Presidential parodies: An incomplete history of comedy targeting the White House

Celebrate Presidents Day by going on a tour of clips of comedians portraying POTUSes past and present
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 02/19/2018 at 12:31 PM EDT

The highest office in the United States is supposed to be respected and revered: our leaders have traditionally been greatly accomplished. But that doesn’t mean they’re not targets of politically-themed comedy. Certainly this presidential administration hasn’t dodged the satirical bullet: there are arguably more Trump impressions than impressions of any President before him. Most late-night shows do at least a vocal impression of the President. And on last night’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took a spin through some international Trump impressions (see the grid of 9 at right). Most recently, the latest Trump parody, Our Cartoon President, premiered on Showtime – it was co-created and co-executive produced by Stephen Colbert. So this Presidents Day, we thought we’d highlight a few of our favorite presidential parodies from over the years. (And we know there are DOZENS more, so please let us know which are your favorites!)

The SNL White House
Over the years, every President from Nixon to Trump has been lampooned on Saturday Night Live. But what the long-running comedy series is remarkable for – in addition to some pitch-perfect portrayals like the late Phil Hartman’s hungry, fast-food-chomping Bill Clinton and Darrell Hammond’s more lecherous, gleefully sexual version – is sometimes how little they cared about doing an actual impression, especially in the show’s early years.

In the 1970s, the impression of Gerald Ford was basically just Chevy Chase in a suit being uncoordinated (one of the bits begins with a caption reading, “this is not a good impression of President Ford”); clean-shaven Jimmy Carter was played by an occasionally-mustachioed Dan Aykroyd as either a country bumpkin or a good-natured expert on everything from a letter-sorting machine to talking down a person who’d just done acid. Hartman’s Reagan was a decent impression of a tough-talking President recently on the job and thinking like the Hollywood star he used to be before the Presidency. Dana Carvey took on Bush Sr. with a nasal voice, hand gestures and catchphrases like “a thousand points of light,” and “read my lips: no new taxes.” George W. was Will Ferrell mis-speaking and misunderstanding every aspect of his job. And while the election of Trump was a nightmare for so many, his presidency has been so ludicrous on a daily basis that it’s a comedy gift that keeps giving: plus, with 24-hour coverage of every part of White House dealings, we’re more aware than ever of the faces of political pundits and peripheral political personalities. Comedy coverage has increased apace, with White House press secretaries, cabinet members and Senate majority leaders targeted (nearly as much) as the Commander-in-chief is. (I’ll spare you the most recent clips as you’re most likely already familiar with them – but enjoy these clips from decades past…)

Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford (1970s)


Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman) giving Mikhail Gorbachev (Danny DeVito) a tour of Washington DC (1987)

George Bush Sr. (Dana Carvey) talking about America’s drug problems (1989)

Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman) on the campaign trail stopping for fast food (1992)

Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond) reads from the Paula Jones deposition given in the investigation into the President’s sexual behavior in the White House (1998)

And a favorite – the first presidential debate from the year 2000, where Gore (Darrell Hammond) bores with talk of a lockbox and Bush (Will Ferrell) looks confused and says “strategery.”

Obama’s Anger Translator, Luther

Notably, SNL barely made fun of Obama. Over at Key and Peele, however, it was a different story as they imagined the very measured and contained Obama losing it through the anger translator.

Our Cartoonish Presidents

Sometimes life is so cartoonish that it requires animation. And over the years, various administrations have been given the animation treatment.

In a recurring cartoon segment for SNL, “The X-Presidents” imagined that the four past presidents (Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George Bush) had received powers that they now use to save America when it’s in trouble from, say, the Constitution going on a death rampage after being used as an argument tool in Congress. (Contains vulgar language, situations, President sex, and Constitutional violation…)

Lil’ Bush was a Comedy Central series that imagined George W. Bush as a child in school, a privileged jerk who asked Lil’ Condi Rice to do his homework from now until they graduated college, and who hung out with Lil’ Rummy and Lil’ Cheney. (Available footage is grainy but you can see one of the episodes here.)

Political cartoonists recently launched a Trump cartoon on The Nib:

The most recent addition, Stephen Colbert’s Our Cartoon President, does not pull any punches with its depictions (Stephen Miller as a cretin who self-tortures while penning Trump’s screeds and the glassy-eyed Ivanka stare are animated triumphs). You can watch the first episode of the Showtime series here – and while I found it well written, it also felt like the material is too fresh and the ludicrous moments too close to daily reality to register for me as comedy.

What POTUS-related comedy or satire are you watching? Who’s your favorite SNL President? Let us know and share your favorites in the comments.

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