SNL's Lorne Michaels Talks Historical Impact of Presidential Impersonations

Willie Geist interviews Lorne Michaels during George W. Bush Presidential Center's Path to the Presidency special exhibit.EXPAND
Willie Geist interviews Lorne Michaels during George W. Bush Presidential Center's Path to the Presidency special exhibit.
Cayla Jordan

Saturday Night Live has shaped American culture and the country’s perception of an array of topics and events throughout its 40-year history. The nation's politics, especially.

Even years after Tina Fey first impersonated vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin with lines like, “I can see Russia from my house,” political pieces and commentary still quote the line. And while President George W. Bush said plenty of bizarre things during his presidency, he never actually said “strategery,” another word that is often quoted when citing a “Bushism.” Instead, it was Will Ferrell who said it while impersonating the former president.

Bush was in his own library Saturday night welcoming SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels for the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s special exhibit Path to the Presidency. The sold-out event was full of people who appeared to be older than 50 — probably the same people who claim SNL isn’t as good as it used to be. However, the audience laughed as Bush joked that the night was “gonna be hysterical unless of course I’m in it” and “What kind of mind thinks of Saturday Night Live?” That mind is of course, Michaels', who answered questions asked by moderator Willie Geist, NBC Today Show co-anchor. He showed clips of SNL cast members impersonating presidents throughout the years and Michaels provided insight about creating the iconic moments.

Michaels says it’s not about the president at the time, it’s more about the actor portraying him. Chevy Chase, for example, made little effort to look like President Gerald Ford for his impersonations, but it still played well to the audience. Chris Parnell, Darrell Hammond and Will Forte all played Bush, but nothing played quite as well as Will Ferrell’s portrayal, Michaels says. And even with Fred Armisen and Jay Pharoah playing President Barack Obama, neither of them seemed to play it just right to make the audience buy it, Michaels confessed.

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While the audience had trouble ever getting on board with an Obama impersonator, some they choose before Michaels even has the chance to catch on. He said his doorman told him Fey resembled Palin and throughout the course of a week, Michaels said he received several texts from friends saying presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was former SNL cast member Larry David. “The audience determined [those impersonations].”

He said even though Fey didn’t ever want to be photographed with Palin for fear of appearing to endorse her, Palin was “wonderful” the day she made a cameo on SNL. Plenty of presidents and presidential candidates have made cameos, including John McCain, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and George H. W. Bush.

But how much of SNL affects Americans’ perceptions of the candidates?

Michaels says he doesn’t believe SNL ever changes the course of the elections, but whether a presidential candidate agrees to appear on the live show depends on how they are doing in the polls. For instance, Ben Carson declined and Hillary Clinton was set to appear in the first episode in 2007, but at the last minute, pulled out.

And while some presidents are able to laugh at their impersonators and impersonations, like Sr. Bush with Dana Carvey’s impersonation of him, some aren’t too pleased with it. Michaels didn’t mention any names, but he said he did get a call from the White House one time after featuring a skit with first daughter Chelsea Clinton. She was about 15 or 16 at the time and looking back on it, Michaels agreed it wasn’t fair to poke fun at a minor.

SNL doesn’t take a side, Michaels says. The comedy show pokes fun at both the Republicans and Democrats.

“We make fun of our leaders,” he said.


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