Saturday Night Live seeks fresh Biden as political comedy faces new era

The end of the Trump presidency will force late-night shows to find the humour in a leader much harder to mock

The US presidential election may be over but another keenly watched contest is just beginning. Who should play Joe Biden on Saturday Night Live?

Jim Carrey quit the role last Saturday after poor reviews. Alex Moffat, a regular cast member, stepped in for that night’s episode. But it still remains uncertain which actor will portray Biden on a show that helps define each American presidency in the popular imagination.

It is just one example of the new challenges facing political satire as Donald Trump leaves the presidential stage. The 45th president offered endless material for late-night TV hosts, standup comedians and cartoonists. His Democratic successor appears to be a less obvious target.

“There is about a two-minute hole in every late-night monologue beginning on January 20,” observed Bill Whalen, a former media consultant for the ex-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Two minutes every night reserved to Trump jokes and Trump bashing: that ends as soon as Biden takes office. So how do you fill the void?

Based in New York, SNL started on the NBC network in 1975 and has been more or less nailing presidents ever since. Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford as bumbling and accident-prone. Dana Carvey was so spot-on as George HW Bush that he earned an invitation to the White House.

Will Ferrell captured George W Bush’s word-mangling incoherence. Jay Pharoah was praised for his Barack Obama impression but left the show prematurely. Whalen added: “Obama they had a hard time mocking because Obama was Mr Cool, and how do you make fun of Mr Cool? So I think comedy took a bit of a time out during the Obama years and came roaring back with Trump.

Alec Baldwin’s devastating rendition of Trump as an ignorant idiot, complete with pursed lips and blond wig, frequently went viral and earned the president’s wrath. Melissa McCarthy’s fast and furious take on his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, also struck comedy gold.

On one level it is entertainment, but SNL’s cultural significance should not be underestimated, argues Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington. “The central angle of approach to a president’s character is through the Saturday Night Live caricature,” he said.

SNL has already found its Kamala Harris in Maya Rudolph, but Biden is proving a tougher nut to crack. He has been played by cast members and guest stars including Jason Sudeikis, Woody Harrelson and John Mulaney. Carrey signed on for this year’s election campaign but his manic performances arguably missed the mark.

“Jim Carrey was doing Jim Carrey,” Cornfield observed. “He didn’t communicate Biden.”

So Moffat, who has previously played Trump’s son Eric, took over as Biden for an opening sketch in which the vice-president, Mike Pence (Beck Bennett), received a Covid-19 vaccine. But Moffat is only 38, less than half Biden’s age, leaving next year’s all-important casting an open question, along with broader questions of where to find humour in the coming presidency.

Alex Moffat played Biden on SNL on 20 December.
Alex Moffat played Biden on SNL on 20 December. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Cornfield commented: “To me, the comedy of the administration shapes up as one of these workplace sitcoms where the central character, Biden, has to be carrying on gamely while everything around him is going nuts.

“Biden’s personality is tough because you don’t want to make fun of his stuttering. You don’t want to make fun of his tragedies. What you want to make fun of is he’s going to pretend that everything is right: ‘Oh sure, I’ll negotiate with the Republicans. No problem. Oh sure, I’ll make the federal government work. No problem.’ That’s his pretence and that’s up for lampooning because it won’t.

“Now having said that, I don’t think it will be what we’ve lived through the last four years. We don’t need [Armando] Iannucci-level viciousness because I don’t think that’s called for. But there is a need to make fun of the president. That’s very American.”

Cornfield has a suggestion for the role: Ted Danson, who turns 73 next week and appeared with Harrelson in the long-running sitcom Cheers. “He’s got that big smile and that cocky how-you-doin’ demeanor and he knows how to react to people who are just not doing the job or are completely nuts. There’s great comedy to be had when somebody is trying to pretend that everything is is going smoothly when it’s not.”

Even so, just as cable news is reportedly bracing for a loss of viewers after the “Trump bump”, political satirists could be forgiven for thinking that a golden age is coming to an end.

Trump’s crass remarks, badly spelled tweets and bizarre behaviour – from gazing up at a solar eclipse to slow-walking down a ramp – have been the gift that keeps on giving. It is safe to assume that Biden will not suggest bleach as a coronavirus cure.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are among the TV programmes that have thrived on dark humour in the Trump years, making sense of the chaos for viewers, channeling their anger and fear and conveying a pointed message.

Colbert now draws far more viewers than his late-night rivals Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, neither of whom targeted Trump so directly. He also had a hand in Our Cartoon President, a barbed animated series about Trump and his entourage.

Stephen Farnsworth, co-author of Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency, said in an email: “From President Trump’s angry, blustery falsehoods to his clown car entourage, Saturday Night Live and late night comedy have never had it so good. When America has an over-the-top president, one who needs to be in the public eye 24/7, the jokes practically write themselves.

“That ends in January. When compared to the current president, Joe Biden is a far less compelling character for humor and doesn’t display the same neediness for public attention. What’s more, Trump’s exaggerated physical mannerisms and speech patterns, captured so effectively by Alec Baldwin, made him easier to imitate than many political figures.”

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on SNL.
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on SNL. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, added: “Biden is much more measured in what he says and does than is Trump, and that’s not good for comedy. Biden used to be known for a malapropism or two, but his 2020 campaign was a highly controlled exercise, particularly compared to Biden’s time as vice-president or as a senator.”

Trump’s departure, however, is also coming as a relief to comedy performers and writing. There are have been moments when he can seem beyond satire and when it is easier to cry than laugh. A novelist might find him frustratingly two-dimensional.

Steve Bodow, a former head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show, told the Washington Post last month: “I feel confident saying most writers of late night will not only be politically and patriotically happier, but they’ll be comedically happier. The thing about Trump is there’s nothing new there; there’s just not that much to chew off the bone. It can be utterly exhausting.”

Trump was a Falstaffian figure but the consequences of his actions, especially during the deadly coronavirus pandemic, were anything but funny. Biden’s own life has been scarred by personal loss and he inherits a country facing multiple crises – and where Trump is likely to remain a political player.

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “The larger-than-life element about Biden is tragedy. Making fun of his speech is making fun of someone who through immense willpower overcame the disability of stuttering.”

He added: “The one person who gets Biden best is Stephen Colbert, who, like Biden, is a deeply rooted liberal Catholic.

“The fundamental problem is that we have yet to reckon with the immensity of the mourning and grief of what will likely be a half-million dead, which should have been largely preventable by the clownish sadist who provided so much fun before he ushered in a reign of death.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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