The SNL Archaeology of Hillary Clinton

The satirical show may offer the truest biography of the Democratic frontrunner.
Photograph: Saturday Night Live/NBC

Satirical impressions are designed to distill a public figure's most salient characteristics into a memorable and hilarious whole. It follows that Saturday Night Live's impressions of Hillary Clinton over the years can reveal, through a kind of television archaeology, the evolution of her character—and the ripening of her presidential ambitions—from her first, eager days as non-cookie-baking co-presidential first lady to the richly complex prospective candidate we see today.  

One of the earliest Clinton sketches features Jan Hooks' interpretation of Hillary as an eager "co-president." It aired in May of 1993, early into Bill Clinton's administration. Hillary tells her husband about her big plans for his health care bill and gets into a fistfight with Bob Dole. A few months before the sketch aired, Clinton appeared on a public service announcement, earnestly explaining the need for health care reform. Hook's Hillary is embryonic. The ambition is visible, but it's accompanied by a scrappy enthusiasm that later is submerged, though not exactly mellowed.

The failure of health care and Bill Clinton's subsequent embrace of triangulation left Hillary, at the time the embodiment of liberalism, marginalized. Ana Gasteyer's interpretation in those years is rooted in that frustration—a thwarted policy wonk. In one cold open from 1997, Hillary blackmails her husband (one of Darrell Hammond's earlier Clinton portrayals) into letting her address the American people for just one minute about the liberal issues close to her heart, while Hammond's goofy, mugging, poll-obsessed Bill tries every possible gambit to silence her. 

Then things got worse. A later Gasteyer sketch is almost solely about Hillary's frustration. It aired shortly after the Starr Report came out, detailing Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hillary says only three words, and Bill makes the mistake of turning on the news to diffuse the tension. 

After her first-lady tenure, and as she ran for Senate in New York , Hillary's most difficult challenge was to appear to be a human being, as in one sketch featuring Gasteyer set in the Clintons' Chappaqua kitchen, in an attempt to appear more personable. "I can't wait to prepare some food dishes in this kitchen, such as salads and toast," she says, as Bill eats snacks and mugs for the camera in the background. The assertion that Clinton seemed too stiff and wooden came straight from focus groups, ones New York Mayor Bill deBlasio happened to conducting, for a spell, at least. 

At the start of the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary was a superpower. At first, she believed, along with most of the country, in her own inevitability, and Amy Poehler's performances at the beginning of the cycle, in late 2007, were all confidence and ambition. In one sketch that actually aired right after one of Clinton's weaker debate performances, the Clintons host a Halloween party for the whole Democratic field. Before then-Senator Barack Obama's cameo at the end of the scene, Clinton tells Will Forte's John Edwards that "come next November, we all have to support the Democratic nominee, no matter who she may be." Of course, that didn't turn out as planned. 

Subsequent impressions of Hillary tend to be built around the psychological wound of losing Of course, one of Poehler's best known portrayals of Clinton was alongside Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, when the two join together, ostensibly to address sexism in politics, but really to satiate a demand to see those two characters together. As Palin talks about getting even closer to the White House than Clinton, Poehler's grimace gets its own laugh from the audience. Finally, in the second part of the sketch, that disappointment and incredulity boils over. Clinton's real-life concession speech appeared less pained—but she has at times had a talent for hiding her feelings. 

Kate McKinnon nails the cadence of Clinton's voice and incorporates her own version of that laugh, here employed to brush off the certainty of her presidential run—containing her ambition has always been a central theme. The attempt to appear to be an ordinary person is still visible, as she struggles to recline on a couch. And the ambition may be even more epic. In fact, it keeps getting the better of her, becoming an uncontrollable, wide-eyed mania that she keeps having to chuckle away in a faux-casualness that must be informed by that disappointment of the past.

In the sketch, Clinton references all the scandals her career has weathered to make it to his point—and now there is a lot to rummage through. In its richness, McKinnon's portrayal may be more satisfying than those of her predecessors—because she has the most to work with.  

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Kate McKinnon's last name in the last paragraph.

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