The comedian has done so many masterful impressions through the years. Why isn’t his turn on ‘Saturday Night Live’ as the Democratic nominee landing?
It really is a startling impression: the broadest slapstick imaginable but with a shrewd, diamond-sharp edge. He pretty much nails the exact mannerisms, but more importantly, his high-risk, higher-octane silliness somehow penetrates to his target’s very soul. I am speaking, of course, about Jim Carrey spoofing Vanilla Ice on In Living Color almost 30 years ago.
Come on. This is ludicrous. This is delightful. “I’m livin’ large and my bank is stupid / ’Cause I just listen to real rap and dupe it.” Savage. Necessary. Iconic. It’s a wonder Vanilla Ice is still alive to tell the tale. Carrey, in a 1991 episode of the beloved sketch comedy show, blasts through a full Looney Tunes aerobic workout in two minutes and change, which is maybe exhausting for him but definitely exhausting for you. He dances poorly with a ballerina’s grace; he wields his righteous parodic shiv (Vanilla Ice’s signature song has been renamed “White White Baby”) like a giant cartoon mallet. This is a pro. This is a superstar. And indeed Jim Carrey would soon be a towering multiplex zillionaire, and then an Oscar-chasing sophisticate, and then much later an unsettling Moses-bearded enigma, and then the guy charged with playing Joe Biden on Saturday Night Live, and ah, shit, this isn’t working at all.
Why isn’t this working? If I had to describe Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden impression in one word, I’d go with reptilian. He is wiry, and scaly, and slithery, and volatile, and overpowering, and weird. It’s not working. SNL, back in Studio 8H with live audiences thanks to intense COVID-19 protections, has aired three new episodes thus far, all with nearly 15-minute-long political cold opens covering the first presidential debate, the vice presidential debate, and the dueling presidential town halls, respectively. And even with Alec Baldwin’s deathless Donald Trump trying to suck up all the oxygen as usual, Carrey-as-Biden has bulldozed through it all, doing the most even though IRL Biden is lately the relatively serene candidate doing the least.
The finger guns. The bug eyes. The bared teeth. The Ace Ventura–style catch phrases. (“Yummy!”) The overstuffed folksiness. (“This joker drops more road apples than a bull eatin’ a bran muffin.”) I keep expecting Carrey to snap his forked tongue across the length of the stage and swallow one of the podiums whole.
What did you expect? What did you want? Jim Carrey is one of the most gifted impressionists of his generation. (Speaking of ’90s white-rapper kill shots on In Living Color, he also made a fantastic and devastating Snow—in which the Canadian quasi-reggae oddball’s hit song “Informer” has become “Imposter”—that somehow peaks when Carrey drags Popeye into it.) But Jim Carrey is also one of the most overwhelming comedians of his generation, a rumbling boulder of wasabi, a human-shaped wrecking ball who in 2020 is just grabbing the camera by the throat and screaming JIM CARREY!!!! into it no matter who he’s actually supposed to be portraying. You don’t pay Jim Carrey to “disappear” into a role; you pay him to explode that role entirely like the chestburster from Alien. The role he is currently exploding is that of one of the two remaining candidates for president, and by orders of magnitude the calmer one.
Take this past Saturday’s interminable sketch on Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s dueling town halls, the announced premise being that Biden’s is a blanket-and-warm-milk “Hallmark movie” whereas Trump’s is an unhinged “alien autopsy” that devolves into hand-to-hand combat. But Carrey can’t channel serenity even when he’s explicitly trying to channel serenity. He kicks off with yet more finger guns, and storms offstage (“Hey, is that Bobby Clarke of the 1974-75 Flyers?”) to get right back in the camera’s face, and breaks into a quick jerky dance “for the kids on TikTok.” Even when he slips on a Mr. Rogers sweater to emphasize how soporific he’s supposed to be, it rubs up viciously against his mic, a blaring alarm bell for the anarchy seeping out of his every pore.
JIM CARREY!!!! You’re never unhappy to see Jim Carrey, no matter the context, no matter the societal stakes. But he also makes you glance around for the nearest emergency exit. As the real-life chaos of this election spirals only further downward, and Actual Biden grows ever more stoic and exasperated within it, the sheer wrongness of this approach only intensifies. Even if you love the impressionist—and even if you’re voting for the guy he’s impersonating—you can cower and wince in the destabilizing presence of the impression itself.
The drag here is that in the past year alone SNL had already served up two excellent Joe Bidens in Jason Sudeikis (an actual cast alumnus who’s played Joe before and specialized in cheerfully inappropriate steakheads) and Woody Harrelson (who nailed the dazed folksiness, and the teeth, perfectly). As hard as Carrey’s worked thus far, he hasn’t gotten an applause break quite as raucous as when Harrelson-as-Biden calmly delivered the line, “Look, I’m like plastic straws. I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked, but now you’re mad at me?” And no one moment has stuck with me quite like Woody further leaning into his charismatic creepiness: “I see the faces you all make when I talk. You’re scared. Scared I’ll say somethin’ off-color, or even worse, on color.”
I mean, Maya Rudolph is coming back, and Alec [Baldwin] will be back. And Jim Carrey is going to do Biden,” Michaels said, explaining that the casting started with Carrey expressing interest in the part and then “it came down to discussions of what his take was … He will give the part energy and strength, and [Laughs] hopefully it’s funny.”
Prior to Carrey stepping into the role, Biden was portrayed by three different people throughout SNL’s 45th season. Woody Harrelson played Biden three times, starting with his hosting stint for the season premiere in September 2019. Jason Sudeikis, who played Biden on SNL during Barack Obama’s presidency, returned to play him during RuPaul’s episode in early February 2020, followed by a single appearance by John Mulaney during his episode later that same month.
In addition to the Carrey news, Michaels also revealed to Vulture that SNL has added three new featured players to the cast: Lauren Holt, Punkie Johnson, and Andrew Dismukes.