Tonight's episode of Saturday Night Live, the first since the writer's strike ended, has something of a unique challenge: picking up where it left off satirizing the ongoing Presidential race. And it's more than having to jump back on the election storyline in medias res - for fans of the show, a particular curiosity is who will emerge as the portrayers of the sketch-comedy candidates. The state of play at 30 Rock, is, interestingly, much like the race itself. One candidate is being played by a veteran actress, vetted and full of experience. Another candidate will be played by a fresh-faced, heretofore unknown actor who hopes to prove himself. And the third candidate will be played by someone who, like John McCain, is pretending to be a conservative.
Of course, we have to lament what might have been. When the show left the air, the writers were only beginning to make great use of the wide array of candidates in the field. As Seth Meyers related: "It's always really fun when there's six candidates, because a lot of them are crazier and funnier than the viable ones...By the time it gets down to two candidates, they can be less fun. So every time one dropped out, we were like, 'Ahhhhhhh!'"
Still, playing the President is nice work if you can get it. For the actor playing the part, it can mean more face time in the show, more cold-opens, more chances to deliver, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" And when you hit the right notes, it can mean sketch comedy immortality -- the way Chevy Chase and Dana Carvey own Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, respectively. Chase associated Ford with a full-tilt klutziness, the constant and painful pratfalling ironically sending the comedian into Betty Ford's wheelhouse. And Carvey's act was such a perfect blend of mock and homage that even the first President Bush was a fan.
Chase and Carvey are quite lucky - they were the sole portrayer of their President. Bill Clinton managed to get two iconic portrayals, split between Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond, who interestingly, managed to become associated with the pre- and post-Lewinsky Clinton. The timing doesn't line up perfectly, but Hartman's best known for having the Clinton beat when his Presidency was still teeming with nascent possibilities. Hartman's Clinton famously launched a charm offensive through a fast-food restaurant, gobbling down patron's food while enthusiastically feeling their pain. The spark of joy that fueled Hartman's imitations made for a good fit with the early years of the Clinton presidency. Hammond, by contrast, had to handle a penitent Clinton apres le deluge du Monica - so while that randy id remains part of the portrayal, Clinton's extended-chin, apologetic pout became a constant comedic reference point.
Our current president's best-known portrayer is, of course, Will Ferrell, whose manic, childlike whimsy is best suited for a chief executive who's never once known what he was doing but was willing to do it fuller and harder and stupider than anyone else. Oddly, Bush 43 has had more portrayers than any other President. After Ferrell left the show, the part was handed to Hammond, Chris Parnell, Will Forte, and is currently the responsibility of Jason Sudeikis. And, don't forget, on the February 10, 2001 episode, Dubya was played by Tracy Morgan, because Ferrell was too busy admiring Jennifer Lopez's ample backside.
Of course, there are also the portrayals that didn't make it - Carvey's Ross Perot, Jon Lovitz's "little, swarthy" Mike Dukakis, Seth Meyer's own John Kerry. Does electoral choice end up disappointing the not-ready-for-primetime players? That question was mined for meta-theatrical comedy when Bob Dole was brought in to offer support to a disconsolate Norm MacDonald:
Norm MacDonald: But, you know, it's kind of frustrating for me. I've got this great Bob Dole impression, but I've got nowhere to use it.
Bob Dole: Well, if it's any consolation to you, Norm, the impression isn't that great.
Norm MacDonald: I see since you've gotten into civilian life, you don't pull any punches there, do you? Really? You don't like my impression?
Bob Dole: No. You're really doing an impression of Dan Aykroyd when he does an impression of me. You know it, I know it, and the American people know it.
That's going to end up the fate of at least two members of the SNL cast, and tonight's episode will begin the process of deciding the next late-night faux President. Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton finds herself on the best footing. Amy Poehler has, appropriately, proven herself to be ready on day one to take on the role of former First Lady. Whether Poehler's take - a blend of haughty imperiousness punctuated by moments of manic anger - is a hit on Howard Wolfson's conference calls remains to be seen, but if Clinton wins the Presidency, the comic possibilities are vast and assured.
As for McCain and Obama, the situation is less certain. It isn't known who will take on the role of McCain on a permanent basis (or whether anyone will be as funny at portraying John McCain as John McCain was himself) - though the current cast seems to be well-situated to handle the role. Where SNL seems to be having trouble is finding their Obama - or "Fauxbama" as they call it, a term that's certain to have a bright future as a right-wing talking point. As the Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar noted earlier this week, prior to the writer's strike, Kenan Thompson and Maya Rudolph were the cast's two members of color, neither of whom seem to have been deemed appropriate for the role. SInce then, rumors have swirled that Obama would be played by improv performer/30 Rock writer Donald Glover - rumors that Glover has denied. (Perhaps Glover was called in to perform improvisations as Deval Patrick, which will then be given to another performer to play as Obama. Who knows?)
Most of the world will get likely get an answer to this question late tonight, as Tina Fey hosts the return of the show. So remember, voters, choose your candidate's carefully. The future of sketch comedy is riding on it.