Even before Lorne Michaels announced who would be playing Joe Biden on this season of “Saturday Night Live,” there was no doubt that it would be a celebrity rather than one of the show’s castmember. While Kate McKinnon’s ably taken on impressions of politicians from Hillary Clinton to Jeff Sessions, and Beck Bennett’s stepped up to play a befuddled Mike Pence, the vast majority of political impressions in recent “SNL” memory have gone to a celebrity or “SNL” alum. Ever since the show tapped Tina Fey to play her uncanny valley doppelgänger Sarah Palin for the 2008 election, “SNL” has gotten the most mileage from enlisting famous people to make splashy cameos that drown out half the comedy with delighted audience applause. So by the time the show cast Jim Carrey to play Biden for this final stretch of the presidential election, it wasn’t a surprise. But for a show that has such a wide reach and direct line to the White House’s own television screens, it’s disappointing, frustrating and deeply unimaginative.
On the most superficial level, casting the most plum roles on the show outside its own cast just isn’t a smart way to develop the promising talent it already has. The very first presidents it ever skewered — Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter — got sharp impressions courtesy of Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd, who only became “SNL” royalty because they got that kind of room and faith to flex their comedic muscles. Lanky, broad Will Ferrell doesn’t especially look much like George W. Bush, but his depiction of him as a wide-eyed dolt was indelible enough to change public perception of the president in a very real way. And while Amy Poehler’s #girlboss take on Hillary Clinton was always a highlight, the show didn’t lose much when she eventually passed the baton to McKinnon, who found her own spin on a woman the media had already dissected to death. It’s a shame that “SNL” seems to be far less willing these days to adopt that second generation approach for more of its longstanding political targets.
For instance: while casting someone like Alec Baldwin to play Donald Trump definitely makes headlines, it’s a shame that “SNL” wouldn’t trust its in-house bench of talent to portray him, even after his winning the election made clear that he wouldn’t be going anywhere for a long while. Plus, not for nothing: Baldwin’s Trump mimicry lost its teeth so long ago that it’s hard to remember if there was ever anything to it beyond a pouty drawl. Maybe the impression would still have some bite to it if a castmember who had actually signed up for weekly sketches were able to give it a shot, rather than a semi-retired actor whose casting was at least half meant as an in-joke to those who know his liberal leanings.
But Baldwin’s casting, like Fey’s, was purposeful for exactly that reason. The initial impression was passable, but more than that, it was a meta wink at the audience that made immediate headlines. Given how much attention the show got from such starry cameos, it’s completely unsurprising that “SNL”’s politics coverage then quickly devolved into a revolving door of celebrity drop-ins. (The less said about Robert DeNiro’s wiseguy Robert Mueller and Brad Pitt’s slapdash Dr. Fauci, the better.) The current “SNL” cast has no shortage of vaguely bro-ish white guys who could take on Biden, but none of them would inspire the immediate gratification of an audience primed for more famous faces, so it wouldn’t be shocking to find out they were never considered for the gig, anyway. The political casting became less about finding some kernel of truth to highlight than creating a splash with bigger and bigger names. It didn’t particularly matter if Baldwin or DeNiro or Pitt’s impression was good, but only that they were the ones doing it. Give or take a Fey as Palin or Larry David as Bernie Sanders, it’s now exceedingly rare that a guest star’s political impersonation has much to it beyond, “can you believe this person is mimicking that person?!”
If “SNL” just wants to grab the most attention possible, well, mission accomplished. But if it wants to be as piercing, relevant and unsparing as it could be, it needs to ditch the cheap plays for instinctive applause and go back to its own basics.