As the election approaches, fewer people seem to be watching “Saturday Night Live” each week. It’s normal for ratings to dip from a show’s premiere, digital views are surely decent, and SNL is only three weeks into its latest season. Still, we’re heading into the weirdest election in recent memory and the famed sketch show hauled in A-List talent to portray both candidates. Why isn’t SNL making a bigger splash?
That question brings us to Jim Carrey, who’s inexplicably been tasked with playing Joe Biden. His impression is bad. Amid the most hilarious and bizarre election year anyone can recall, it’s a disaster for SNL that Carrey’s impression is failing so miserably.
The actor plays Biden, a self-described “gaffe machine,” with a nonsensical combination of puppy-dog energy and senility. He sounds nothing like Biden, entirely lacking the uncanny mimicry that made Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin or Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton great. His mannerisms don’t match. He’s not really doing an absurdist impression either, like something along the lines of Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer or Will Ferrell playing Janet Reno. It just makes no sense.
Carrey seems very attached to his artistic vision for the role, but very detached from the reality of Biden’s public image. It’s weirdly infuriating, but honestly not surprising given that Carrey regularly paints literal portraits of politicians that suffer from the same fatal flaw—distortion beyond recognition when filtered through his strange interpretations.
What’s worse is that Carrey injects a whole lot of Jim Carrey into his version of Biden, and seems pretty satisfied with himself too. It’s almost as though he thinks his personal touch automatically makes the impression great, while it actually detracts from the comedy, which needs people to recognize Biden to resonate. He’s shaping the candidate to himself, not the other way around. In fairness, Carrey toned this down a bit last Saturday, but it’s still there.
Carrey’s counterpart, Alec Baldwin, does a decent job capturing the look and the sound of President Trump but misses his personality. Together, they’ve created an immensely disappointing rendering of the bizarre Biden-Trump match-up. Baldwin does, however, look much better juxtaposed with Carrey.
These problems and more were exhibited clearly on Saturday in the best cold open of the season, “Dueling Town Halls,” which still fell relatively flat. What could have been exceptional was merely good. As in real life, the back-and-forth between Trump and Biden delivered an instructive study in contrasts. I’ve long believed SNL’s primary issue in the Trump era to be its commitment to activist comedy, but after watching Saturday’s show I think that problem is downstream of bad writing.
It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg calculus—obviously, partisan comedy is necessarily mediocre—but even when SNL set out to take legitimate jabs at Biden this week, the writing just wasn’t there. It’s not clever or edgy. It’s lame and sometimes weird, but not in an avant-garde way either.
Back to the chicken and the egg. SNL’s history is famously dotted with slumps, and I think it’s clear the show is in one right now. The question is whether the writing is bad because it’s coming from a generation of writers trained and conditioned to be safer than their predecessors or whether the talent and chemistry just isn’t there.
The timing could not be worse. The difficulty of satirizing Trump is under-appreciated, but this moment in our politics and culture is a lot bigger than him. That SNL isn’t knocking it out of the park is a statement about the talent at the show right now.
Consider “Your Voice Chicago,” another sketch from Saturday’s episode, in which Issa Rae played an NAACP activist who stretched for reasons to support every black candidate for office, regardless of his or her qualification level. The Diamond and Silk impression was good, but even the revved-up audience was uncomfortably unimpressed with the punchlines.
That was probably because Rae’s character basically does not exist in this political landscape, so it didn’t make a lot of sense as satire. If anything, the opportunity would have been to mock people who insist on the importance of representation and then stretch for excuses not to support people who don’t match their partisan affiliation. (A.V. Club found the sketch insufficiently woke anyway.)
The least SNL can do to improve before the election would be ditching Carrey, since he seems uninterested in muting his schtick for the sake of the impression. It’s frustrating to watch top talent squander the comedic opportunity of a lifetime that is 2020, a year when laughs are hard to come by, but the world is upside down and ripe for satire.
If Lorne Michaels could kindly bring back Jason Sudeikis or whip one of his actual, current cast members into shape, Biden shouldn’t be all that difficult to mock. That would be a good start.