The Best of Saturday Night Live’s Foreign-Policy Skits

For 40 years the show has skewered world leaders and their politicking with satire and slapstick -- and the world is a better place for it.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 5
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 1025 -- Pictured: Comedian Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton during a skit on November 6, 1996 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Saturday Night Live, the inimitable sketch comedy show that has served as a fun house mirror of American society on every imaginable topic, celebrated its 40th anniversary show this weekend with a reunion of characters and hosts from every conceivable slice of pop culture. The three-and-half-hour broadcast took a languorous stroll down memory lane, from Chevy Chase’s “Weekend News” update in the inaugural episode to cameo appearances by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama. But little of the highlight reel dwelled on the times SNL skewered a subject that is otherwise so infrequently lampooned: U.S. foreign policy.

It’s a shame because on many occasions the show has managed to take the most serious of issues — Vietnam, Iran-Contra, September 11 — and turn them into subversive, if not always highbrow, comedy. SNL’s foreign-policy skits both lightened the mood on some seriously disturbing topics and asked Americans to take a step back and appreciate the absurdities underlying the issues of the day. (Years later, Jon Stewart would take this formula and spin it into compelling comedic political coverage with The Daily Show).

To fill in the foreign-policy-shaped gap in this weekend’s anniversary show, here are a few of the best SNL treatments of U.S. engagements with the broader world, as acted out by some of the best comedians ever to grace Lorne Michaels’s stage:

The Final Days of Richard Nixon (May 8, 1976)

SNL first aired in October 1975, when the American people were still reeling from the trauma of the Watergate scandal. President Nixon was not only viewed by the majority of the American people as a criminal and a fraud, but his entire presidency had come to be seen as a cynical exercise, from his secretive Latin American policies to the confusingly concurrent strategies of “Vietnamization” and the authorization of ground incursions into Cambodia and Laos.

With Dan Aykroyd as Nixon and John Belushi as Henry Kissinger, this early skit has Nixon describing himself as an optimist in less-than-sympathetic terms:

“Remember that army hospital I visited in Vietnam? There was a young enlisted man from Des Moines, Iowa. He had been hit in the eye with a surface-to-air missile. And he only had four pints of blood left in his body, and as you know, a man normally has eight pints of blood in his body. Now, the pessimists in this country would say that that boy was half-empty, while I like to think he was half-full!”

Reagan Mastermind (Dec. 5, 1986)

This skit aired less than a month after President Ronald Reagan appeared on national television to “confirm” that the United States had not traded weapons for hostages held by Iran. At the time, this statement looked a lot like the president trying to wriggle out of the tight spot in which he had found himself when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November by implying he was not aware of the details of the deal, or that the entire operation had occurred without his knowledge.

Quietly challenging the notion that the Reagan could be that clueless about what his own national security team was up to, the writers at SNL cast Phil Hartman as a diabolically controlling Reagan who was secretly directing and bullying his cabinet, while taking intermittent meetings with cuddly guests like Jimmy Stewart and “the girl scout who had sold the most cookies.” Jon Lovitz played a doddering William Casey, who apparently wasn’t fully briefed on President Reagan’s well-laid plans. When Lovitz asks the president to slow down because there are things about the Iran-Contra Affair he doesn’t understand, Reagan angrily replies, “And you don’t need to understand! I’m the President! Only I need to understand! Is that clear?”

A Message from the President of the United States (Dec. 15, 1990)

In the days leading up to the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush’s threats to invade Iraq if Saddam refused to pull his troops out of Kuwait looked a bit like overcompensation for his reputation as a weak and clueless leader. Dana Carvey, whose impressions of the elder Bush became one of his most recognizable acts (“Not gonna do it … wouldn’t be prudent…”), took Bush’s bluster to a ridiculous level, while also showing the president as ineffective and easily frightened by his own power, not to mention his night-vision goggles.

Bush puts on a pair and turns off the lights to show the audience, and Saddam Hussein, how scary the American military can be; however, when Dan Quayle, played by what appears to be a 10- or 11-year-old boy, enters the room, the president jumps out of his seat, petrified, yelling, “Dan, don’t ever sneak up on me like that again!”

President-Elect Clinton at McDonald’s (Dec. 5, 1992)

By the time Arkansas governor Bill Clinton won the presidential election in 1992, Phil Hartman had been impersonating the candidate for several months, portraying him as a fast-food-loving wheeler-dealer with little to no self-control. (A line in the opening sequence of this skit, in which Clinton tells his secret service agent, “Jim, let me tell you something — there’s gonna be a lot of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton about,” turned out to be eerily prophetic.)

Clinton stops at a McDonald’s three blocks into his daily jog to “talk with some real folks,” which soon turns into a discussion about the military intervention in Somalia. Clinton explains why he is in favor of the operation, demonstrating the interception of humanitarian aid by Somali warlords by picking up people’s food and … intercepting it. With his mouth.

Osama’s Pep Talk (Dec. 1, 2001)

The weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks were touchy even for SNL, and it took some time before they were ready to dive into the heart-wrenching material. As usual, however, the show addressed the subject head-on, including with Will Ferrell’s parody of Osama bin Laden trying to keep his Taliban foot soldiers motivated following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Will Ferrell’s bin Laden makes goofy attempts to gloss over the loss of territory to the Northern Alliance and to prevent his colleague from publicizing the $25 million bounty on his head, strongly implying that the United States and its allies had al Qaeda and the Taliban on the run at this early stage in the war. Of course, at the time it seemed clear to most Americans that most powerful country in the world wouldn’t have any trouble wiping out a bunch of unevolved fanatics in caves. Almost 14 years later, it seems bin Laden’s optimism was not so ill placed, at least until his timely demise in May 2011.

George W. Bush’s Access of Evil (March 1, 2002)

George W. Bush was a gold mine for the writers at SNL, with his cowboy rhetoric and tendency to mix up words and figures of speech. (Who can forget his mangling of this idiom: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”) Even in the still-sensitive months after 9/11, his ditzy demeanor was simply too good for a comedy show to ignore.

W’s infamous speech about the Axis of Evil, which struck his critics as an egregiously simplistic way of dividing the world, became the “Access of Evil” speech as delivered by Will Farrell’s version of the president. In the sketch, the writers had the president bunch anything else he didn’t like into the “access” — the economy, Enron, Evel Knievel — in addition to the original bunch: Iran, Iraq, and … one of the Koreas.

Osama calls Saddam (Jan. 10, 2004)

The United States had already invaded Iraq when this skit was filmed, but the justification for the war was still very much in question (which of course it remains today). The notion of a connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein was one of the tenuous plot lines put forth by the Bush administration, so the writers at SNL took it a bit farther and put them on opposite lines of a casual cell phone call.

Osama takes shots at Saddam for stealing his look now that he’s in captivity (a beard instead of his signature moustache), while Saddam complains about his “shaggy” appearance during his court hearings (“I look like a Nick Nolte mug shot over here”). In the end, Osama takes Saddam’s advice to skip the monkey bar footage in his next al Qaeda training tape.

Secretary Hagel’s Confirmation Hearing (February 2013)

Some of SNL’s foreign-policy bits have not gone over so well, and in this case they raised the ire of the Anti-Defamation League. In early 2013, Jason Sudeikis portrayed then-nominee Chuck Hagel, who in the skit is being raked across the coals by the Senate Armed Services Committee over his statement that the interests of the United States and Israel “aren’t always identical.” The sketch is a clear shot at Israeli influence in Congress, which the Anti-Defamation League felt would feed into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the U.S. government. The segment never aired.

Despite these greatest hits, the occasions on which SNL has waded into foreign policy over the last 40 years have been relatively few and far between. As free speech comes under fire in places like Paris and Copenhagen, and as the state of the world look increasingly grim, we could all benefit from a little more humor, at least in the relative confines of good taste. Hopefully, comedians, cartoonists, and artists of all kinds will continue to take on the big issues; after all, it is hard to imagine how U.S.-Egypt policy would have evolved without SNL’s brilliant and nuanced analysis of that country’s storied leader, King Tut.

Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. Twitter: @whitneykassel
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