Take It From SNL Veterans: A POTUS Impression Is Harder Than It Looks As Jim Carrey works on his best Joe Biden for Saturday Night Live, we ask other impressionists how they've done it. Darrell Hammond says he wishes people understood how tough impressions really are.
NPR logo

Here's The Deal, Folks: A POTUS Impression Is Harder Than It Looks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/934833407/934920761" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Here's The Deal, Folks: A POTUS Impression Is Harder Than It Looks

Here's The Deal, Folks: A POTUS Impression Is Harder Than It Looks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/934833407/934920761" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

With a new president poised to take office, comedians across the globe face a crucial question - how do they impersonate BJ Leiderman, who does our theme music? No, no, I mean, how do they impersonate Joe Biden, soon to be the nation's 46th president? NPR TV critic Eric Deggans asked alums from a show known for its political impressions, "Saturday Night Live," and found the answers illuminating.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Here's the deal with pulling together a convincing, funny Joe Biden impression. It's got a lot of pitfalls for comics. For example, the president-elect sometimes hesitates when he speaks. But he's overcome a stutter, and he's 77 years old. Those are tough things to make fun of without looking cruel.

JAY PHAROAH: For me, Biden says, here's the deal, a lot. Come on, man.

(Imitating Joe Biden) Here, come on, man. This is malarkey. Here's the deal.

DEGGANS: Jay Pharoah, who played celebrities like Barack Obama, Jay-Z and Will Smith for six years on "Saturday Night Live," says the key to a great impression is finding unique things about that person the general public hasn't noticed yet. That's how one phrase helped sell one of his best-known impressions, Denzel Washington.

PHAROAH: I remember when I was first doing him, like, that was his - that was the tick that really got me into it was, like, (imitating Denzel Washington) All right. OK. OK. All right. OK.

(Laughter) It's kind of just clueing into those and just exaggerating them.

DEGGANS: "Saturday Night Live's" impressions have indelibly defined the nation's most important politicians. But they haven't yet settled on a great version of Biden. Film star Jim Carrey plays Biden this season as more animated than the real man, echoing his other characters. Most recently, when Carrey directly referenced Ace Ventura while enacting Biden's victory speech, it felt like a moment he'd been angling for all season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JIM CARREY: (As Joe Biden) Unfortunately, there are situations in life where there must be a winner and a loser.

DEGGANS: "SNL's" best political impressions take a key trait about a politician - some comics call them handles - and exaggerates them, summing up the subject in a way people haven't quite considered before, like Dana Carvey's stiff, patrician take on George H. W. Bush...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DANA CARVEY: (As George H. W. Bush) Not going to do it. Not going to do it.

DEGGANS: ...Or Tina Fey's giddy, homespun version of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TINA FEY: (As Sarah Palin) And I can see Russia from my house.

DEGGANS: ...And Darrell Hammond as Vice President Al Gore. He played him in a classic sketch recreating his debate with rival George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Al Gore) Governor Bush and I have two very different plans to offer tax relief to American families. I would put it in what I call a lockbox.

Well, I always thought of him as an overbearing schoolteacher, you know?

DEGGANS: Darrell Hammond's impressions of Gore, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Donald Trump formed the backbone of the show's political parodies for many years. But his Gore didn't really come together until he and legendary political sketch writer Jim Downey read the lines to each other. As they made each other laugh, Hammond learned what would make the audience laugh.

HAMMOND: The first time I did Gore on Weekend Update a year previous to the election, people didn't really even know who he was. What's the hook? Like, the audience has to understand your premise and kind of agree with it. At what point does the audience figure out the same thing you figure out?

DEGGANS: According to The New York Times, that impression had such an impact, Gore's aides showed it to the vice president as an example of what not to do in the next debate.

Jay Pharoah, now developing his acting skills costarring in Hulu's new comedy "Bad Hair," says he had fun playing Obama on "Saturday Night Live." But he feels they held him back too much.

PHAROAH: I was told that I had to keep him presidential. I was just forced to be a part of the machine and, you know, try to do the best I can.

DEGGANS: Hammond says "SNL" impressions are unique - created quickly under the stress of putting on a live show each week with scripts that can change right up until airtime. And the one thing he wishes people understood better...

HAMMOND: I want people to know how [expletive] hard it is. You know, you didn't have five years to work on this. We haven't, in some - you know, we haven't even had eight hours to learn how to talk like Geraldo Rivera. And it's only the whole world watching.

DEGGANS: As the cast of "Saturday Night Live" and other comics face the prospect of lampooning a President Biden for the next four years, it's worth keeping in mind just how tough that assignment is likely to be. I'm Eric Deggans.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.