Before this current season started, in an interview with The New York Times, Lorne Michales said this about Jim Carrey’s then upcoming interpretation of Joe Biden: “First of all, Jim is brilliant, and he cares deeply about the country and what’s going on. He wants to have a voice in this. Every time he’s done [SNL], he’s always come through brilliantly, and I think what he will bring to this part will be stunning and possibly transcend comedy. Because we’re in a period where comedy is only part of it.” We are now four weeks into Jim Carrey’s tenure as Biden and I’m not sure what we are seeing “transcends comedy.” Not only is it painfully not working, it’s arguably SNL’s worst presidential impression in the last 30 years.
A couple of caveats first. First, over the years Jim Carrey has been one of the best hosts SNL has ever had. There’s no question about that. So this is certainly not any sort of referendum on his ability to perform on the show. He, without question, does that very well. Also, this has nothing to do with making a candidate look good or bad. In fact, that’s maybe even the problem here because Carrey’s Biden is so all over the place, it’s difficult to have an opinion one way or another if it makes the actual Biden look “good” or “bad.” In all honestly, it’s too bad it doesn’t do one or another. Instead, it’s just kind of its own thing, flailing away the last four Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m.
No matter what you might personally think of Carrey, his heart, here, seems to be in the right place (even though, yes, he’s had some pretty bad opinions about vaccines over the last few years). The answer to Carrey’s unfocused Biden might just be hidden up there in that answer from Michaels. We know from his Twitter feed that Carrey is no fan of Donald Trump. And Michaels says that Carrey (who was born in Canada but became an American citizen in 2004) wants to have a voice in this election. So it can be assumed that Carrey’s pitch to Michaels was something along the lines of, I have a lot I want to say.
And, boy, he sure does. Which is the problem. Carrey’s Biden focuses less on a character – which seems to mostly consist of finger guns and saying, “C’mon, man!” – and more on lecturing the audience about what a bad guy Donald Trump is. And look, no argument here! But I knew we were in some trouble when Carrey’s Biden pulled a Zack Morris-esque time freeze to tell us how he wanted Donald Trump to stop talking. Yes, that’s a nice sentiment, but it isn’t really great comedy. Maybe that was the part that was supposed to transcend comedy?
Also, Carrey has a bad habit of launching into other characters while doing Biden. Call me crazy, but I don’t remember the actual Joe Biden doing a Clint Eastwood impression at the last debate. Or at any point Jeff Goldblum. What made Jason Sudeikis’ Joe Biden so good is that it was a heightened version of Biden himself. Sudeikis played Biden as hilariously cocky, loud and aggressive – but always with a big smile on his face. It’s actually difficult to watch without laughing. Honestly, I’m not sure what Carrey’s Biden even is. Two episodes ago, during the competing town halls, Carrey’s Biden was portrayed as boring the audience so much they didn’t want to talk to him anymore. Which wasn’t a heightened version, instead it seemed to be the opposite of what happened that night since it appeared the audience stuck around late to listen to Biden, even after the cameras were off.
As mentioned before, Carrey’s Biden might just be the worst election season presidential candidate since Michaels returned to SNL in the mid-‘80s. And to be fair, that might be more a statement on just how good SNL has been over the years to have so many memorable portrayals. Of course, those were all cast members in the past instead of this new trend of recruiting talent. Even the most “boring” election, 1996, had Norm Macdonald’s terrific Bob Dole impression. The only year that might compare is 2008. Fred Armisen’s Obama was pretty uninspired. Darrell Hammond’s McCain was serviceable, in that he certainly sounded like McCain, but that portrayal was overshadowed by Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. (That year’s presidential roles were so overshadowed I had to doublecheck to make sure it was Hammond who played McCain. I was pretty sure, but needed to make sure. Making it even more odd is the fact the real John McCain even showed up once to play himself.)
I do wonder why we didn’t get Sudeikis back as Biden (who came back late last season to take back his role). Imagine the applause he’d get if he came back now. It’s likely he was busy with Ted Lasso. But, I’ll be honest, if I had the chance I wouldn’t really want to ask him because (a) it doesn’t affect the reality that Carrey is what we have and (b) my experience with Sudeikis over the years is that he’s, maybe surprisingly, a sensitive fellow, and if he did want to come back, then it’s most likely a sore subject and he’s probably not going to answer me on the record anyway. (Though I am under the impression it’s the first reason.)
But the truth is, even though it’s not working, Jim Carrey’s Biden isn’t going away anytime soon. Lorne isn’t going to read this and go, “You know, Mike has a good point.” Our only hope is Carrey’s Biden becomes more focused. To be fair to Carrey, Dana Carvey’s Bush was pretty bad at first. Go look up some of those first sketches, it’s all about him not being “a wimp.” Will Ferrell’s Bush wasn’t great at first either, played more as a partying frat guy than the dimwitted yet kind of likable version we all know now. But both of those were early in the primaries. Carvey and Ferrell had over a year to fine-tune these impressions, so by the time we got to the debates, they were fully crafted machines. (Which, is kind of like what happens with the actual candidates.) Carrey has had to jump in on the fly, so what we are getting is what we’d have seen a year ago, instead of having time to cultivate his portrayal. Don’t underestimate the time cast members in the past had to get these things right. And, for me, that’s the strongest argument why these should remain within the cast.
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