Joe Biden was already in public life before Saturday Night Live was even on the air. Which is saying something, because the venerable sketch show has been around for, to use an industry term, a long-ass time.
In the overlap between those two lengthy tenures, no fewer than five actors have played the former vice president on SNL. First was Weekend Update anchor Kevin Nealon, whose Biden was one leering, lascivious senator among many at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. (Ellen Cleghorne, the first Black woman to join the cast for more than one season, played Anita Hill.) Then came Jason Sudeikis, who portrayed Biden throughout his time as Barack Obama’s VP as a boisterous, proudly gaffe-prone goofball. “You bet your buttons that Joe Biden can be off message!” he bragged in his opening remarks, which outlined a 100-point Biden Blunder Scale.
The 2020 election is the biggest spotlight of Biden’s political career, and to match the moment, SNL has brought us more Biden impressions than the past 40-plus years combined. The first came from Woody Harrelson, who donned fake teeth and a faker smile to play America’s creepy uncle. (“I see you, I hear you, I sniff you, and I hug you from behind.”) John Mulaney stopped by to amp up Biden’s old-timey affect, a perfect match for the comic’s own retro instincts. (“The year was 19-rikki-tikki-tavi …”) And now, of course, there’s Jim Carrey.
These dueling Delaware lawmakers aren’t just a reflection of Biden’s newfound prominence. They’re the latest expression of SNL’s once-jarring, now well-established practice of turning to outside talent—and away from its sizable cast—for its most prominent political roles. SNL has always brought on celebrity hosts from week to week, but beginning with the 2016 election, Lorne Michaels started calling up extra-famous friends to round out a Trump era rogues’ gallery. Matt Damon played Brett Kavanaugh; Ben Stiller played Michael Cohen; Robert De Niro played Robert Mueller, acquiring the lowest effort-to-Emmy-nomination ratio in history. Throughout it all, the poster child for this practice has been Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, part of the show’s long apologia for having the president host during his campaign in 2015. In 2020, out of the four names on either party’s presidential ticket, only one is depicted by a current cast member in Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence.
Whatever drawbacks such outsourcing may have in terms of talent development or even quality—Matt Damon is many things, but he’s not an impressionist—Michaels has evidently judged them worth the boost in ratings and publicity. The objections from fans and critics have been heard and resoundingly ignored, making them not much worth repeating. But SNL’s difficulty in even settling on a Biden in the first place is relatively new. SNL has recast real-life roles before, either within the show (remember when the show thought it was OK to have Fred Armisen play the first Black president for a few years?) or outside it (remember when Kate McKinnon played Mueller in those horrifying prosthetics?). But passing Biden around like a hot potato is a new level of on-the-fly, even for a show that comes up with 90 minutes of live television with six days’ notice as a matter of course.
In a way, SNL’s Biden problem is a reflection of how the election itself has played out. President Trump, and Baldwin’s lip-pursing imitation thereof, has been the constant, setting the tone while the opposition mostly defines itself in the negative. The writers’ take on the character has zigzagged from “tone-deaf in a blustery way” to “tone-deaf in a senile way” to “guy who says stuff like ‘malarkey,’” but none of it has truly stuck. It’s no wonder Carrey barely bothered in his first go-around.
Unveiled in the season-premiere cold open and teased with a preview centered on wigcraft, Carrey’s Biden is, as my colleague Sean Yoo put it, “less Jim Carrey as Joe Biden and more Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey while looking like Joe Biden.” Carrey has already proved his #resistance bona fides at the painter’s easel, where he’s crafted such elegant statements as “Trump in a witch’s hat” or “Trump eating a pile of Russia’s shit.” Now he’s just extending them to the firmer, far more visible ground of televised comedy.
Physically, Carrey’s Biden has a wide grimace and jutting underbite that bear little resemblance to Biden’s default expression. Temperamentally, the main joke of last weekend’s debate sketch was Biden trying and failing to repress his anger, a reaction more common to home viewers of the exchange than its main Democratic participant. But there was dancing, mugging, and tape-measure-focused prop work, making this Biden familiar as a Carrey bit if not as a current presidential candidate. Most of the actual impression was accomplished by prosthetics and costuming, leaving Carrey free to be himself and reap the applause. Carrey, a Canadian, can be forgiven for not having the finest handle on American politics; the people scripting the part for him to step into, not so much.
Carrey has spent the past few years doing unexpectedly subtle and often deeply tragic work on Showtime’s Kidding and participating in documentaries about his spiritual bond with Andy Kaufman. To Carrey fans, it’s fun to watch him return to sketch comedy—the medium that offered his big break back in the early ’90s—turn that rubber face into a rictus, and wiggle his glued-on eyebrows. To SNL fans, however, the show’s handling of Biden is a reprise of Trump, who was yanked from alum-turned-announcer Darrell Hammond and handed to a famous friend of the show who then found himself locked into the role for four years and counting. Should Biden emerge victorious, Carrey would presumably find himself in the same position—as would a writing staff hamstrung by his limited schedule, and a show that once again put publicity over either precision or sustainability. In the real world, a Biden win would bring a great deal of positive and necessary change. On SNL, however, it’ll just bring more of the same.