The history of ”SNL”’s presidential impersonators
The history of ”Saturday Night Live” presidential impersonations extends back to season 1 and has remained both a fixture and a burden ever since. Audiences love how ”SNL” offers political satire that’s pointed or absurd, but rarely savage — George Bush publicly got a kick out of Dana Carvey’s ”naht-gonna-do-it” bit, making the aloof Kennebunkport WASP seem more chummy. But with cast changes and shifting administrations, pairings have sometimes been an awkward fit. (See Will Ferrell and George W. Bush.)
Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon The first superb ”SNL” prez impersonation. A slicker comic, David Frye, had made his career doing Nixon as furtive and elusive on ”Ed Sullivan,” but Aykroyd seemed to slip into Nixon’s skin, where it was sweaty and the urge to hunch and beetle his brow was reflexive. The president may have been pardoned, but Aykroyd was unforgiving.
Dana Carvey as George Bush Halting, simpering, dropping syllables the way the old boy did to ingratiate himself to the hoi polloi, Carvey made this president nearly as prim as the Church Lady.
Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford He didn’t try to look or sound particularly like Ford, as the primary gag was a pratfall. By now you have to explain to young ‘uns that because Ford was occasionally clumsy, ”SNL”’s first superstar got easy laughs just by being announced as the president and taking a tumble. Mild yuk.
Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton It took two of ”SNL”’s greatest performers to capture the beguilement and guile of the Arkansas Elvis. The late Hartman performed the unforgettable sketch in which the jogging Clinton gorges on fast-food burgers while charming the press corps. (Hartman also did a fine Ronald Reagan, feigning dithering on camera only to snap brisk orders when they weren’t rolling.) The more ruthless Hammond got the way Clinton’s charm could curdle into smugness, his smile into a sneer, his charisma into a character-smothering curse.
Will Ferrell as George W. Bush Ferrell deserves praise for fearlessly committing to each foolish character he helped conjure on ”SNL.” The one he didn’t create, our current president, was also the big guy’s least interesting project. Incapable of stinging rebuke, Ferrell instead honed in on Bush’s chuckling lucky-boy image, a role he’d play much better in ”Old School” — which could, of course, be viewed as the alternate history of Bush at Yale.