On Thursday night, as Joe Biden got his Irish on and Paul Ryan hydrated like a camel during their contentious vice-presidential debate, you just knew that Saturday Night Live‘s writers were foaming at the mouth. In fact, when Saturday night’s show opened with a debate sketch, some of the best punchlines were verbatim quotes from the candidates themselves.

In recent years, SNL‘s debate sketches have become less cartoonish and more straight-forward mimicry — mostly because the candidates are more ripe for satirical study. Four years ago, Tina Fey skewered Sarah Palin with many of the Alaska governor’s own words. (Granted, “And I can see Russia from my house,” was pure Fey.) Twelve years ago, Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore was such a sharp parody that the candidate’s campaign staff made the vice president watch in order to bring attention to his annoying sighs and negative body language.

Ahead of tomorrow night’s crucial presidential debate at Hofstra, track the evolution of SNL‘s debate history.

Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase) versus Jimmy Carter (Dan Aykroyd), 1976

Ford gets needled. Carter compares his opponent to a German dictator.

Teddy Kennedy (Bill Murray) versus George Bush (Jim Downey), 1980 consolation debate

The 1980 election’s also-rans battle for third place.

George Bush (Dana Carvey) versus Michael Dukakis (Jon Lovitz), 1988

Dukakis gets enraged. Enraged. Bush pitches time-machine self-defense.

George Bush (Dana Carvey) versus Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman) versus Ross Perot (Dana Carvey)

Carvey performs double-duty, but neither can compete with Hartman’s vintage Bubba.

Bob Dole (Norm Macdonald) versus Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), 1996

Bob Dole attacks Independence Day prez for allowing alien attacks. Whitmore sees the spirit of America in flaming corpses.

Al Gore (Darrell Hammond) versus George Bush (Will Ferrell), 2000

“Lockbox” versus “strategery.”

George Bush (Will Forte) versus John Kerry (Seth Meyers), 2004

Kerry is obsessed with Mary Cheney’s lesbianism. Bush’s attacks on tax hikes are plagued by fuzzy math.

Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) versus Sarah Palin (Tina Fey), 2008

Palin uses “maverick” as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. Biden calls Scranton a “hell hole.”

Republican primary debate, 2012

Mitt Romney admits he’s the Republican Forrest Gump. Michele Bachmann drops an elbow on Newt Gingrich.

Sadly, one of SNL‘s best all-time political debates isn’t available online: Campaign ’92: The Race To Avoid Being The Guy Who Loses To Bush.” At the height of the first war in Iraq, H.W. Bush seemed invincible in the polls, and this sketch, which featured Kevin Nealon as Bill Bradley and Phil Hartman as Mario Cuomo, among others, showed each one trying to one-up the other in why they shouldn’t get the Democratic nomination. Bradley said he was just a dumb jock; Cuomo claimed personal ties to the mafia; and Tipper Gore explained that her husband couldn’t make the debate because he was at a gay porno theater with his kids.

Perhaps this sketch didn’t make the cut at because history ultimately proved the elder Bush beatable and the man who did so wasn’t even in the public consciousness when it aired in 1991.

Which SNL debate do you think was the funniest? Was it because of the candidates themselves or the comedians playing them?

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Episode Recaps

Saturday Night Live - Season 42

Saturday Night Live

The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Michaels.

  • TV Show
  • 47
  • TV-14
  • Saturdays at 11:30 PM
  • Lorne Michaels
  • NBC
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