When Saturday Night Live debuted Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump, it felt like the show’s first effective take on the then–presidential candidate. You’d be forgiven for forgetting this fact as the performance’s satirical bite has become more and more toothless. Still, in the years since Baldwin began playing Trump in 2016, SNL has brought in celebrity after celebrity to play major political figures, often ignoring its in-house cast, and it’s repeating that strategy for the 2020 election. The problem is, it’s mostly successful, and SNL’s newest choice to play Joe Biden is turning out to be a mostly inspired one.
Woody Harrelson likely took the role of Biden for the premiere of the 45th season on September 28 only because he was hosting that week. The former vice president had long been played by the departed cast member Jason Sudeikis, who frequently lampooned Biden’s brassy brand of folksiness during the Obama administration. Sudeikis left SNL in 2013, but has popped back in as Biden on occasion, most recently in April, when he returned to satirize reports that Biden’s habit of overly affectionate hugging and kissing had made women uncomfortable over the years.
Sudeikis’s impression couldn’t square that circle—it’s too friendly and affectionate a performance, one rooted in the image of Biden as a lovable and harmless grandpa. Harrelson’s Biden is glossy and spiky, flashing a set of eerie pearly whites and speaking in nonsensical truisms. In Harrelson’s first appearance as Biden, he bemoaned the public tide turning on him as he runs for president in 2020: “I’m like plastic straws: I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked, but now you’re mad at me?” In his return engagement this weekend, he stumbled through a CNN Town Hall on LGBTQ issues, leading off with, “The vast majority of people in America are not homophobic. They’re just scared of gay people.”