It was his last Christmas in the White House following a disappointing landslide defeat to a young upstart Democrat. But instead of sulking or becoming “increasingly isolated,” he decided to invite the man who spent years impersonating him on Saturday Night Live to perform at his annual Christmas party.
The president was George H.W. Bush and the comedian was Dana Carvey.
The crowd in attendance cheered wildly as Carvey made his way to the podium that night in 1992 for what appeared to be an impromptu comedy set. After seamlessly slipping into his Bush impression, Carvey broke character to say, “This is very, very strange. I was staying in the Lincoln Bedroom last night and I couldn’t resist getting on the phone. And I called up the Secret Service as the president: ‘Feel like going jogging tonight... in the nude.’”
In the video, thankfully captured for posterity by C-SPAN’s cameras, Bush can be seen laughing and clapping in response. The president jokingly pretended to turn around and walk out of the room when Carvey made a playful dig about the time he “blew chunks” on the Japanese prime minister.
When Bush joined Carvey at the podium, he expressed how “grateful” he was to have the comic and his wife at the White House. “Dana’s given me a lot of laughs,” the president said sincerely. “He said to me on the phone, ‘Are you sure you really want me to come there?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘I hope I’ve never crossed the line.’ And I knew exactly what he meant and as far as I’m concerned, he never has. And the fact that we can laugh at each other is a very fundamental thing.”
It was that sentiment that Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchors highlighted in their brief tribute to the 41st president on this week’s show. “President Bush was famously a very warm and gracious man who always understood the power in being able to laugh at yourself,” Colin Jost told viewers, leaving the obvious contrast with Trump unsaid. The show then cut to a clip from Carvey’s monologue the first time he hosted SNL in 1994, one year after leaving the show as a cast member.
Two years out of office, Bush was generous enough to appear via satellite in a split screen with Carvey, offering some comical complaints about the famous impression, which he joked was “nothing like me” and “totally exaggerated” while at the same time emphasizing the idiosyncratic aspects of his behavior on which Carvey had seized.
Earlier this year, after the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, Carvey went on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show to express his love and admiration for the couple. “We had so many warm moments with them,” Carvey said. “It was a different time. It wasn’t scorched-earth, angry politics.”
“Can you imagine that today?” O’Brien asked in response. “In today’s environment, you do an impression of a president and you’re the enemy. You never would be invited to the White House. And I think that’s something we have lost.”
He’s right. It is impossible to imagine President Trump laughing it up with Alec Baldwin, who has been portraying him on SNL since just before the 2016 election. In that time, Trump has repeatedly gone after the actor on Twitter, seemingly unable to accept the idea that he should be subject to parody just like every other president before him since Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford fell off his ladder into a Christmas tree in 1975.
“Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable!” Trump tweeted during an episode less than a month after he won the election. “Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad.” The following month, he added, “.@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”
Though Baldwin has insisted he doesn’t “hate” Trump, he has made his general disdain for the president well known. And it shines through in his impression in a way Carvey’s never did with Bush.
In the same interview where he clumsily boasted about how much “black people” love his performance, Baldwin explained, “All I wanted my Trump to be is mean-spirited and miserable, like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life.” Unlike Carvey’s Bush—or really any of the other presidential impressions in SNL history—the purpose of Baldwin’s Trump is to emphasize how detestable he is. In turn, part of what had made the impression so powerful is how much Trump despises it.
Just as it is hard to imagine Trump welcoming Baldwin to the White House, it is equally inconceivable to imagine Baldwin issuing a statement about his satirical target like the one Carvey put out over the weekend.
“It was an honor and a privilege to know and spend time with George H.W. Bush for over 25 years,” Carvey said through a spokesperson on Saturday. “When I think of those times what I remember most is how hard we would laugh. I will miss my friend.”
If there’s one thing Trump is not known for, it’s laughing.
Think of the way he sat stone-faced at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner as first Seth Meyers and then President Obama mercilessly mocked him—an experience that allegedly lit a fire under him to take a serious shot at running for the White House. It’s no surprise that he has avoided that event altogether during his first two years in office. Now, the WHCA has fully abandoned the idea of having a comedian roast the president at next year’s dinner, seemingly in a bizarre attempt to lure Trump back into the room. “Maybe I will go?” the president tweeted following that news, acknowledging that it was a fear of comedy that kept him away in the past.
Of course, there was a time that Trump was able to, if not “laugh at” himself, at least pretend to tolerate being the butt of a joke.
When he first hosted SNL in 2004, he gamely stood side-by-side with his then-impersonator Darrell Hammond for his monologue. When he inexplicably returned as host in the fall of 2015 during his presidential primary campaign, he did it again. This time there were three Trumps as Hammond and a visibly uncomfortable Taran Killam flanked him on either side. Notably, the funniest moment came from an off-stage Larry David, who shouted, “You’re a racist!” at the candidate.
While Bush and Carvey shared a 25-year friendship, Trump has never even shared the stage with Baldwin and likely never will. The last time Trump appeared on screen with one of his many impersonators, it was Jimmy Fallon. And we all know how that turned out.