George HW Bush: How Dana Carvey's Saturday Night Live impersonation skewered the 41st president

Sketch show superbly satirised Republican leader whose tenure coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union

Joe Sommerlad
Saturday 01 December 2018 11:01 GMT
Saturday Night Live: President Bush delivers some bad news about the tax increase

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, only served one term in office but oversaw an eventful tenure.

Defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election, the decorated former Navy aviator, CIA director and US Ambassador to the United Nations had a front row seat at the fall of the Berlin Wall and for the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He led the US into the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and saw a major tax increase passed by Congress before losing out to Bill Clinton in 1992 when the economic tide turned against him.

All of which made him ripe for satire on Saturday Night Live (SNL).

Mr Bush was skewered by Dana Carvey, a character comedian probably best known to British audiences as skittish heavy metal fan Garth Algar in Wayne’s World (1992) and its sequel. He was also a highly skilled mimic and SNL institution.

The show incorporated political sketches since its inception in 1975 and a send-up of the incumbent president quickly became a fixture of its set list.

However, some statesmen were easier to lampoon than others. Barack Obama, for one, seemed to create problems for SNL, with controversy surrounding the casting of Fred Armisen in the role, the comic being of Venezuelan and German heritage rather than African-American. Jay Pharoah later succeeded him.

With other presidents, the show would be spoilt for choice.

SNL had the luxury of both Robin Williams and Phil Hartman playing Ronald Reagan at different times while the possibilities for Mr Bush’s son, George “Dubya” Bush, seemed endless until Will Ferrell made the part his own.

Alec Baldwin has likewise cornered the market in Donald Trump impersonations for SNL – despite an underrated showing from Johnny Depp, wearing heavy prosthetics, in Funny or Die’s competing short film The Art of the Deal, a spoof adaptation of The Donald’s ghost-written 1987 business manual/memoir.

The Trump years have meanwhile created unforgettable roles on SNL for the likes of Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway AND Jeff Sessions, Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer and John Goodman as Rex Tillerson.

Dana Carvey rematerialised on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show last month to play John Bolton, President Trump’s new National Security Advisor, presenting him as a mad-eyed hawk with an ever-growing white moustache.

What makes him such a superb impersonator is his acute eye for the telling detail, that peculiar tick that reveals the real person behind the public bluster.

Mr Carvey, 31 years younger than his target, presented President Bush as an insecure geek determined to prove himself a strongman on the international stage.

Unable to hide his nasal Connecticut accent or discomfort in addressing the average working man – the president having spent his civilian career among the wealthy Texas oil set – Mr Carvey’s George HW Bush came across with all the style and ease of an Episcopalian pastor attempting to warn teenagers away from the “dangers” of marijuana.

A bright man, a war hero and a scion of America’s political elite who had rarely been brushed by personal scandal, on the surface Mr Bush appeared as untarnished as the young Tony Blair.

Dana Carvey picked away at that superficial sheen to expose the frailties below.

Little devices like an over-reliance on emphatic hand gestures and a habit of emitting nervous chuckles (”Little joke for ya there”) revealed a nervous man prone to mixing his metaphors and hubris regarding his approval rating.

The Simpsons also did wonderful work spoofing President Bush in the 1996 episode “Two Bad Neighbours”, focusing on his outmoded conservative social values and characterising him as a local busybody in retaliation for his remarks about the poor example the show was setting for American families at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Neither portrayal was cruel and both arguably helped humanise a somewhat stiff and apparently mirthless politician.

The Simpsons iteration did not reach audiences until well into the succeeding Clinton administration, however.

By contrast, Dana Carvey’s work was immediate, skewering the president week-by-week and securing SNL’s place as a Greek chorus commenting on the follies of the White House in the process, an invaluable service to democracy.

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