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20 Best ‘Saturday Night Live’ Political Sketches

From ‘Trump Voters’ to Tina Fey’s iconic Sarah Palin – the greatest, funniest, sharpest political ‘SNL’ sketches

This Saturday, Melissa McCarthy will host Saturday Night Live for the fifth time – and if the promo she dropped a few days ago is any indication, the comedian will probably be trotting out her killer Sean Spicer impersonation at least once. To say that her hilarious take on the White House press secretary has been one of the best things about this past season is a vast understatement – that first surprise appearance of her gum-chewing, Super Soaker-toting, media-bashing lackey was the sort of reminder that, when SNL seizes a moment while running on all cylinders, the show can add to the political discourse that can be deep or downright damning.

But while the long-running comedy institution has been especially tuned in to policy matters and the powers that be since kicking off Season 42 last October, Saturday Night Live has always turned to political humor for inspiration (and served as the basis of many memorable impersonations). It’s been fertile ground for topical takedowns week after week, but that’s not to say that many of those skits aren’t timeless. Just say “strategery” or “lockbox” to someone and watch them crack up.

So in honor of McCarthy’s Spicer returning to Studio 8H, we’re looking back at the 20 greatest political sketches throughout the show’s history – from clumsy Fords to clueless Dubyas, from undecided voters to venomous debates. We’re leaving “Weekend Update” out of the mix – you could do a whole other list on SNL‘s top-shelf fake-news segments that have left bruised egos and belly laughs in their wake. These are the bits that have changed public outlook, occasionally spoke truth to power and still crack us up.

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19

‘The Question is Moot!’ (10/20/84)

After a primary season where Jesse Jackson went from outspoken outsider to legitimate Democratic contender, the veteran civil rights leader appeared on SNL – and ended up making a better argument against the sitting President than anything Walter Mondale came up with that fall. Playing himself as a game show host, Jackson shoots down every answer, saying that terrorism, economic disparity and the fear of a nuclear holocaust all made trivia questions … well trivial. (It doesn’t matter who’s on the $100 bill, he says, because few Americans would ever get to see one.) Like a lot of old political humor, this sketch could be remade today almost verbatim; the issues haven’t changed even if the leaders have. NM

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18

‘Newt Gingrich Passing Laws’ (1/14/95)

Chris Farley was a force of nature during his run on SNL, and that runaway-train manic energy served him well in his second appearance as Newt Gingrinch. Newly taking over as the Speaker of the House, Gingrich is so anxious to fulfill his Contract With America that he bulldozes his way through congressional procedures, approve law after law in record time: “All in favor? Done! Go! Hit me!” Farley serves as gleeful puppetmaster/ringleader, wielding his gavel like Keith Moon wielding a drumstick, each percussive slam more joyous than the last. The comedian would end up showing up as Gingrich at a House Republican Conference, imitating the politician as the Speaker laughed along. RM

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17

‘The Real World With Bob Dole’ (3/16/96)

In 1996 presidential race, Republicans drafted cranky senior citizen Bob Dole to run against the hip, youthful Bill Clinton – naturally, SNL jumped at the chance to mock the mismatch. In a three-part series of sketches threaded through a single episode, Norm MacDonald stars as a bitter, lonely old Dole, struggling to fit in as one of the roommates on MTV’s early reality-TV hit The Real World. MacDonald would later complain about being stuck impersonating the Senator on the show for the better part of a year, but you can’t deny his gift for playing the codger candidate known for complaining in third-person. (“Bob Dole likes peanut butter. Bob Dole’s never made a secret of that.”) It nails both the genre’s faux-melodrama and one aging candidate’s alienation from a changing world in one fell swoop. NM

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16

‘How a Bill Does Not Become a Law’ (11/22/14)

When Obama issued an executive order in 2014 offering temporary legal
status to millions of illegal immigrants, SNL
seized the opportunity to portray the President as someone willing to
circumvent Congress. Jay Pharaoh
does his uncanny Obama impression here, but the MVP is Bobby Moynihan’s
Executive Order. He not only has his own fantastic School House Rock-esque anti-anthem; he also gets a fantastically
over-the-top reaction upon learning what his order actually contains. “I didn’t have time to read myself,” he exclaims. OK, go
big or go home!” RM

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15

‘CNN Univision Democratic Debate’ (2/23/08)

It was becoming increasingly apparent that a number of left-leaning political pundits had warmed to the young Senator from Illinois who was challenging the former first lady for the 2008 Democratic nomination for President – so SNL decided to have a field day with their Obama v. Clinton debate skit. “Like nearly everyone in the news media, the three of us are totally in the tank for Senator Obama,” Kristen Wiig’s Campbell Brown states right up front, and from there, this sketch dives headfirst into the debate moderators’ head-over-heels crush on the man who’d become our nation’s 44th POTUS. His questions range from “Are you comfortable? Can we get you anything?” to “Are you mad at me?” while Clinton is grilled over her primary losses and told she owes everyone an “Obamapology.” The way that Amy Poehler’s Hillary says, “Getting blown out by Senator Obama in Maryland has been a dream of mine ever since childhood” is damn near priceless. The show’s next debate sketch would feature an appearance from Clinton herself, but that didn’t stop this one from stinging. DF

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14

‘A Glimpse of Our Possible Future: Bush’s State of the Union’ (11/4/2000)

SNL doesn’t often detour into the realm of political gallows humor, but it wades neck-deep in it here
with this glimpse into what an imagined presidency of George W. Bush might be like. This
speculative sketch, which aired just three days before the 2000 election, jumps
ahead a few months to find the the Great Lakes on fire, the Hoover Dam
destroyed and the country embroiled in Civil War. (Viewers would have to wait until 2017 for something like this to become a reality.) We’d become accustomed to Will Ferrell’s more benign take on Dubya over the proceeding eight years, but in this one, he’s simply a scared guy in over his head. And while Ferrell is the
only one onscreen for this sketch – aside from a last-second appearance by an
ostrich – special kudos go to Chris Parnell as the Oval Office’s last remaining staff member. We only hear his voice, but his offscreen
performance evokes desperation so well
that it’s easy to “see” his horror at what’s happening on camera. RM

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13

‘ABC Campaign ’88: Presidential Debate’ (10/8/88)

This sketch on the Bush v. Dukakis debate is incredibly long (clocking in at roughly 13 and a half minutes) somehow never overstays its welcome – largely thanks to the performers. Dana Carvey is still finding his comedic footing here in the role that would soon enough make him a household name, but his stammering repetition of catch phrases in lieu of actual substantial answers (“Stay the course, a thousand points of light … stay the course”) is what most folks remember whenever this skit is mentioned. The surprise here is Lovitz, who does a fantastic job rolling his traditionally snarky brand of humor into Dukakis’ intellectual exterior, especially when he admits that “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.” The fantastic visual pun of a young child portraying Dan Quayle is simply icing on an already deliciously funny cake. RM

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12

‘Undecided Voters’ (9/22/12)

Not all political sketches need feature actual politicians in order to be successful. Take this filmed piece in which undecided voters aren’t confused about policy so much as “just about everything.” Never mind questions on policy, experience or the issues; undecided voters want to know “Just what is oil?” And what is it used for?” or “How long is a president’s term of office? One year? Two years? Three years? Or life?” Rather than mocking greedy politicians, this sketch satirizes lazy electorate ignorance. In less than two minutes, it savagely cuts down those who speak loudly even though they have little to actually say. RM

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11

‘First Presidential Debate: Al Gore and George W. Bush’ (10/7/2000)

Will Ferrell always played George W. Bush as a sweet-but-dim frat guy, and his final word in this lengthy cold opening  – “Strategery!” – felt like it could have been an actual Dubya-ism. But what’s striking is the open way in which SNL attacked Al Gore’s overly intellectual approach. That has a lot to do with Darryl Hammond’s impression, in which he somehow affects a tape delay between the beginning and ending of most of the Vice President’s words. In a campaign in which the ability to envision drinking a beer with a future Presidential candidate actually swayed voter opinion, this sketch tapped into what helped put Bush into the White House. It also ensured you’d never think of the word “lockbox” the same way again. RM

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10

‘Ask President Carter’ (3/12/77)

Although Dan Aykroyd did a great impression of Jimmy Carter on SNL, the writers had a tough time coming up a solid take on a President who shared their values – but who wasn’t getting a lot done in Washington. A week after Walter Cronkite did a one-off radio call-in show with the Commander-in-Chief, the show briefly solved its problem by spoofing two particular aspects of Carter’s character: his wonkiness and his first-hand familiarity with the counterculture. Aykroyd gives his best presidential performance, in a sketch that sees him playing a chief executive so plugged into everything that he can talk an acid casualty down by suggesting he drink a beer, listen to some Allman Brothers, and remember, “You’re a living organism on this planet, and you’re very safe.” NM

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9

‘Bern Your Enthusiasm’ (2/6/16)

Audiences all but shrieked at the kismet of Larry David’s initial appearance as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during a debate cold opening sketch – who better to portray the cranky politician who occasionally came off like a real-life Seinfeld character? The high point came when he hosted the show in early 2016, embedding his Sanders impression with a long-overdue return to the world of his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not only does this sketch manage to pack in a full Curb-esque episode in less than six minutes, it also captures how Sanders was in some ways his own worst enemy against his newfound popularity. RM

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8

‘Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton Town Hall Debate’ (10/15/16)

SNL had satirized both
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for decades. But with all due respect to the
Not Ready For Primetime Players that came before, Kate McKinnon and Alec
Baldwin now own the crown for most memorable impersonations of them in Studio
8H. Millions of folks were still reeling over the most contentious (and toxic) campaign stand-off to date; by the time the show aired later that week, viewers were ready to see how Saturday Night Live would handle the second presidential debate. “All right, let’s get this nightmare started,” Cecily Strong’s moderator wearily says after downing a shot, and we’re off: McKinnon’s Clinton attempting an awkward “casual lean”; Baldwin’s Trump skulking behind her like a slasher-flick villain (complete with Jaws theme); a dancing Ken Bone; and a number of digs at how bad Donald was doing that felt cathartic – at the time, at least. “I like how generous he is,” Clinton says in regards to her opponent, before referring to his “locker-room talk” statements: “Just like Friday, he handed me the election.” It was arguably the height of the show’s great 2016 double act. We all know what happened next. RM

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7

‘Nixon’s Final Days’ (5/8/76)

The original cast’s comic cynicism was forged in the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate, both of which were over before the show debuted. But thanks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s explosive exposé The Final Days (published in 1976), the Nixon-hating Not Ready For Prime Time Players got to take a belated shot at a disgraced ex-President. This was was the first major sketch penned by SNL‘s most politically engaged writers Al Franken and Tom Davis, who reportedly struggled with how to turn the book’s stranger-than-fiction details into comedy – until they dropped some LSD together. What they came up with is just barely exaggerated. Dan Aykroyd as Tricky Dick and John Belushi as Henry Kissinger act out many of Woodward and Bernstein’s weirder details, from Nixon’s sputtering bigotry to his spontaneously dropping to his knees in prayer. A classic. NM

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6

‘George Bush on New Hampshire’s Super Tuesday Message’ (2/22/92)

In the SNL oral history Live From New York, Dana Carvey says he struggled with his George Herbert Walker Bush impression until he picked up on the way the President tended to ramble on inarticulately, repeating phrases while trying to sound like a folksy man of the people. During Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign, he muffed a speech in New Hampshire by accidentally reading aloud his staff’s reminder note, “Message: I care.” So Carvey opened the next Saturday Night Live episode as a contrite GHWB, insisting that the understood the American people now had message for him. The biggest laugh in the sketch comes next, when he holds up a sign that says, in big letters, “YOU’RE PISSED.” NM

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5

‘Debate ’76’ (10/16/76)

The cast and writers got one of their final opportunities to poke fun at Gerald Ford’s klutziness and brain-farts during the show’s Season Two premiere, which pitted Chevy Chase’s spacey take on the President against Dan Aykroyd as Jimmy Carter. The sketch takes a few shots at the Georgia Governor’s vagueness, but it’s mostly savage toward Ford’s inability to control his body – or to keep his facts straight. The line from this episode that pops up most often in “best of SNL” montages is Chase responding to a complicated question about the GNP with, “It was my understanding there would be no math.” Oddly enough, a month later the President made his infamous, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” debate gaffe … meaning that Saturday Night Live had actually scooped reality. NM

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4

‘President Bill Clinton at McDonald’s’ (12/5/92)

One of the all-time greatest SNL performers (if not the greatest,
full stop) delivered one of the show’s all-time great Presidential
impressions in this sketch, which puts Bill Clinton’s charm, appetites
and grasp of world politics into a single package. The President’s
various contradictions and shortcomings are on full display, but he’s so
darn charming that the customers inside this fast food restaurant don’t
realize he’s literally stealing their lunches from them. (“Your McNugget is British relief sent to Somalia. [chomp] Intercepted by warlords!”)
Yes, Darrell Hammond would play Clinton longer on the show. But this is a bravura performance, both comedically and gastrointestinally. RM

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3

‘President Reagan, Mastermind’ (12/6/86)

Phil Hartman put his stamp on two Presidents: Reagan and Clinton. And his single best turn as the Gipper came during the thick of the Iran-Contra scandal, when some pundits were trying to paint the POTUS as a gullible, forgetful oldster, exploited by scheming underlings. Hartman, however, played Reagan as the consummate actor, who pretends to be dim for the masses but is actually bossy, brilliant and in full command of every detail – from Swedish interest rates to the nuances of the Arabic language. SNL was at its least savage politically during the 1980s, but here, the writers cleverly toyed with the public perceptions of a “dotty” politician accused of something shady. NM

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2

‘Voters for Trump Ad’ (3/5/16)

What was arguably the most savage attack the show mounted toward the Trump camp didn’t even feature an impersonation of him; rather, it focused on the elements attracted by the dog-whistles he was sending out during campaign stops – as well as those pro-Trump folks that seemed willing to overlook such aspects. It starts with a bunch of “everyday” voters talking about how the Republican canidate is “authentic,” “a winner” and “an outisder … Washington needs that.” Then, thanks to a series of reveals, we meet the “real Americans” saying these things: a Nazi, a Klansman, a white nationalist, a conspiracy-theory nutjob. It’s jaw-dropping, brilliant, scathing and worth a dozen or more post-election Trump sketches in terms of hitting bone. DF

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1

‘Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation’ (9/13/08)

If you were to construct an all-time, all-star cast stretching across the show’s entire history, you would put both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler into the mix – and this simply-staged cold open might be their best moment as a performing pair. Fey’s oblivious Palin is matched with the barely-contained rage of Poehler’s Clinton, and the result is dynamite: “I believe diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy.” “And I can see Russia from my house!” The writers didn’t have to make up much original dialogue for Palin, instead choosing to use many of the V.P. candidate’s own quotes in the sketch itself. (It’s a pattern the show repeated when Fey later portrayed the politician opposite Poehler’s Katie Couric, an equally brilliant sketch.) The head writer’s Palin portrayal was instantly iconic, and once again made SNL Must-See TV during an Presidential election season. RM

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