferrell as George Jr. — appear in this sketch in which a short-tempered 41 attempts to educate his son on how to handle himself in a presidential debate. Even by 2000, Ferrell had perfected the image of Bush he would go on popularize — a goofy, earnest, dimwitted frat boy oblivious to how far in over his head he is.

5. Undecided Voter, 2012.

Every four years, in the weeks before the general election, the media and pollsters spend an inordinate amount of time talking with “undecided voters.” You know who I'm talking about: those who claim they haven’t yet made up their minds despite vast amounts of available information explaining the polar opposite platforms of the two candidates. In late September 2012, "S.N.L." parodied these holdouts, highlighting the kind of questions that might remain for someone who could possibly still be on the fence so late in the game. Questions like "When is the election?" "What are the names of the two people running?" and "Who is the president right now?"

6. Ask President Carter, 1977.

Jimmy Carter: A man so of-the-people that "S.N.L." depicted him as prepared to talk a postal worker through the steps required to use an automated letter-sorting machine and able to help a teenager mellow out during a bad acid trip. “You did some ‘orange sunshine,’ Peter,” Carter, played as unflappably cool by a very young Dan Aykroyd, tells the young caller. “Relax, stay inside and listen to some music, OK? Do you have any Allman Brothers?” Bill Murray as Walter Cronkite also features prominently.

7. James Carville on the Tea Party, 2010.

Bill Hader’s most popular character may have been Stefon, but he is an astounding impressionist — the kind of guy who morphs into every new persona, leaving barely a trace of himself behind. Among these was Democratic political operative James Carville, who became a recurring character on "Weekend Update." Hader managed to make the Ragin’ Cajun more colorful than ever, and full of pretty awesome zingers. “Tell me something,” he asks rhetorically of Tea Partiers. “Which Founding Father wore the tri-color hat with an Orlando Magic jersey?”

8. 2012 Town Hall Debate: Obama vs. Romney.

Barack Obama (Jay Pharoah) and Mitt Romney (Jason Sudeikis) duke it out — figuratively and, at moments, very nearly literally — in "S.N.L."’s take on the contentious 2012 second presidential debate. The show also took a few comedic jabs at the town hall’s audience of “82 undecided voters from the Long Island area,” with Candy Crowley (Aidy Bryant) suggesting questions were “selected based on the severity of their accents.” Tom Hanks shows up in a cameo that provides one of the skit’s biggest laughs.

9. Clinton Visits McDonald’s, 1992.

In a 1992 piece on the eating habits of Bill Clinton, the New York Times wrote that the president-elect was engaged in a “battle of the bulge” largely resulting from a love of fast food and visits to his hometown “fat factories.” In this classic "S.N.L." sketch, Phil Hartman's Clinton explains foreign policy through mouthfuls of other people’s McDonald’s. (At one point, Hartman has so much food in his mouth he nearly breaks into a fit of laughter.) Chris Rock, a cast member for three seasons, appears briefly at the start of the sketch.

10. Dad and Son Go Hunting, 2000.

Another skit pairing Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell as junior and senior Bush. This time, the two are on a hunting trip in the woods, where Bush 41 tries to have a serious conversation with his son about the enormity of the task before him. Predictably, it does not work out well.

11. Al Gore Visits The West Wing, 2002.

One of my favorite "S.N.L." skits of all time, political or otherwise. Al Gore, on a tour of the set of "The West Wing," gets a little too comfortable sitting at the president’s desk and pretending to be the Commander-in-Chief. The writing here is brilliant, the cameos (Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff all appear) are great and the acting is fantastic. Extra kudos to Al Gore for so gamely playing along with the whole thing.


Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.