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Our vote for the very best ‘SNL’ political impressions

Darrell Hammond as President Bill Clinton in a 1998 "Saturday Night Live" skit.Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Political impressions have been a staple of “Saturday Night Live” since it began. No matter who is president and vice president, or who is running for those jobs, the show has managed to find a take on them — even seemingly boring pols such as George H.W. Bush. Only Barack Obama, with his no-drama demeanor and his ability to make fun of himself, has remained unsuccessfully mocked on “SNL” despite some earnest efforts.

At times the political impressions seem purely silly, and at other times they seem more pointedly savage. But either way, they have a strong tendency to become part of our cultural history. They get wound into the conversation around candidates and office-holders — think Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, or Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush — and, at their most potent, they reframe and define these public characters. By dint of their presence on one of TV’s most popular and enduring comedy outlets, they become embedded in our collective memory.


“Saturday Night Live” returns this weekend just in time for the height of the 2020 election. I’m expecting Maya Rudolph’s Kamala Harris to shine this season, as she has already, albeit briefly. And I’m hoping Jim Carrey will be able to make hay of an older Joe Biden, since Jason Sudeikis did the younger version so well. By the way, you’ll notice that Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford is not in this extended Mount Rushmore of impressions (which is listed in no particular order). I am not a fan. Likewise, although Kate McKinnon shines with her range (her Kellyanne Conway is an all-timer), still I wasn’t able to fully make sense of her Hillary Clinton. I was never certain what she was aiming for.

Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton: Hammond’s impressions were always good; this one was great. With a sticky drawl, he gave us a smarmy man looking as if he were trying to come on to . . . well, everyone. The late and quite great Phil Hartman’s 42 was also memorable — the sketch that found him trolling for adoration and snacks at McDonald’s and asking his staff not to tell Hillary certain things, is perfect — but Hammond’s less charismatic, seedier president was the show’s satirical bread and butter for a long while. In Hammond’s hands, Clinton’s famous charm turned sour before our eyes.


Will Ferrell as George W. Bush: Ferrell gave us a privileged frat boy who was childlike and not smart, to put it mildly, but perhaps a bit kinder and gentler than many expected for the guy who got us stuck in war. (I guess the more dangerous side of W. was represented by Darrell Hammond’s wonderfully sneering Dick Cheney.) Unable to correctly pronounce his words, and able to unintentionally invent new ones, he was eager to dodge substantive issues. He was, until this moment, regarded as the least intelligent president, and Ferrell made that plain. Last year, Bush admitted that for 17 years, he thought he’d accidentally invented the word “strategery,” not the writer of the sketch in which Ferrell’s Bush proudly used it.

Larry David as Bernie Sanders: It was too good to be true when David took on this task. The visual and audio resemblance between the two men is uncanny — the Internet had been crying out for this pairing — and David didn’t have to work hard to make it fly. His impression adds a curmudgeonly “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-like context to Sanders’s gruffness, and in the process makes it more familiar and tolerable. When David’s Bernie refuses to shake Leslie Jones’s hand after she coughs into it in the “Bern Your Enthusiasm” sketch, his staff (featuring Cecily Strong as a ranting Susie Essman-like assistant) lay into him just like Larry’s pals.


Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush: The extremely versatile Carvey was all aces as H. Ross Perot, the small Texan with the big ears who became the third-party candidate in 1992. But his Bush Senior was a triumph, as he brought the boring president alive with his bizarre hand gestures, his incomplete sentences, and his staccato, jargon-filled phrasings (“Wouldn’t be prudent,” “Not gonna do it”). At this point, it can be easier to conjure up memories of Carvey’s Bush than Bush himself. Even Bush himself did Carvey on occasion.

Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden: We’ll see how Jim Carrey does as Biden, but it will be hard to beat Sudeikis’s take on the current Democratic nominee for president. While “SNL” struggled over Obama, it had much better luck with his VP. Sudeikis’s animated Biden loved to talk, with his mouth full of super-white teeth, but he was consistently unable to edit himself. Spouting old-school bipartisan blather, talking about how much he loved John McCain but hated his ideas, he kept his smile on high beam while putting his foot in his mouth. Sudeikis was also memorable as a milk-guzzling, repressed Mitt Romney.


Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: Fey’s rootin’-tootin’ take — delivered after she’d left the show as a regular — was one of the only good things to emerge from Palin’s stint as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 election. It remains not only a brilliant impression, but a highlight of the long “SNL” run. Fey was never strong on impressions, but she hit this one out of the park and all the way to Russia. She didn’t just capture the essence of the Alaskan governor, she helped define the woman who was one of the most polarizing — and, it turns out, influential — politicians of the time. By turning up the volume ever so slightly on Palin’s lack of substance — she asks for a “lifeline” when Katie Couric’s questions elude her — she may have changed how some voters perceived the contest.

Jay Pharoah as Ben Carson: Pharoah couldn’t quite nail the hard-to-capture Obama, but he had the perfect take on Carson, who ran for president in 2016. “We’re like night and day, ebony and orangey,” his Carson says during a debate, referring to himself and Donald Trump. Mostly he was just a tangle of catatonic strangeness, holding his hands at his belly, squinting on the verge of sleep, and uttering absurdities about foreign policy. Pharoah lightly hung a critical sense of smugness over all the alien behavior.


Darrell Hammond as Al Gore: Honestly, I could probably fill a list with Hammond’s takes; he’s among the show’s best impressionists. His Gore, with an accurate twist on Gore’s slurry Southern accent, was a lockbox-obsessed bore, sighing impatiently at the idiocy of the rest of humanity. At the time, Gore was considered a smarty-pants who was too arrogant for the American public, and Hammond amped up that quality, speaking slowly and tediously. His Gore was lost in his own thinking, and beside himself to have to stand beside the intellectually stunted George W. Bush.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump: Many find this impression tiresome — even Baldwin has said he’s sick of doing it — but that seems appropriate. Baldwin’s take on the president has led to a few angry tweets from his object of ridicule, always a sign of success. His Trump is a grotesque gargoyle with twisted lips and an obscene way of pronouncing “China.” Props, by the way, to those who’ve brought Trump’s circle to warped life alongside Baldwin, including Kate McKinnon as Jeff Sessions, Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, Beck Bennett as Mike Pence, Cecily Strong as Melania Trump, and Mikey Day and Alex Moffat as Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.