Most people remember that modern presidential debates beginning in 1960, when candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated on television for the first time in American history. The moment is remembered less for the candidate's rhetoric and more for Kennedy's youthful appearance — aided by makeup — and Nixon's pallor and sweaty brow.
But the next general-election debates were not until 1976, starting the tradition of two or three debates each presidential election cycle. Those 1976 debates happened to coincide with the second season of Saturday Night Live, a quickly growing cultural phenomenon. The TV show set its own tradition by parodying each of the three 1976 debates, featuring Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford and Dan Aykroyd’s sleazy, rambling Jimmy Carter. The televised debates lent themselves perfectly to SNL's sketch-comedy format.
Now, no presidential election is complete without an SNL send up of the debates. Check out some of the hilarious highlights from each election year below.
Remember the drama surrounding the first presidential debate of 2008? It was scheduled only days after the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy, and there was no assurance that Republican nominee John McCain would even show up.
McCain had phoned his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, and the two candidates agreed to issue a statement supporting bipartisanship in stabilizing the faltering economy. But in a surprise move later that day, McCain suspended his campaign and called on Obama to cancel the debate. Obama pushed back, saying he would show up to debate regardless of McCain’s presence.
Saturday Night Live ran with that, as "McCain" tries to continuously change the debate format in the skit. Pie-eating contest? Strip tease? It’s just another maverick move.
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry insisted that he had specific plans to help America, and Saturday Night Live was happy to help him spread the message. In the second presidential debate of 2004 — a town-hall format — the candidate used the phrase "I have a plan" 13 times, at one part starting six consecutive sentences with those words.
For his part, Republican George W. Bush was a bit jumpy during the debate, bantering over the moderator a few times. He also presented a new Bushism — "Internets" — which SNL ran with.
Side note: Bush cited National Journal during his closing statement of the debate, mentioning that the magazine had named Kerry the most liberal senator.
The first 2000 presidential debate was perhaps the easiest of them all to parody. It featured the unveiling of Al Gore’s "locked box" for Social Security and Medicare and Bush accusing Gore of "fuzzy math."
"Look, this is a man, he's got great numbers," Bush said at the Oct. 4 debate. "He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math."
But SNL really hammered home the locked box. Although Gore used the phrase only three times in the debate, he seems a man obsessed in this debate send-up. But having Gore start nearly every answer with "Under my (plan, proposal, tax plan, etc.)," is dead on. The vice president used a variation of the phrase 13 times in the debate.
Illeism — talking about oneself in the third person — is normally the territory of athletes and celebrities. But Bob Dole brought the practice to the 1996 presidential debates.
"I think the best thing going for Bob Dole is that Bob Dole keeps his word," he said in the first debate.
Saturday Night Live used this clip from Dole after the debate in an animated short. The show has a long history of mocking politicians with audio of their own words in animated shorts. In this short, cartoonist Robert Smigel poked fun at Dole's age, Clinton's philandering, eating habits, and perceived dislike of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Bill Clinton lothario tropes Saturday Night Live has used to parody the former president for much of his public life were not as present in this 1992 presidential debate parody. Instead, Clinton is parodied for being the steward of a backwards state and his slippery explanations of past exploits.
Clinton had spent time in Moscow during a 40-day trip while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; incumbent George H. W. Bush wasn't one to let the issue die.
"I don't have the facts, but to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, and not remember who you saw — I think the answer is, level with the American people," Bush told reporters.
Bush is parodied here by Dana Carvey, who levels these kind of hyperbolic attacks throughout the skit. At the end, Carvey as Bush goes off the handle, proclaiming "never, never, never" will he raise taxes again. The president had still not lived down his broken 1988 campaign promise, "Read my lips, no new taxes."
Also notice that Carvey is impersonating both Bush and independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in this debate. His lines as Perot were pretaped.
Compared with Dana Carvey’s 1992 Bush impression, this 1988 version of the then-vice president is glasses-free, flush with a full head of hair, spotlight averse, and enamored of buzz words.
The portrayal reflected the perception of the Republican nominee's 1988 campaign rhetoric. Bush repeatedly used the phrase "a thousand points of light," at the Republican convention as a reference to charity work being done around the country.
And he brought into the first debate three times. Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis said, "I don't know what that means.”
The 1980 presidential primaries were hotly contested on both sides. Former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy launched an insurgent campaign against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, while Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush fought it out for the Republican nomination.
Saturday Night Live lampooned the contested primaries and the meaninglessness of both second-place finishers' continuing to campaign even after all was lost, with this debate for “third place.”
Again, notice the increase in hair for Bush. And check out Bill Murray’s best Boston accent as he impersonates Kennedy. Maybe a hint of his future playing Franklin Roosevelt.
Presidential-debate parodies got their start at Saturday Night Live in 1976. The show lampooned President Ford for his incorrect comment, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."
Despite the moderator’s immediate offer to let him clarify his comments, Ford barreled ahead.
"Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: It has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union," he said. "As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the president of the United States and the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy, and their freedom."
SNL mocked Carter for an odd interview he had given to Playboy, where he said he had "lusted" after women other than his wife during his lifetime.