President Joe Biden’s long career can be measured in decades, in legislative achievements, and in Saturday Night Live impersonations: Seven different actors have played him over the years. His first send-up on the show happened in 1991, when Kevin Nealon portrayed him as a straight-faced inquisitor of Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas during the the judge’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Throughout the most recent presidential campaign, Jim Carrey and Woody Harrelson brought star wattage to the job while painting candidate Biden as, essentially, a collection of tics and catchphrases.
Earlier this month, yet another Biden joined the annals. SNL’s Season 47 premiere opened with the rookie cast member James Austin Johnson flashing a strained smile under a white wig, his hairline so high it made Biden’s forehead seem like the National Mall. Johnson’s low-energy performance seemed designed to satirize a president without much presence: “Like an oil change, you don’t think about me until you absolutely have to,” went one line. This impersonation returned in last night’s cold open, but so did other Bidens, through inexplicable feats of time travel. The sketch offered a jarring reminder of the instability and haziness of the president’s public persona.
The episode’s host and Ted Lasso star, Jason Sudeikis, used his aw-shucks charm to reprise the role of Biden that he played during the Barack Obama era. His version of Biden is a loudmouth, backslapping goofball who, as The Onion imagined in a 2010 article, might get banned from Dave & Buster’s. This happy-go-lucky performance feels far away from the weariness and confusion that recent impersonations have emphasized. “People used to like me,” Johnson’s Biden said after being informed of slumping approval ratings by his press secretary, Jen Psaki (portrayed as an all-business truth teller by Chloe Fineman). “The press would call me Uncle Joe. I miss the old me. Where did that guy go?”