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Why Has Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden Been Such a Disaster?

The comedian has done so many masterful impressions through the years. Why isn’t his turn on ‘Saturday Night Live’ as the Democratic nominee landing?

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It really is a startling impression: the broadest slapstick imaginable but with a shrewd, diamond-sharp edge. He pretty much nails the exact mannerisms, but more importantly, his high-risk, higher-octane silliness somehow penetrates to his target’s very soul. I am speaking, of course, about Jim Carrey spoofing Vanilla Ice on In Living Color almost 30 years ago.

Come on. This is ludicrous. This is delightful. “I’m livin’ large and my bank is stupid / ’Cause I just listen to real rap and dupe it.” Savage. Necessary. Iconic. It’s a wonder Vanilla Ice is still alive to tell the tale. Carrey, in a 1991 episode of the beloved sketch comedy show, blasts through a full Looney Tunes aerobic workout in two minutes and change, which is maybe exhausting for him but definitely exhausting for you. He dances poorly with a ballerina’s grace; he wields his righteous parodic shiv (Vanilla Ice’s signature song has been renamed “White White Baby”) like a giant cartoon mallet. This is a pro. This is a superstar. And indeed Jim Carrey would soon be a towering multiplex zillionaire, and then an Oscar-chasing sophisticate, and then much later an unsettling Moses-bearded enigma, and then the guy charged with playing Joe Biden on Saturday Night Live, and ah, shit, this isn’t working at all.

Why isn’t this working? If I had to describe Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden impression in one word, I’d go with reptilian. He is wiry, and scaly, and slithery, and volatile, and overpowering, and weird. It’s not working. SNL, back in Studio 8H with live audiences thanks to intense COVID-19 protections, has aired three new episodes thus far, all with nearly 15-minute-long political cold opens covering the first presidential debate, the vice presidential debate, and the dueling presidential town halls, respectively. And even with Alec Baldwin’s deathless Donald Trump trying to suck up all the oxygen as usual, Carrey-as-Biden has bulldozed through it all, doing the most even though IRL Biden is lately the relatively serene candidate doing the least.

The finger guns. The bug eyes. The bared teeth. The Ace Ventura–style catch phrases. (“Yummy!”) The overstuffed folksiness. (“This joker drops more road apples than a bull eatin’ a bran muffin.”) I keep expecting Carrey to snap his forked tongue across the length of the stage and swallow one of the podiums whole.

What did you expect? What did you want? Jim Carrey is one of the most gifted impressionists of his generation. (Speaking of ’90s white-rapper kill shots on In Living Color, he also made a fantastic and devastating Snow—in which the Canadian quasi-reggae oddball’s hit song “Informer” has become “Imposter”—that somehow peaks when Carrey drags Popeye into it.) But Jim Carrey is also one of the most overwhelming comedians of his generation, a rumbling boulder of wasabi, a human-shaped wrecking ball who in 2020 is just grabbing the camera by the throat and screaming JIM CARREY!!!! into it no matter who he’s actually supposed to be portraying. You don’t pay Jim Carrey to “disappear” into a role; you pay him to explode that role entirely like the chestburster from Alien. The role he is currently exploding is that of one of the two remaining candidates for president, and by orders of magnitude the calmer one.

Take this past Saturday’s interminable sketch on Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s dueling town halls, the announced premise being that Biden’s is a blanket-and-warm-milk “Hallmark movie” whereas Trump’s is an unhinged “alien autopsy” that devolves into hand-to-hand combat. But Carrey can’t channel serenity even when he’s explicitly trying to channel serenity. He kicks off with yet more finger guns, and storms offstage (“Hey, is that Bobby Clarke of the 1974-75 Flyers?”) to get right back in the camera’s face, and breaks into a quick jerky dance “for the kids on TikTok.” Even when he slips on a Mr. Rogers sweater to emphasize how soporific he’s supposed to be, it rubs up viciously against his mic, a blaring alarm bell for the anarchy seeping out of his every pore.

JIM CARREY!!!! You’re never unhappy to see Jim Carrey, no matter the context, no matter the societal stakes. But he also makes you glance around for the nearest emergency exit. As the real-life chaos of this election spirals only further downward, and Actual Biden grows ever more stoic and exasperated within it, the sheer wrongness of this approach only intensifies. Even if you love the impressionist—and even if you’re voting for the guy he’s impersonating—you can cower and wince in the destabilizing presence of the impression itself.

The drag here is that in the past year alone SNL had already served up two excellent Joe Bidens in Jason Sudeikis (an actual cast alumnus who’s played Joe before and specialized in cheerfully inappropriate steakheads) and Woody Harrelson (who nailed the dazed folksiness, and the teeth, perfectly). As hard as Carrey’s worked thus far, he hasn’t gotten an applause break quite as raucous as when Harrelson-as-Biden calmly delivered the line, “Look, I’m like plastic straws. I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked, but now you’re mad at me?” And no one moment has stuck with me quite like Woody further leaning into his charismatic creepiness: “I see the faces you all make when I talk. You’re scared. Scared I’ll say somethin’ off-color, or even worse, on color.”

Carrey has preserved a few core aspects of the SNL Biden, including the “bring up a random year” conceit. (“And that brings us to 1939, the year I went to the World’s Fair and met the real Mickey Mouse.”) But this Biden is prone to zany and vicious motormouth monologues that evoke The Mask far more than anything or anybody in the real world. In his inaugural appearance after the first toxic presidential debate, Carrey gets a big laugh by staying true enough to life (“Would you just shut up?”) but then spirals off into Daffytown: “I’m sorry, I misspoke. What I meant to say was, I’d appreciate it very much if you’d just allow me to finish my responses, as opposed to sabotaging every waking moment with a toxic geyser of verbal diarrhea, you cracked-out, turd-hurling, sack of rancid dog snot!” That gets a laugh, too, albeit an audibly frightened one.

So maybe think of this as the running “Obama’s Anger Translator” bit from Key & Peele, with one of our most famous living comedians playing “Normal” Biden and Enraged Biden simultaneously. But respecting this approach isn’t nearly the same as enjoying it. On the other hand, maybe there’s no way to enjoy any fictional portrayal of this increasingly apocalyptic-feeling presidential race, when the big question is less “Which Guy Will Win?” than “Will Our Country Still Be Standing After He’s Won?”

As for Saturday Night Live itself—whose political Hall of Fame spans from Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford to Will Ferrell as George W. Bush to Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, though the show never quite nailed Obama the way, say, Key & Peele did—its modern-day problems certainly aren’t new. The show is still over-reliant on celebrities to fill its biggest roles, and still struggling to satirize a political situation that long ago spun far beyond satire. Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, singing and playing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 victory is still this era’s defining SNL moment, dense with reference but devoid of meaning. How can comedy compete with tragicomedy at this scale?

And so, days after a fly perched on Mike Pence’s head for several agonizing minutes during the vice presidential debate, there you had good old Jim Carrey playing Biden playing the fly who in turn was playing, for a few fleeting seconds, Jeff Goldblum. And why not? JIM CARREY!!! “Apartments dot com,” purred Jim-as-Joe-as-Jeff. “Mmmmmm, the most popular place to find a place! No no! Yes yes! Because life finds a way!” I laughed more out of discomfort than anything, but I did laugh. He can’t go on like this, and neither can we. Right? Right? Or to put it another way: Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know.