A history of presidential parodies on Saturday Night Live

SNL presidents.
SNL presidents. Illustrated | Getty Images

NBC's iconic sketch show Saturday Night Live is famous for its political humor — and in particular, its long and storied history of presidential parodies, many of which have become iconic in their own right. Here's everything you need to know: 

When did presidential parodies begin on Saturday Night Live?

Saturday Night Live premiered on Oct. 11, 1975, as NBC's flagship live sketch series. Created by Lorne Michaels, who serves as executive producer to this day, the show began spoofing U.S. politics and poking fun at the sitting president (Gerald Ford, at the time) almost immediately. The show's parody of Ford — helmed by original cast member Chevy Chase — depicted him as many Americans saw him — clumsy. When playing the president, Chase would often stumble around and fall over numerous objects. Indeed, President Ford is infamous for his rather unfortunate history of mishaps, having even tripped down the stairs multiple times during his term.

Chase debuted his parody of Ford on Nov. 8, just a month into the show's tenure. Ford himself, though, used the parody as a platform to try and float his sinking public opinion. His press secretary, Ron Nessen, even hosted an episode of SNL that season, playing alongside Chase's version of the president. In one of the first instances of a president getting in on the joke, Ford actually opened the show himself, uttering the famous catchphrase, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" during a pre-recorded tape in the Oval Office.

Which presidents have been parodied on Saturday Night Live?

There have been nine presidents since the show's debut in 1975 — and SNL has spoofed them all.

Following Chevy Chase's President Ford was Jimmy Carter as portrayed by Dan Aykroyd, another original SNL cast member. Akyroyd spoofed Carter's famously calm and cool southern nature during an ongoing series called "Ask President Carter."  Cast member Phil Hartman then spoofed Ronald Reagan, Carter's successor, as a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type character who operated as an evil mastermind behind the scenes.

Heading into the 1990s, the iconic Dana Carvey took on the role of George H.W. Bush, with his Texas twang and wide-brimmed glasses. When Bush made way for Bill Clinton in 1992, Darrell Hammond and Phil Hartman shared duties portraying the easily-imitable president, thus beginning a period in which some presidents were portrayed by multiple actors.

Such was not the case, however, with Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, who was famously spoofed by Will Ferrell throughout his eight years in office. Ferrell's use of the word "strategery" during a parody of the 2000 presidential debate has become one of the most infamous SNL moments of all time.

Barack Obama was played mainly by Jay Pharoah and Fred Armisen, though Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson transformed himself into "The Rock Obama" for a number of anger-fueled sketches. And Donald Trump, who had been spoofed for years on SNL even prior to his presidency, has been parodied by numerous actors, including Darrell Hammond, Alec Baldwin, and currently James Austin Johnson.

President Biden has been similarly portrayed by multiple actors during his time in the White House. Such depictions include an upbeat and over-the-top Vice President Biden from Jason Sudeikis, as well as more muted versions from Jim Carrey and current cast member James Austin Johnson.

How do the presidents feel about their Saturday Night Live counterparts?

The majority of them have taken the parodies in stride, though there have been some exceptions. The first president to be spoofed, Ford, reportedly didn't like the way SNL portrayed his bumbling mishaps; however, in public, he was typically a good sport. The Washington Post notes that Ford often laughed about his SNL portrayal, and even invited Chevy Chase to be the featured guest at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in 1976.

George W. Bush, who was spoofed perhaps more than any other president due to his history of gaffes, said during an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that he not only enjoyed Will Ferrell's portrayal of him, but also all the comedy that surrounded his presidency. Bush added that at one point, he was under the impression that he himself had said "strategery" during a speech. "I love humor," Bush told Kimmel. "The best humor is when you make fun of yourself."

Barack Obama even made an appearance on the show for a Halloween sketch, albeit prior to his being elected president. The sketch occurred during the Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, and Obama appeared, appropriately donning an Obama mask, to close out the show's cold open.

However, one president, in particular, took less kindly to the impersonations. Donald Trump famously feuded with Alec Baldwin over Baldwin's Trump impression, with the former often taking to Twitter to criticize the sketches that made fun of him. "Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable!" read one such tweet. "Totally biased, not funny, and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse."

What other famous politicians have been parodied on Saturday Night Live?

While the majority of SNL's political sketches have involved presidents, a number of other high-ranking political figures — often presidential candidates or prominent lawmakers — have found themselves as the brunt of the joke.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for example, has been spoofed many times by Larry David, a former SNL writer and co-creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Sanders himself has even gotten in on the fun, joining David for a sketch in 2016. Other parodied politicians include Vice President Kamala Harris, portrayed by Maya Rudolph, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), portrayed by Tina Fey.

Perhaps the most well-known non-presidential parodies, though, were helmed by the recently-departed Kate McKinnon. Beyond infamously spoofing Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, McKinnon also portrayed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as former New York City Mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

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