Saturday Night Live returned this week, and with the dawn of a new season comes the dawn of a new Joe Biden: comedian Jim Carrey. Chronologically, the Man on the Moon star is the fifth person to play Biden on the show—but is he the best? Or the second-best? Or the third-best? Those are the kinds of questions that can only be answered by ranking Saturday Night Live’s Joe Bidens from worst to best, which is what we’ve done below. Our original plan was to train an A.I. on all 1,695 videos of Joe Biden on C-SPAN.org and approach the question scientifically, but that came to an abrupt halt when the very first video, Biden’s appearance at the 20th Annual Democratic Congressional Dinner on the night of April 20, 1983, failed to play (Error Code: 224003). After tearfully unplugging the A.I., we just sort of watched some YouTube clips and winged it. Here are Saturday Night Live’s Joe Bidens, from worst to best.
Although Joe Biden had been in the Senate for more than two years when Saturday Night Live made its television debut back in 1975, he didn’t attract Lorne Michaels’ attention until the 17th season, when Kevin Nealon played him in a sketch about Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. There’s not much of an impression to Nealon’s performance, but then, there wasn’t that much to seize on in the first day of Thomas’ reopened confirmation hearings except for Biden’s thinning hair. (On that front, Nealon’s hair is parted on the wrong side.) The main thing keeping Kevin Nealon’s Joe Biden from being a contender, though, is not the costume department, or even that he’s appearing in an embarrassing reminder of what a shitshow those hearings were, but the structure of the sketch itself. The senators are introduced in order from least to most grotesque, and Biden comes first, which means Nealon has to provide the relatively normal backdrop for Phil Hartman’s Ted Kennedy, Chris Farley’s Howell Heflin, and Dana Carvey’s Strom Thurmond. That makes Kevin Nealon Saturday Night Live’s worst Joe Biden, although there’s no shame in losing on a technicality, especially when that technicality is “he walked so Phil Hartman could soar.”
So far, Jim Carrey’s Biden is not an impression of Joe Biden; it’s a reminder that Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced mugging is funniest when the sole point of the joke is “Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced mugging.” To be fair to Carrey, it’s not clear how anyone could have pulled comedy out of the horror show that was this week’s presidential debate, especially in light of subsequent COVID-19 diagnoses, but this was nearly unwatchable. Carrey slightly redeemed himself toward the end, presiding over what was probably the first time SNL invited its audience to fantasize about the death (or at least the serious illness) of a sitting president. That’s just enough edge to edge out Kevin Nealon, but not enough to make it out of the bottom tier of Saturday Night Live Bidens. Fortunately, Carrey will have the chance to improve, since he’ll be playing the role all season.
Comedian John Mulaney joins Kevin Nealon in the “Played Joe Biden Once” club, in a sketch from the next-to-last episode before the show shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mulaney makes less of an effort to impersonate Biden than Nealon did, but his high-concept “Wait, that’s just John Mulaney doing John Mulaney” performance is enough to beat Nealon’s sincere-but-not-very-elaborate Biden. What’s more, he’s funnier than Jim Carrey.
Jason Sudeikis’ Joe Biden was understandably overshadowed by Tina Fey’s epoch-defining Sarah Palin, but revisiting his second appearance in the role—Sudeikis briefly appeared as Biden in a 2007 sketch about the Clintons’ Halloween party—it’s remarkable how much his impression changed over the years. SNL’s 2008 vice presidential debate sketch, in which Biden plays things relatively straight compared with Tina Fey’s Palin, aired on Oct. 4, 2008. On May 5, 2009, the Onion introduced its influential take on the vice president with “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway,” and Joe Biden impressions were never the same.* By 2012, Sudeikis had incorporated parts of the Onion’s Biden character into his own impression:
Sudeikis’ Biden was a workhorse, adapting with the times and safely shepherding the nation through two vice presidential terms, but four years of Donald Trump upped the nation’s crazification factor so much that watching him today is a bittersweet reminder of a more civilized age.
The total package. Woody Harrelson’s appearances as Biden during the last election captured not just his alarming teeth but the unease he provoked whenever he started talking during the primary debates, the sense he gave that any one of his stories could go off the rails at any time. Now that we’ve seen the real Biden go head-to-head with the real Trump, the bar for “off the rails” is a lot higher, but this was the one moment in history when a Saturday Night Live Joe Biden got to play the craziest man in the room. Harrelson rose to the occasion, delivering the funniest version of Joe Biden ever to appear on the show.
There’s only one thing funnier than appearing on Saturday Night Live, and that’s not appearing on Saturday Night Live. Joe Biden has never appeared on Saturday Night Live, which makes him the greatest SNL Biden of all time. Congratulations, Joe, and keep up the good work!
Correction, Oct. 4, 2020: This piece originally misstated that the Onion’s “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway” article was published on May 9, 2009. It was published on May 5, 2009.