It’s been a long time since Saturday Night Live felt so relevant to Washington. After eight years of a President who seemed impossible to parody, the NBC series now has Donald Trump to play with. SNL’s imitations of White House figures have actually been newsworthy in their own right, as courtiers have found themselves out of presidential favor in the aftermath of their portrayals on the show. Meanwhile, SNL has also had fun depicting a variety of formerly famous-only-for-DC figures. Of course, none of this is entirely new: Politics—especially the TV depiction of our city’s highest-profile industry—has long been fodder for the venerable series. These are SNL’s greatest Washington sketches, ranked.
Sort the SNL sketches by their ranking or date (oldest to newest).
1. Bush/Clinton/Perot Debate (1992)
Why it killed: Dana Carvey’s dual performance as Bush 41—shown here with Kevin Nealon in another sketch—and erratic Texas businessman Ross Perot was so on-point that it’s easy to overlook the equally riotous takes on DC luminaries Sam Donaldson (Nealon) and Bernard Shaw (Tim Meadows).
2. Clarence Thomas’s Pickup Technique (1991)
Why it killed: Only SNL could turn the disturbing Senate hearings for Anita Hill’s alleged harasser into a laugh fest about a crew of horny Capitol Hill tomcats—Joe Biden (Kevin Nealon), Strom Thurmond (Dana Carvey), Ted Kennedy (Phil Hartman)—looking for hookup advice.
Watch on NBC
3. Sean Spicer Press Conference (2017)
Why it killed: What was more ingenious—Melissa McCarthy’s outlandish debut impression of President Trump’s shouty, misspeaking, compulsively gum-chewing, embattled flack or the decision to cast her as him in the first place?
4. Not for First Ladies Only (1976)
Why it killed: Asked by Baba Wawa (Gilda Radner) what made her a great “first wady,” Betty Ford (Jane Curtin) replies, “Well, I think it’s because I’m the kind of person that you can’t picture going to the bathroom.” Sadly hilarious, considering that the expectations for First Lady have barely changed.
5. President Bill Clinton at McDonald’s (1992)
Why it killed: It was pretty funny to watch a chubby Clinton (Phil Hartman) stop in after a three-block “jog” and mooch mouthfuls of fast food from patrons’ trays. This holds up for its prescience about Clinton’s inability to avoid helping himself to, well, pretty much anything.
6. The Rolling Paper Chase (1987)
Why it killed: In 1987, the nomination of conservative judge Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court foundered due to a surprising revelation: He’d smoked pot! The ensuing sketch—in which a hippie Ginsburg asks to be called “Captain Toke”—was an early example of having fun with the hypocrisies of baby boomers surfing culture-war politics.
7. Ford on the Phone (1975)
Why it killed: Chevy Chase helped establish Gerald Ford’s reputation as “klutz in chief” with this sketch depicting the President answering the phone by picking up a glass of water.
8. The Final Days (1976)
Why it killed: Up late, an intoxicated Pat Nixon (Madeline Kahn) remembers her husband (Dan Aykroyd) stumbling and hallucinating in the Oval Office as everything came crashing down: talking to portraits of Lincoln and JFK, hurling racial slurs at Henry Kissinger (John Belushi). The depiction of Presidents as madmen, then and now, makes for great comedy.
Watch on Hulu (Starts around 43:00)
9. President George H.W. Bush on the Tax Hike (1990)
Why it killed: When Bush reneged on his “Read my lips: no new taxes” campaign promise, Carvey’s nervous version of the President could barely get the words “No huge new taxes” across his lips and resorted to outrageously exaggerated hand gestures—as good a take as has been done on the Washington pol who has to walk back comments.
10. The McLaughlin Group (1991)
Why it killed: SNL’s McLaughlin (Dana Carvey) telling roundtable guests such as Pat Buchanan (Phil Hartman) and Eleanor Clift (Jan Hooks) they’re WRONG! about everything from foreign policy to what ink blots look like was spot-on, and more fun to watch than the real-life shout-fest of Sunday-morning public television.
11. The Salahis Upstage Obama (2009)
Why it killed: Rather than attempt the impossible by trying to make Obama funny, the sketch let him be boring while White House gatecrashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi (Bobby Moynihan and Kristen Wiig)—abetted by a goofy Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis)—pantomimed the funny stuff behind him.
12. Ask President Carter (1977)
Why it killed: Inspired by a real call-in show Carter did with Walter Cronkite, SNL spoofed the President’s reputation as a slightly kooky know-it-all by having Americans ask Carter (Dan Aykroyd) ridiculous questions about how to fix a letter-sorting machine or survive an acid trip.
13. Dick Cheney Rides a Missile to Iraq (2002)
Why it killed: This cold open, some five months before the Iraq War began, shows Vice President Dick Cheney (Darrell Hammond) as we want to remember him: bug-eyed and straddling a 1,500-ton Tomahawk missile headed for the heart of Baghdad.
14. The West Wing on Mushrooms (2001)
Why it killed: Inspired by Aaron Sorkin’s airport drug bust, this “lost episode” of the beloved lefty drama The West Wing imagined the White House of President Bartlet (Darrell Hammond) on a cocktail of mushrooms, ecstasy, and LSD.
15. Hardball: Bush’s Reelection in 2004 (2002)
Why it killed: Chris Matthews (Darrell Hammond) goads Senate majority leader Trent Lott (Al Gore) into making more racist statements, fresh off his controversial praise of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist campaign. If only Gore had been this loose in the ’90s.
16. John McCain and Sarah Palin Do QVC (2008)
Why it killed: The fact that McCain was up for doing the cold open alongside Tina Fey’s devastating impersonation of his own running mate—just three days before he’d lose the election—made this one especially brutal.
17. Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation (2008)
Why it killed: Tina Fey’s read on Palin here (“I can see Russia from my house!”) was more celebrated, but in our book, Amy Poehler as Clinton nailed it for her pitch-perfect portrayal of the Washington insider’s contempt over being upstaged.
18. C-SPAN Booknotes: Paula Broadwell’s All In (2012)
Why it killed: This is the best Politics and Prose reading you’ve never been to: General David Petraeus’s mistress (played by Cecily Strong) at the bookstore’s podium in business casual, doing a deadpan reading of her dirty sex diary about her trysts with one of the most powerful men in Washington.
19. Complicit (2017)
Why it killed: Scarlett Johansson’s impression of Ivanka Trump—who really does market a personal perfume—starring in a syrupy commercial for a scent called Complicit got under the First Daughter’s skin and made it into the cultural lexicon by suggesting that her role is actually to be her father’s enabler.
20. President Reagan, Mastermind (1986)
Why it killed: At the time, the standard Reagan gag was that he was a doddering fool. Instead, Phil Hartman plays against type, casting the Gipper as a devious, tireless genius who concocts international criminal conspiracies while resenting that he has to act like a genial grandpa in public.
21. The Old and the New Hillary Clinton (2000)
Why it killed: By 2000, Clinton’s public image had gone from White House scold to aggrieved wife. This sketch combines the two, depicting a TV ad in which the then Senate candidate shows an interest in doing things such as cooking for her family. Meanwhile, her freewheeling husband saunters around in the background.
22. Connie Chung Gets the Best of the Gingriches (1995)
Why it killed: After Chung took flack in real life for airing tape of Newt’s mother whispering, “She’s a bitch,” about Hillary Clinton, SNL perfectly subvert-ed the broadcaster-as-conniving-con-artist trope by sending Chung (Laura Kightlinger) into Mrs. Gingrich’s home with blatantly unhidden cameras to make Newt’s mom (Janeane Garofalo) badmouth her son.
23. Vice Presidential Debate (2012)
Why it killed: It’s mostly about Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) being cantankerous, but SNL gets in some good licks at future House speaker Paul Ryan, including his excessive hydration and his claims of being an Olympic sprinter. (Usain Bolt steps in to set the record straight.)
24. George F. Will’s Sports Machine (1990)
Why it killed: As Washington Post readers have long known, George Will regularly moves from stuffy political commentary into needlessly elegant baseball commentary. But even viewers unaware of his work may be familiar with the phenomenon of twerpy intellectuals rhapsodizing about baseball and might enjoy the depiction of Will (Dana Carvey) being menaced by the likes of MLB star Mike Schmidt.
25. Dave Chappelle’s Monologue (2016)
Why it killed: Days after Donald Trump’s election win, the DC-born comic delivered 11 minutes of standup on race, politics, and a White House party where Bradley Cooper had been the only white guest. It was cathartic, hopeful—Chappelle closed it by reminding the audience that people were “marching up the street right now as we speak”—and, most important, hilarious.
This article appears in our October 2017 issue of Washingtonian.