20 Most Savage 'SNL' Political Impersonations - Rolling Stone
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20 Most Savage ‘SNL’ Political Impersonations

From a vintage “Klutz-in-Chief” to Tea Party icons and a certain thin-skinned POTUS, these were the show’s sharpest politico parodies

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Melissa McCarthy's brutal 'SNL' Sean Spicer is only the latest takedown – here are the 20 most savage 'Saturday Night Live' political impersonations.

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Saturday Night Live has always channeled its sharpest political humor leading up to each Presidential election – and once the ballots have been cast, the focus usually returns to less barbed sketches outside of Weekend Update, treating some politicos and the POTUS like recurring characters. But there’s little customary about the show’s continued laser-like focus on all things related to the Trump administration long after November came and went.

One need only look at Melissa McCarthy’s take-no-prisoners impression of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to see the show’s continued skewering of our current dystopic political landscape — and witness how her fierce take on the White House press agent has been hailed as an instant classic caricature. Even in the era of Peak TV, streaming stations and asynchronous consumption of content, SNL still exerts a powerful, almost gravitational pull in the pop culture landscape when it comes to parodying both those in power and the smaller players on the political periphery.

In lieu of McCarthy’s gum-gobbling, podium-thrusting triumph, we’re looking back at 20 of the more notable political figures (presented in alphabetical order) that the show has sharply portrayed over the decades. Some merely suffered flesh wounds; others were practically skewered on a spit. But all of these impressions made a lasting impact, and help define the history not only of SNL but the country itself over the past five decades.

Monica Lewinsky (Molly Shannon)

Most folks treated the intern who had inappropriate relations with the then–commander-in-chief as little more than a one-note punchline – basically, the sum of all her stained-dress jokes. SNL went a slightly different route, with Shannon playing her less as a Lolita than a wide-eyed girl caught up in a situation she was too young to understand (ditto the consequences). This Lewinsky was more of a sounding board for other people’s bad behavior, whether it was Bill Clinton’s Saddam-baiting phone chats or Linda Tripp (played grotesquely by John Goodman) trying to gather information to use as collateral. Then you get to this 1998 sketch in which Lewinsky visits Oprah to promote her book “How to Give the President a Hummer,” and suddenly, the gloves had come off.

Sarah Palin (Tina Fey)

If you had a Mt. Rushmore of SNL political impersonations, this would be right smack dab in the middle of it. Fey would be the first to tell you that she was not an inherently skilled impressionist. But she was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and with the right take on the most polarizing political candidate of the 2008 election. The show didn’t even have to invent most of its satirical dialogue: Oftentimes, simply having Fey repeat what Palin said during the week was enough. (And her delivery of “And I can see Russia from my house!” made it a bona fide comic slam dunk.) You could feel the show shaping how people viewed the political “maverick” from week to week, one folksy, incomprehensible going-rogue statement at a time.

David Paterson (Fred Armisen)

Both offensive and giggle-inducing at the same time, Armisen’s take on the New York Governor recast him as a Catskills comic with a mischievous (and inexplicably mean) attitude towards New Jersey. His shortcomings as a political figure were skewered in his “Weekend Update” appearances; the comedian’s constant riffing on the fact that the politician was legally blind, however, often skirted the boundaries of good taste. Seth Meyers deserves a shout out for his assists with every one of these bits – his onscreen shock mirrored that of the audience, and often kept the entire thing from outright bombing. But this was all Armisen’s impersonation, the good, bad and ugly of it. He sold the gruff Governor’s Garden State animosity and shock-jock sense of humor like a champ.

Ross Perot (Dana Carvey)

Not content to be playing one major candidate running for President in 1992, Carvey stepped in and played another as well … often at the same time. The Texas businessman’s third-party run for office may feel like an interesting footnote now, but it’s impossible to overstate how much of a monkey-wrench he was to the notion of a two-party system back in the early 1990’s. And Carvey’s Perot was part strict grandfather, part carnival barker and 100-percent loose cannon – a motor-mouthed munchkin who talked loud and said folsky-cutesy nothings, prone to dominating the conversation by constantly reiterating that he was never allowed to complete a sentence (“Can I finish? Can I finish?”). In other words, he was the shape of things to come.

Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman)

Everyone from Robin Williams to Randy Quaid have played the Gipper on SNL, but once again, Hartman bested all competitors thanks to a classic 1986 sketch. Folks always joked about Reagan being an absent-minded president, one who believed he’d served in WWII because he’d once starred in a war movie. Hartman, however, plays him like an evil mastermind who, once the photo opps are over and reporters leave the room, starts barking orders and brokering deals with the Iraqis. It’s a genius move of comedic counterprogramming: have that bumbling personality revealed as a giant ruse designed to fool the American public. Even his former administration wonks have expressed admiration.

Janet Reno (Will Farrell)

Why have the Attorney General host a teen dance show? Maybe the better question is, “Why not?” Ferrell played as her an unstoppable – and very butch – force of nature; his interpretation suggests that she’s basically a Sherman tank let loose in the Beltway. But in the fictional world established by this recurring sketch, Reno wasn’t any less intelligent or capable just because she loved to boogie, and the notion never undermined her role as Attorney General. (If anything, it may have oddly bolstered it.) What might have started as a silly excuse to get Ferrell into a dress and jerk his body around ended up becoming a somewhat affectionate tribute to a lady that got shit done. Bonus: Reno herself gave his alpha-female counterpart her blessing.

Bernie Sanders (Larry David)

Fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm may have to wait a little while longer to get new episodes of that show, but the rest of us got to see Larry David all but take over every political sketch he guest-starred in last year. As subtle as a sledgehammer, this version of Sanders was a bull in a china shop, cutting down people through sheer force of will and volume. If you had never saw the senator and would-be presidential candidate as a typical David-esque kvetcher, you sure as hell did after his spot-on impersonation. And that “Bern Your Enthusiasm” skit remains one of 2016’s SNL highlights.

Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin)

Numerous cast members had portrayed Trump over the years with varying degrees of success (the less said about his hosting gig, the better); it was Tina Fey who supposedly suggested to Lorne Michaels that Baldwin would make a good SNL avatar for the man who’s currently in the process of gutting our democracy. And thanks to her, one of the show’s most beloved hosts is currently turning in one of its most iconic impersonations. His original take was all go-for-broke bluster and aggression; since the election, Baldwin has brought a combination of swagger and barely-concealed panic to his portrayal. He’s practically a glorified cast member at this point, and given that he’s set to host this week, we imagine the knives are getting sharpened even more. But if nothing else, no presidential parody has received as much real-time feedback – especially from an actual sitting President.

From “Gina” trade deals to beating ISIS with Siri, here are Alec Baldwin’s most spot-on Donald Trump impressions.


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