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40 years of SNL political sketches

“Saturday Night Live” has poked fun at political figures and pop culture icons for four decades. 

As dozens of former cast members trek toward the spotlight Sunday night for a lengthy, star-studded program commemorating the show’s 40th year, The Hill looks back at some of its best political sketches.

Whether painting President Reagan as a crafty commander-in-chief or making light of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, “SNL” personalities clad in Washington, D.C., garb have grabbed laughs at politicians’ expense.  

“They got me a couple of times as mayor,” Rudy Giuliani laughed in an interview with The Hill. 

The former New York City mayor was once spoofed attending a Yankees game with his son, portrayed by a bucktoothed Chris Farley who repeatedly got hit by foul balls.

“I enjoy ‘SNL’ best when there is a political situation – a scandal, a difficulty, a debate,” Giuliani said.

He remembered Chevy Chase’s portrayals of Gerald Ford and called Will Ferrell’s impression of George W. Bush “uncanny.”

Overall, he described the sketches as “pretty fair.”

“It was one of the highlights of being mayor,” Giuliani told The Hill. “We didn’t have [Stephen] Colbert and [Jon] Stewart back then.” 

The former mayor was also aware that the show’s power could be harnessed for more serious purposes. Flanked by police and firefighters, he went on “SNL’s” first episode after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to thank first responders and pay tribute to those who died. 

Giuliani will be among a slew of guests when he returns to the show Sunday. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former New York Yankee Derek Jeter and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning are also slated to appear. 

Here is a look back at some of the show’s best political sketches:


Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan

Hartman, the memorably sly “Sgt. Bilko” nemesis Colin Thorn in the 1996 movie, depicted Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s as a president who saw political benefit in adopting a sleepy, avuncular image but was a Machiavellian mastermind behind the scenes. 

In one sketch, Reagan meets casually with a reporter before ordering his senior staff into the Oval Office, where he launches a Contra funding operation. He informs one aide he will be forced to resign using a letter Reagan has personally typed and reveals a map of “the countries we sell arms to” hidden behind a painting of horses. 

When one staffer points out that he doesn’t understand the Iran-Contra operation, the fake Reagan quips, “You don’t need to understand. I’m the president, only I need to understand!”


Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford 

Chevy Chase’s pratfall routine of a clumsy President Gerald Ford magnified the real president’s own public stumbles – including falling up and down the Air Force One stairs – to fix a klutzy image in the public mind.

During one impression, a tux-clad Chase portrays Ford as tripping over his words and podium chairs while text overlaid on the screen explains that he is not the real president. 

Ford, a University of Michigan football star, wrote in his book “Humor and the Presidency” that Chase’s portrayals often cut deep. 

“The portrayal of me as an oafish ex-jock made for good copy,” Ford wrote. “It was also funny.”

Ford was the first president to have a cameo on the show, in a pre-taped April 1976 appearance for a program hosted by his press secretary Ron Nessen, a former NBC News correspondent.


Tina Fey as Sarah Palin 

Palin seized the national spotlight in 2008, but it was Fey who cemented perceptions about her geography skills.

Fey’s impression of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential running mate was so impeccable that many continue to think it was the former Alaska governor herself who once uttered, “I can see Russia from my house.”


Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton

While Poehler’s dry-throated impersonations of Clinton lacked the charm of Fey’s Palin impression, the former “SNL” cast member’s blonde locks and brightly-colored pantsuits helped sell her spoof of the New York senator’s 2008 Democratic primary ad featuring a ringing phone at 3 a.m.

In the “SNL” sketch, Clinton sits on her bed in a facemask and hair curlers while giving foreign policy advice over the phone to an inexperienced Barack Obama, who clutches a cigarette. 

“If this is going to be a regular thing, I feel as though I should get paid or something,” ‘Clinton’ says. 

The sketch also took a shot at Bill Clinton when Hillary answers as to whether her husband is at home.

“It’s 3 a.m., what do you think?”


Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton 

 As played by Hammond, Clinton reads passages from his purportedly sexy 700-page manuscript “Deposition” — a reference to the president’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“It is hotter than hell, and the best part is – it’s all about me,” Clinton says, reading a lewd passage.

“And I actually did all that. I mean, I didn’t but…” he adds, biting his lip.

Clinton investigator Kenneth Starr, portrayed by Will Ferrell, interrupts the book reading with a subpoena. 


Dan Aykroyd as Jimmy Carter 

“SNL” actor Dan Aykroyd once played President Jimmy Carter talking down a caller live on air who was on an acid trip. 

“You know I’m against drug use myself, but I’m not going to lay that on you right now, just mellow out the best you can,” Carter, portrayed by Aykroyd, says calmly.

The segment spoofed a historic live CBS Radio broadcast in March 1977 during which Carter fielded questions from callers on live air. The real program was moderated by Walter Cronkite.


Will Ferrell as George W. Bush

In a national address from the Oval Office a month after 9/11, Ferrell offered a serious impression of Bush’s resolve to capture al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden while drawing laughs. 

“Buddy, you screwed up big time. And guess what, amigo, I’m coming to get you,” the fake Bush says to bin Laden from behind the Resolute Desk. “If you had any brains you would have challenged me to a game of Scrabble, or maybe a beard-off.”


Obama’s ‘Schoolhouse Rock’

Channeling the educational cartoon, the SNL cast in November 2014 poked fun at Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. 

Comedian Kenan Thompson, spoofing the song “I’m Just a Bill” and dressed as the iconic bill, takes a tumble when Obama – portrayed by Jay Pharoah – pushes the piece of legislation down the steps of the Capitol.

Meanwhile, comedian Bobby Moynihan comes on stage dressed as an executive order and smoking a cigarette. 

“I’m an executive order and I pretty much just happen. And that’s it.”

 The NBC special airs live 8-11:30 p.m. Sunday on the East Coast. 

Tags Amy Poehler Bill Clinton Dan Aykroyd Darrell Hammond Monica Lewinsky Ronald Reagan Rudy Giuliani Sarah Palin Satire Saturday Night Live SNL Tina Fey
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