A hysterical clip of Dana Carvey debuting his President Joe Biden impression on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert went viral earlier this week. “I do him at the town hall when he’s like the gentle father to the country,” Carvey said, “and he looks like the alien when he came off the spaceship in Close Encounters.”
“There’s a lot there if you don’t worry about the fact that he’s 78,” he continued. “He gets a little confused sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re attacking him personally. … It’s a character now.”
The bit caused Colbert and others on his set to laugh uncontrollably, and it proved once again that nobody can impersonate a president or presidential candidate like Dana Carvey. His George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live was so brilliant that people remember the line “Not gonna do it; wouldn’t be prudent” more than anything the actual Bush ever said.
And even though there were 18 people on the SNL cast in 1992, they let Carvey play both President Bush and Ross Perot since nobody could top him on either one, even if it made filming the debates a little tricky.
Carvey left the show in 1992, but he revived the H.W. Bush character in 2000 to give advice to Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush. In this skit from September 25th, 2000, he helps W. prepare for a debate against Al Gore, and even smacks him around when he repeats, “I’m a uniter, not a divider” over and over.
Will Ferrell comes out of the Dana Carvey school of impressions, since he focuses more on creating a memorable character than doing a note-perfect re-creation of the mannerisms and speech patterns of the real-life person. This is the early days of Ferrell’s W. Bush, which was so finely tuned by 2009 that he took it to Broadway as the one-man show You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush.
SNL never managed to create a satisfying Obama despite attempts by Fred Armisen and Jay Pharoah. Alec Baldwin’s Trump was funny at first and led to a huge ratings surge, but the bit wore thin after a year or two. Jason Sudeikis worked up a great Biden impression during the Obama years, and they briefly brought him back to revive it during the 2020 primary race. But when Biden secured the nomination, they switched gears and gave it to Woody Harrelson and Jim Carrey. Both men are gifted comedic actors, but Harrelson’s take wasn’t quite developed enough and Carrey seemed to just be doing Fire Marshall Bill in aviators.
SNL gave Biden to cast member Alex Moffat in December, but he’s barely been seen since then. Clearly, the show just can’t figure out how to make the character work. In a perfect world, they’d bring back Dana Carvey on a full-time basis to play Biden. He’s not only one of the funniest cast members in the history of the show, his impromptu Biden on Colbert was significantly better than any SNL political skit of the past year.