So it’s always a gamble when politicians brave the treacherous waters of scripted comedy, as Sens. John McCain, Barbara Boxer, and Olympia Snowe did on Thursday night’s season premiere of Parks and Recreation. Sure, a presidential candidate’s appearance on Saturday Night Live is now a veritable rite of passage but, as politicians who have attempted to exercise their funny bones on the likes of Seinfeld and 30 Rock have shown, a sitcom is an entirely different beast.
Which politico fared the best in his or her endeavor? Here are a few of the funniest wins—and most cringeworthy fails.
1. Joe Biden on ‘Parks and Recreation’: WIN
Newly engaged City Councilwoman Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, has always had one man on her “Celebrity Sex List”: Joe Biden. So it took a pretty game vice president to appear in an episode as an engagement gift to Leslie from her fiancé, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). He lets her stare deep into his eyes, clasp his hands for meaningful conversation, caress his face, and even lean in for a kiss. Only when Leslie walks away, chastising Secret Service to take special care of her “precious cargo,” does he betray a look of annoyance.
2. John McCain on ‘Parks and Recreation’: WIN
While some comedies tout Oscar winners and film stars as big “gets” as guest stars, for Parks and Recreation, a show about small-town politics, a “get” doesn’t get any bigger than Sen. John McCain. (OK, Leslie Knope might sacrifice her left limb for a meet-and-greet with Hillary Clinton.) It’s a shame, then—and a brilliant sight gag—that a dejected Leslie Knope is in such a bad mood when she has her meet cute with the senator, she doesn’t even make eye contact with him.
3. Condoleezza Rice on ‘30 Rock’: WIN
It’s not easy for actors to hold their own opposite Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock—the likes of Jennifer Aniston, John Slattery, and Matthew Broderick have been nearly swallowed up trying. So stand up and clap for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who slayed as Donaghy’s ex-girlfriend, going toe to toe with Baldwin in one of Rock’s signature whiplash-fast arguments, followed by a classy spin on a battle of the bands.
4. Barbara Boxer on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’: WIN
Before her awkward encounter with Leslie Knope on Parks and Rec, Sen. Barbara Boxer schooled Larry David in a classic Curb Your Enthusiasm scene. David confronts the California senator over the people who take other customers’ clothes from the dry cleaner. Imagine David’s surprise when Boxer reveals that she is one of the perpetrators.
5. Michael Bloomberg on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’: WIN
It’s another classic Curb setup: Larry David attends an important event—in this case, one for the Michael J. Fox Foundation—and somehow offensively bungles it. When it looks like he’s belittling Fox and Parkinson’s disease, Mayor Bloomberg steps in and gives David a dressing-down that rivals Curb star Susie Essman’s best—if missing a few profanities.
6. Michelle Obama on ‘iCarly’: WIN
To call Michelle Obama “cool” at this point is almost trite. She’s gone so far beyond that. But really, she shows up on a Nickelodeon comedy for an episode about military families and agrees to dance with abandon for all to see? It’s just cool.
7. Nancy Reagan on ‘Diff’rent Strokes’: WIN
Nancy Reagan’s appearance on Diff’rent Strokes was a cultural watershed moment. It was promoted ceaselessly and considered an integral moment for her campaign against drug abuse. But even though the first lady was there promoting an agenda, she seemed remarkably natural in a scene that went on far longer than any other politician’s on this list. When she cracks a genuine smile after Gary Coleman asks, “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Mrs. Reagan?” she’s won us all over.
8. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe on ‘Parks and Recreation’: FAIL
It’s not their fault—Sens. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe were merely engulfed in the comedic tornado that is Amy Poehler. In their scene with the Parks and Recreation star, Poehler babbles, stutters, and cries her way through an uproarious meltdown that showcases precisely why she’s one of the greatest comedy actresses working today. The senators are merely props for the occasion.
9. Al Gore on ‘30 Rock’: FAIL
Saturday Night Live had a field day mocking Al Gore’s robotic nature and milquetoast personality. Did showing up for a guest spot on TV’s zaniest comedy and sharing the stage with madcap talents like Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan remedy that situation? Funny as the bit was in concept—the former vice president departs because he hears a whale cry—his performance was as awkward and painful as ever.
10. Rudy Giuliani on Seinfeld: FAIL
If you’re a public figure who agrees to guest-star on a comedy, you have to commit. Especially if that comedy is as indelible as Seinfeld, and real-life famous people like Marissa Tomei and Keith Hernandez have already proved their skills at self-mockery in their own guest appearances. So the former New York City mayor’s wan line-readings at a staged press conference were particularly lame in comparison.
11. John Kerry on ‘Cheers’: FAIL
The problem with Sen. John Kerry’s guest spot on Cheers isn’t that he was particularly bad or excruciatingly stiff. It’s that it wasn’t necessary at all. Cliff and Norm are walking to the Cheers bar, spot Kerry on the corner, confuse him for a news anchor, and ask for an autograph. Kerry clarifies that he’s actually their senator, the boys apologize, and go on their way. It’s not exactly a comedy classic, and certainly not as memorable a moment as Condoleezza Rice tickling the ivories.