Joe Biden was never Saturday Night Live’s most compelling character, but for years, he was part of the show’s satirical firmament. As performed by Jason Sudeikis, he was a garrulous, high-energy grandpa, a sharp contrast to Fred Armisen’s and Jay Pharoah’s sedate portrayals of President Barack Obama. Sudeikis traded on Biden’s public image as an animated, gaffe-prone throwback fond of folksy words like malarkey. The actor’s performance is an even milder take on the former vice president than The Onion’s notorious depiction of him, which Brian Resnick described for National Journal as a “swashbuckling, ponytail-wearing dirty uncle” who was always causing trouble at the White House.
So as controversy continues to mount over Biden’s real-life reputation for inappropriately touching women on and off the campaign trail—behavior that’s been weakly defended by some as harmless flirtatiousness—it was somewhat fascinating to see Sudeikis return to SNL for a sketch that tried to reckon with Biden’s boisterous public persona. In Saturday’s opening sketch, the Biden campaign team (played by Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong) assembled to tell their boss to address the “touchy-feely stuff” before he makes his 2020 run for the presidency official. But the eternally grinning Biden remained largely set in his ways.
“You guys know that I’m a tactile politician, right? I’m a hugger, I’m a kisser, and I’m a little bit of a sniffer,” Biden replied, after pulling Strong’s character into a big bear hug and touching Thompson’s character’s hair, and then going forehead-to-forehead with a consultant character played by Kate McKinnon. “One second, I’m just connecting, one second,” he explained. Cradling people’s faces, tickling palms, generally violating personal space—the sketch tried to capture Biden’s propensity for crossing boundaries and his own apparent cluelessness about the growing seriousness of the issue (as underlined by his equivocating nonapologies over it).
The premise of the sketch was intentionally undercut at the end when a potential Biden voter, played by Leslie Jones, was brought in, and she instantly recognized him as “Obama’s granddaddy” and wrapped him in a bear hug of her own. “I am so going to vote for you!” she cried, jokingly pawing at his body. “Did we learn anything today?” McKinnon’s character asked with a sigh. “Oh, yeah yeah yeah! I mean, not really, no, but the important thing I think is that I’m listening, I hear you, I feel you,” Biden replied, grabbing at her shoulders. “Let’s hug it out, America, whaddaya say? Biden and some woman in 2020!”
The sketch noted the irony of the debate about Biden, given that the current occupant of the White House has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by more than a dozen women and bragged about assault on tape. (The president has denied the allegations.) “Yes, but unlike his voters, your voters actually care,” Strong’s character said. That contrast poses a tricky challenge for SNL as it prepares for the gantlet of the 2020 election. Donald Trump continues to be almost impossible to parody at this point, given that his real-life persona is somehow more outsize and offensive than Alec Baldwin’s impression of him. Meanwhile, the show has found very little to satirize in the new Democratic candidates thus far, so it’s had to dip into celebrity guest appearances. (Expect Larry David to return soon as Bernie Sanders.)
Sudeikis’s return was partly a pleasant reminder of SNL’s coverage of the 2008 election, a comeback moment for the show that boosted its ratings and made stars of cast members such as Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, and Sudeikis. But the cameo was also an example of the limits of that nostalgia as Biden prepares to run again. His aw-shucks persona and affable campaign presence were worth a familiar chuckle to Saturday Night Live, but this sketch couldn’t land a deeper blow, instead diagnosing his uncomfortable intimacy as the indulgence of an older man who’s out of step. If that’s the toughest political satire the show’s writers have to offer, then a miserable election cycle lies ahead for SNL.