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.