Great Debates: The Top 8 SNL Debate Sketches

As I mentioned Last time, S.O.S.N.L. is going to be a little different from here on out—Simple version: Sketches once a week instead of once a day, sketches would be focused on whatever the prime-time “Vintage” episode would be, and I’d save the lists/commentaries for weeks when they put something else on in prime time……or at least, that was the plan at first………but THEN, Monday happened—The Debate, the shitstorm, the analysis, the spin, the jokes from late night hosts, the week-long dissection of it all; and to top it all off, it was announced that Alec Baldwin would be Playing Trump opposite McKinnon’s Clinton. It was at that point I realized “What the hell am I doing talking about just ONE sketch at this critical time both in the show AND American Politics?” So while the “One sketch-a-week” plan remains the main idea, it seems futile to talk about Anything else BUT SNL’s greatest “Debate” sketches in anticipation of Tonight’s Premiere (Also, as of Press time, Tonight’s “Vintage” show was the one with Bruno Mars hosting in 2012. I already covered a sketch from that episode previously, and I’m about to cover ANOTHER one on this Very list–so why be redundant?). So with that, let’s take a look at 8 Great Debates from SNL’s past, and see if we can’t contribute a little in milking the American Political process even drier than it is right now.


No criteria, really—as long as it’s a debate sketch (whether Presidential or Primary), it counts. Don’t worry, we will get to the non-debate Political sketches before Election Day (we hope). Slight modification to the rules on this one; not only am I going to talk about the sketches in question, but as a BONUS, I’m also going to point out the Exact moment where the sketch entered mainstream political history. Usually it’s either one line or one moment in a given sketch that seals the deal as you will see.




  1. DEMOCRATIC DEBATE ’91 (11/2/1991) – A.K.A. “The Race to avoid being the guy who loses to Bush”…which back in 1991 wasn’t that far-fetched a notion. Bush Sr.’s approval ratings were in the 90s thanks to a post-Desert Storm show of support, and before the infamous Tax Hike, he looked to have sealed the deal……but that’s beside the point. This sketch featured a number of politicos doing their best to convince the public NOT to vote for them…if they were even running in the first place. This includes the likes of Tipper Gore (Victoria Jackson) representing Al, a Brilliant Mario Cuomo played by Phil Hartman, and (host) Kiefer Sutherland playing Sen. Lloyd “You’re no Jack Kennedy” Bentsen among others………Hmmm…Kiefer Sutherland playing a reluctant President-to-be……you don’t think………..NAH, total Coincidence (Also, this WAS a good 25 years ago). The “Debate” is essentially a game of Political Hot Potato, trying to pass around the notion of becoming president to the next person, only for that person to say “Not It!”


KEY MOMENT: When giving closing statements on why Not to vote for the candidates in question, Hartman’s Cuomo goes through a laundry list of reasons culminating in the admission; “I Have Mob Ties”.



  1. DEMOCRATIC DEBATE ’15 (10/17/2015) – I know this one’s fairly recent, but it’s probably worth mentioning considering the Real Bernie Sanders wound up galvanizing the Primaries the same way SNL Galvanized itself by having Larry David play him. Add to that some continued greatness from Kate, Taran & Mooney as the bland lambs to the slaughter and even a surprise appearance by Alec Baldwin as Jim Webb, and this gives us a taste of what will hopefully come in the next few months—only with Baldwin in a different role altogether.


KEY MOMENT: Nothing quotable per se, but just the fact that Larry actually went ahead and started playing Sanders after months and months of internet memes suggesting a resemblance is enough for galvanizing wish-fulfilment.




  1. OBAMA/ROMNEY TOWN HALL DEBATE (10/20/2012) – In hindsight, this debate may have looked more like a childish slap-fight between the two—the Real one, not the parody. Fortunately, the show showed us just how silly the two were acting during the debate—Between Romney (Jason Sudeikis) constantly interrupting Obama (Jay Pharaoh, who at this point recently took over the role from the questionable Fred Armisen). Of course, this being a “Town Hall” debate, the questions they fielded from the audience (Including a surprise cameo that I’ll get to) sort of accented the childishness a little further. I guess you could say that this particular debate showed how childish politics have become…little did they know what would happen 4 years later…


KEY MOMENT: Near the end of the Debate where a surprise Tom Hanks cameo pipes up and simply says “Libya”, we go through the moment where Romney is challenging Obama about certain inaccuracies, only for Obama to tell moderator Candy Crowley (Aidy Bryant) to “Check the Transcript”. She does, Romney is proven wrong, Romney pleads with Crowley to reconsider only for Obama to swagger next to him and Literally Drop the Mic “Gangsta Style”.




  1. BUSH/CLINTON/PEROT DEBATE (10/10/1992) – Humor aside for a second, “The Challenge to Avoid Saying Something Stupid” also marks a technical benchmark for the show. Considering 2 of the 3 candidates are played by Carvey, his bits as Perot had to be Pretaped ahead of time. So how exactly would it work when all 3 candidates came out on stage Live? Believe it or not, David Spade stepped in to be a Perot Stand-in during those shots. In fact, in the Shales/Miller book, there’s a brief passage about how Spade was both Excited & disappointed to be playing Perot, even though all he was doing was acting as a continuity marker of sorts. No matter, the Debate itself still went off without a hitch. Carvey earned his Emmy that year doing double duty, Hartman’s Clinton was near perfection at this point (Peak might’ve been the “McDonalds” sketch), and they still left no stone unturned—including all the arbitrary rankings the state of Arkansas reached under Clinton’s watch (“We passed Mississippi to become 41st in the prevention of rickets!”).


KEY MOMENT: At the end of the debate when giving closing statements, each of the candidates begin to “daydream” about what the other candidates look like to them. Clinton sees Bush as a Doddering Old lady, Bush sees Clinton as a Hippie with a Bong, Bush & Clinton sees Perot as one of the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz”.




  1. FORD/CARTER DEBATE (9/18/1976) – Gotta include the one that started it all, which may look a little too antiquated humor-wise, but still marked one of the first of many times the show declared “Nothing’s Sacred” when it came to major issues of the day. Chevy continues to stumble through as Not!Gerald Ford, while Aykroyd debuts one of his more durable impressions in the form of Jimmy Carter…with a mustache…which I’m guessing would later explain the long-unwritten rule that all performers on the show must be clean shaven, but I digress. I know I throw the phrase “Laid the Foundation” a lot around here, but this one really did for all the debate sketches to follow this one…granted, we wouldn’t see a FORMAL Debate sketch again in about 12 years’ time, but you know what they say about long gestation times.


KEY MOMENT: As Jane gives Chevy’s Ford a seemingly complicated Economics question, the camera slowly zooms in on a Flop-Sweating Ford as he manages to reply “It was My understanding that there would be no Math…” A Phrase so iconic, that the AV Club uses that line when discussing SNL’s Political sketches each week.




  1. BIDEN/PALIN DEBATE (10/4/2008) – Possibly the ONLY VP Debate I’ll include…because quite honestly, there have only been 2 VP Debate sketches in SNL’s History (at least as of Press time…because you KNOW they’re going to do one with Pence & Kaine soon). But of the 2, this one stands alone. Between Sudeikis amping himself up as “Smokin'” Joe Biden and Tina Fey’s practically gift-wrapped Sarah Palin, it may as well have been a match between two Japanese fighting fish to see who would give us the bigger laugh. Add Queen Latifah making a welcome return as Gwen Ifill–and at the same time, rooting for Obama in a not-so-subtle way with her book plugging–and if you don’t pass out from playing Palin’s “Maverick” drinking game, the sketch & the real debate went on to prove which presidential candidate made the biggest tactical error.


KEY MOMENT: Near the end of the debate when things are wrapping up, Palin interjects while holding a Flute and casually asks “Are we Not doing the Talent Portion?”



  1. BUSH/DUKAKIS DEBATE (10/8/1988) – Fresh off the Writer’s Strike & rarin’ to go, this debate was SNL’s return to political form with a vengeance. Carvey debuted his Bush impression the previous year with seemingly little to no impact what-so-ever. I’d like to think that because of the Writer’s Strike, Carvey suddenly had a lot of spare time on his hands in order to practice and perfect the impression; and since the strike went from March to October of ’88, that’s a lot of refining to do (Again, assuming that’s how he spent his time). Lovitz was essentially being himself as Dukakis, only with thicker eyebrows; but the staccato and the hesitancy of his mannerisms were just fine. Add Kevin Nealon’s unheralded Sam Donaldson, Hartman’s bitter David Brinkley and Jan Hooks’ over-flirty Diane Sawyer, and that 12 year gap for Political satire will be worth the wait.

KEY MOMENT: Upon a series of long-winded, time consuming mentions to “Stay the Course” with “A Thousand Points of Light” from Carvey’s Bush Sr., Hooks’ Sawyer asks Lovitz’s Dukakis for a rebuttal. Response? “I can’t believe I’m Losing to this guy!”




  1. BUSH/GORE DEBATE (10/7/2000) – As mentioned time & again, I came of age during the 90s—not just in terms of comedy, but also in a sense of understanding the world around me just a little bit at a time. This debate does what pretty much ALL SNL debate sketches do best—condense everything and give us the good stuff. This just happens to resonate with me the most because as a growing teen, I started to take politics a little more seriously. So when the 2000 election took place; even though I still wasn’t old enough to vote, it was the first election where I actually started to pay attention to whatever issues were big at the time. And nowhere was that attention amplified than with this sketch—pretty much acting as cliff notes for those who missed it. Just about everything that Could be mocked from the Real debate got the proper treatment here; from Gore’s droning & sighing, to Bush’s seemingly unrehearsed folksiness. Just about everything in this debate is not only quotable to this day, but it also coined probably the single most important Non-Word in American History………….

    KEY MOMENT: Say it with me now……”Strategery”. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this non-word changed everything. So much so, that it became the title of a Best Selling Book, AND you can still hear it as a legitimate talking point on some Sunday Morning Talk Shows without any hint of Irony. Ferrell probably had little to No idea that he opened up Pandora’s Box that night.







OBAMA/CLINTON (2/21/2008) – Love it, hate it or find it extremely questionable, Fred Armisen debuts his Barack Obama “Impression” opposite Amy Poehler’s power-hungry Hillary—who is constantly overshadowed by O’s charisma. To this day, I’m surprised the word “Obamapology” isn’t more well-versed in the news.


REPUBLICAN DEBATE ’88 (2/21/1988) – Political humor lied mostly dormant in the years since Lorne left in ’80, and they were still a little hesitant to go whole-hog when he came back. This sketch showed that SNL could still “Strut their Stuff”–an assist from Aykroyd helps a great deal as well. Consider this one an appetizer for “Bush/Dukakis” later that October.


BUSH/KERRY (10/2/2004) – Will Forte may not have liked playing Bush, but he was a Hell of a lot better than Parnell & Hammond were (with All Due respect). His impression& constant whining about Hard work was just about the Only thing that offset Seth Meyers’ stoic Kerry impression.



In a few weeks, as promised, a look at all the other non-debate Political sketches SNL had to offer. Until then, I quote Julia Sweeney at the end of the 1991 debate sketch: “When you don’t take the time to vote for the candidate you find the least offensive, you run the risk of electing the candidate you find the most offensive. Good night.”


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