The Unfunny Transformation of Joe Biden

Jason Sudeikis reprised his role on SNL as Barack Obama’s vice president—and showed how much the politician’s persona has shifted over the years.

Jason Sudeikis and James Austin Johnson as Joe Biden on "SNL"
The sketch offered a jarring reminder of the instability and haziness of the president’s public persona. (Will Heath / NBC)

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?”

Poof! The Obama-era Biden—looking action-ready in sunglasses and a bomber jacket—burst into the Oval Office. Sudeikis has an extraordinary ability to convey enthusiasm, and that talent was used to the max as he air-punched and grinned at Johnson. Back in 2013, Sudeikis’s Biden bragged, the veep could act “like America’s wacky neighbor: Just pop in with an ice-cream cone and some aviator shades, do some finger guns, shake a few hands, rub a few shoulders.” A few obvious jokes then ensued: about how society has changed since the early 2010s (no more uninvited backrubs), about the chaos of the Trump administration, about the difficulties facing Biden’s current infrastructure bill.

Jokes, however, were not exactly the point of the sketch. The striking thing was how viscerally it demonstrated that the old Biden was just more entertaining, and had a lot more to say and do, than the new one. To be sure, Johnson has nailed some of the president’s mannerisms (see the ever-so-specific way he seems to lift an invisible pipe while making a point). His line delivery also reflects the way that Biden can sometimes seem, as Sudeikis’s Biden put it, not “lucid.” But when viewed side by side, the two characters were basically unrecognizable as the same person, and Sudeikis’s was by far the more compelling caricature.

Another Biden eventually joined in, played by the cast member Alex Moffat, who imitated the president for a brief period after the 2020 election. Moffat blended latter-day Biden’s listlessness with a bit of Sudeikis-style pep—he was worn-out yet triumphant. But his impression never generated much attention, and the punch line of his appearance on last night’s show was that the other Bidens didn’t really want to hang out with him. The sprightly 2013 politician then gave the defeated-seeming 2021 one a pep talk: “We may be from different eras, but at the end of the day we’re both Joe freakin’ Biden.” Yet as the sketch had demonstrated, for the public and for SNL and maybe for the president himself, defining what it means to be Joe freakin’ Biden is no simple thing.