Election season is gold for the cast and writers of Saturday Night Live, so much so that practically every show that airs from the primaries to Election Day opens with a political sketch. Not all election sketches are created equal, though, and while every four years SNL delivers highlights—from Chevy Chase’s befuddled Gerald Ford to Tina Fey’s perfectly timed Sarah Palin—no election season has ever rewarded the show quite as richly as the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That’s right: not even this one.
Through a mixture of brilliant character work, incisive writing and an improbably insane voting process, the 1999-2000 seasons became one of the best times to be a fan of the show.
The show tapped master impressionist Darrell Hammond (who’d already served with distinction as Bill Clinton) to perfect Vice President Gore’s robotic drawl. For Bush, Will Ferrell came forward with a character that was less about perfect impresonation and more about the Texas Governor’s impish smirk and immaturity. The basic idea surrounding each impression was simple: Gore was dull and condescending, while Bush was unprepared and serving at the will of the Republican establishment.
Then came the debates.
Over the course of three landmark sketches, Hammond and Ferrell loosened up and grew into their characters so much that it felt like we were looking in on a parallel universe. The first debate was so effective at satirizing Gore’s know-it-all attitude that the candidate’s own campaign staff used it as a tool to loosen him up. And SNL’s writing staff came up with so many fake words for Bush (“Strategery” being everyone’s favorite) that they could practically write a dictionary. If the election had stopped there, the show would’ve been more than rewarded. But we all know 2000 was no normal election year.
As the bizarre Florida recount process dragged on, Bush and Gore were surrounded by an increasingly deranged supporting cast, from Hammond’s impression of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to Ana Gasteyer’s take on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (who, in the end, gleefully admits she’s a Bush stooge). In one sketch, Chris Parnell’s Tom Brokaw predicted the further propagation of 24-hour news programming by admitting that even he wasn’t sure if he was breaking news or just playing back a tape of himself breaking earlier news.
The nation learned (or tried to) about hanging chads and hand counts and the legal process that ultimately led to a Bush victory, and all the while SNL gleefully spun its own version of the political circus into comedy gold. Everyone seemed exhausted by what was on the news and SNL played into that, until by the end of the whole mess Gore was sitting across from Bush at a Tex-Mex restaurant asking the waiter to just bring him a bunch of tequila shots.
As Lorne Michaels is so found of saying, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” To a certain extent, SNL’s political sketches are only as good as the political sphere in which we’re living, and while we may yet get more brilliance from the insanity of 2016 (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not yet shouted at each other in the same sketch), 2000 was most certainly a perfect storm of an election that just wouldn’t quit, and a group of writers and performers at the top of their game.