Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General, died today from complications of Parkinson’s disease at age 78. She graduated from Harvard Law School and was a State Attorney in Florida before serving in the Justice Department, but many Americans will remember Reno for a sillier reason: her portrayal on Saturday Night Live. She inspired a series of SNL sketches called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” such as this 1997 skit featuring an appearance by Rudy Giuliani, then-mayor of New York City. Will Ferrell plays the six-foot-one Reno as she “shoots straight with the kids of today” and challenges Giuliani to a boxing match:
In another sketch, Ferrell’s Reno gets a surprise visit from Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond), gives advice to a high schooler played by Neve Campbell and tries crowd surfing.
In 2001, on her last day in office, the real Janet Reno made a guest appearance on SNL. The crowd went nuts when she popped on screen alongside Ferrell (in character as her) while wearing the same blue dress.
Watching Ferrell play Reno is a reminder of how good SNL has been at political comedy over the years. Sometimes, the show’s political impersonations get confused with reality. For example, Sarah Palin is often quoted as having said, “I can see Russia from my house!” While she did tell Charlie Gibson on ABC News that Russia is visible from places in Alaska, that memorable quote is actually from Tiny Fey’s impersonation of Palin, opposite Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, in the opening skit of the Saturday Night Live season premiere in 2008. Watch it here.
This season, SNL has attracted attention with its portrayals of Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) and Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon). This weekend, in a final pre-election sketch, Baldwin and McKinnon broke character. They stopped fighting and hit the streets of New York dressed as Trump and Clinton. (This writer freely admits that watching these political opponents have fun together before tomorrow’s impending doom made her tear up.)
As for Reno, let’s honor her memory and the glass she shattered more than two decades ago with something even better than tears. When the real Attorney General visited SNL to take the stage with her doppelganger, she showed off her sense of humor.
Ferrell, dressed as Reno, asks her, “Janet, what do you do when you get sad?” “I just dance,“ she replies. "Now, hit it!”
So today, let’s celebate her life by dancing it out together.