Conventional wisdom suggests that by the time Saturday Night Live enters its 42nd season this fall, it will have its election coverage a little more fine tuned. Yes, it’s been, let’s say, inconsistent this season, but they always seem to figure it out. And Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton will become a much bigger factor, as this season has mostly tried to capture the insanity of the Republican nomination process (and has mostly come up short because they are trying to do the impossible).
Why is this important? Because Saturday Night Live, more than any other show, can have a real impact on an election. Sometimes. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin was so scathing, it helped implode John McCain’s presidential campaign. Palin, who at the time was a rising star in politics, has yet to run for any kind of office since. She’s now a living, breathing caricature of herself thanks to Fey (who people forget, wasn’t even a cast member by that point).
But which SNL political impression had the biggest impact? The one that probably changed history? The one we are still feeling the ramifications of today?
In early 2000, Will Ferrell’s original portrayal of George W. Bush was more of an overgrown frat boy than the dimwitted Texas six-shooter we’d all come to know later. It was a work in progress. This is normal when a candidate isn’t well known yet. If you watch Dana Carvey’s original impression of George H.W. Bush, it’s basically Carvey maniacally running around trying to convince people that he’s not a “wimp.” (Being labeled a “wimp” was an early problem for George H.W. Bush.) Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton was pretty great from the start, but by the time Hammond started doing his impression, Clinton had already been president for two and a half years.
Let’s go back to Ferrell’s George W. Bush: This impression has been credited, by Horatio Sanz and others, with helping get Bush elected. Now, this may seem like hyperbole, but when a presidential election is decided by 537 votes, this kind of thing has an impact. Though, I would contest that Ferrell’s impression didn’t make Bush look appealing – I do have a hard time believing an undecided voter watched that impression thought to himself or herself, you know, I now think this man should be the leader of the free world – but Ferrell’s impression wasn’t overtly mean. It was mean – it openly argued, “This man is stupid” – but not in a way that made the viewer dislike Bush. It probably didn’t sway many people to vote for Bush, but I suspect it didn’t convince someone to not vote for him, either.
Unlike Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore: the most influential SNL impression in the show’s history.
First, you have to remember, the sitting vice president wasn’t like it is today. Joe Biden is a well known and popular political figure and, before him, Dick Cheney, played an extremely active role in the Bush administration. Growing up in the ’80s, I barely remember George H.W. Bush before he started running for president. I do remember a quiz in elementary school asking who the current vice president was and about half of my class getting it wrong. This is how a World War II veteran can get labeled a “wimp” and how that label can stick for some time – because no one knew who George H.W. Bush was, even though he was vice president.
Al Gore was no different. In the ‘90s, no one really knew anything about Al Gore. He’d show up at during the elections, dance to some Fleetwood Mac, then disappear for four years. The first time any of us got to really know Al Gore was when, in the fall of 2000, Darrell Hammond stepped on the Studio 8H stage during a recreation of the first presidential debate that year, and delivered a blistering, scathing impression that forever left us with the term “lockbox.” This is the same sketch in which Ferrell’s Bush delivered the word “strategery.” This was a fun word to say! We’d all say “strategery” and laugh. When we heard “lockbox,” we seethed. It wasn’t even that fun to repeat.
Hammond’s Al Gore made Gore seem awful: a lame fuddy-duddy who came of as the pompous “smartest person in the room” who was there to lecture us. The only reason people think Ferrell’s impression made Bush seem likable is because, compared directly to Hammond’s Gore, Bush was likable. Reports at the time suggested Gore’s team watched that sketch and changed his debate strategy because if it. So not only did this impression make Gore look awful, it also got into Gore’s head, drastically altering the way he presented himself in the next debates. This is remarkable.