On ‘SNL,’ Jim Carrey Steps Aside for Alex Moffat, the New ‘Joe Biden’

The Four Percent

What’s funny about

Joe Biden

? Comedians have been trying to crack that question with mixed results in their impersonations of the president-elect, including Jim Carrey on “Saturday Night Live.” The “Dumb and Dumber” superstar embodied Mr. Biden with lanky energy and a toothy rictus during the last stretch of the election. But his impression divided the nation—or at least the population with strong opinions about political satire and late-night sketch comedy.

Now “SNL” has a new Biden. On Saturday, Mr. Carrey announced via Twitter that he was handing off the role he described as “comedy’s highest call of duty.” Hours later, “SNL” hit the air with cast member Alex Moffat in his debut as the president-elect. He hobbled on stage with a cane (a reference to a recent injury of Mr. Biden’s) then somersaulted into place next to Maya Rudolph as

Kamala Harris.

He played Mr. Biden with an arched eyebrow, outspread hands and a slightly marble-mouthed delivery. There was a nod to the casting switch from fellow cast member Beck Bennett as Mike Pence, who said, “Joe, you look different somehow.” His reply: “I’m like Colonel Sanders. Every time you see me, I’m a different guy.”

Mr. Moffat is the sixth person to take a crack at Biden on “SNL,” the most high-profile platform for political impressions since Chevy Chase lampooned Gerald Ford as a clumsy stiff. Many fans of the show have been clamoring for the role to go to a regular cast member instead of another Hollywood ringer. But now Mr. Moffat, who first joined “SNL” in 2016, has to follow not only Mr. Carrey’s act, but also Alec Baldwin’s high-wattage turn as the show’s impersonator-in-chief. Compared with

Donald Trump,

a wild card with cartoonish tics to spare, Mr. Biden is a deceptively difficult target, according to some impressionists. For one thing, they say, doing him as a folksy, gaffe-prone grandpa gets stale. But there’s also the challenge of his advancing age and his shifting public image.

Mr. Biden first appeared on “SNL” as a character in 1991, when Kevin Nealon did a pretty straight take on the Delaware senator with thinning hair during a sendup of

Clarence Thomas’s

confirmation hearing. During his vice presidency, Jason Sudeikis, then an “SNL” cast member, played him as a garrulous yahoo (crashing the Oval Office and backslapping Fred Armisen’s

Barack Obama

). Later, in the 2020 primaries, Mr. Sudeikis rendered him as a shouty invader of personal space. Comic John Mulaney took one turn when he hosted the show last season, riffing on the candidate’s tendency to spin yarns that sometimes unravel. (“To make a weird story longer…”). Woody Harrelson also played Mr. Biden as a Democratic candidate, leaning into the cringe factor for supporters who worried about gaffes during debate performances. (“You’re scared, scared I’ll say something off color, or worse, on color.”)

The most consistent things in all these impressions were physical, namely a high forehead and bright, prominent teeth.

Mr. Carrey had them, too, when he rolled out his version of Mr. Biden in the Oct. 3 “SNL” season premiere, bounding on stage wearing sunglasses and firing finger pistols. But through the makeup and prosthetics, viewers saw the trademark style of a comedian who’s been described as “rubber-faced” since he got famous on a rival sketch show, “In Living Color.” His stretchy grin and intensity (“C’mon man!”) resembled that of his familiar characters from the past, including Ace Ventura and the Mask. That’s what ruined it for Mr. Carrey’s most vocal critics.

We asked two firms that track chatter on Twitter,


and other platforms to analyze posts about Mr. Carrey’s “SNL” performances. The results showed that viewers were more or less deadlocked in their opinions about his impression.

Negative reactions outpaced positive reactions, according to one analysis from Hootsuite, a social media management firm. The backlash from an episode in which Mr. Carrey’s Biden dressed up as Mister Rogers and painter Bob Ross included this much-shared tweet: “It’s not too late to replace Jim Carrey and get someone else—anyone else—to play Joe Biden…Have mercy on us all.”

But there were more praises than pans in an analysis by another company, Storyful, which uses different tools in its analyses. (Storyful is owned by News Corp., the owner of The Wall Street Journal). In the “SNL” episode that hit right after the election, Mr. Carrey injected his Ace Ventura character into his Biden impression, roasting his opponent by stretching out the “o” in “Loser!” The mashup was a hit with viewers, including one whose rave on Twitter (“Now I see why ‘SNL’ hired him!”) got 24,000 likes.

Mr. Carrey had signed up to star on “SNL” through the election, according to people familiar with the matter, and temporarily relocated to New York to appear in six consecutive episodes. In his resignation tweet, the comic called himself “just one of a long line of proud, fighting SNL Bidens!”

Comedians say it’s tricky to caricature an elderly subject who still deals with the remnants of a childhood stutter. “You want to be respectful,” says former “SNL” cast member Jay Pharoah, who has been testing his still-evolving impression of Mr. Biden on talk shows and his social-media channels. “When you have that much seniority, you’re going to go blank sometimes,” he says, calling those Mr. Biden’s moments of “buffering—kind of like your MacBook when it wants to upgrade.”

Mr. Pharoah, who sometimes played President Obama during his “SNL” years, says he was a fan of Mr. Carrey’s version. It taught him to do Mr. Biden’s voice in a slightly higher pitch. To that Mr. Pharoah adds some whispery air flow. “Joe has whistles because of the teeth situation,” he says.

The sound and cadence of Mr. Biden’s voice connects to his default facial expression: “mid-squint,” as Mr. Pharoah describes it. “He’s looking like he knows someone in the back of the room, and he can almost make them out, but he can’t.”

Rich Little has a receptive crowd for jokes about stolen votes and the victorious Democrat. “My audience is older people, and I’d say 80 percent are Republicans. If I do anything jabbing Biden or the election, they react,” says the comic, one of America’s only name-brand impersonators, who is back on stage four nights a week at the Tropicana in Las Vegas following an eight-month hiatus due to pandemic.

Mr. Little is about four years older than the 78-year-old president-elect, and pokes fun at some of his perceived infirmities, though he says he is careful not to be cruel. “I get a big reaction when I do the walk”—a shuffle/swagger with swinging arms—“and I put the mask over my ear,” he says. “Right away I’ve got them before saying anything.”

Austin Nasso impersonated Joe Biden on a video posted to TikTok

Some of the challenges Mr. Biden faced as a presidential candidate also pose difficulties for impersonators, says Austin Nasso, a Los Angeles comedian: “It’s hard, because Biden is kind of boring.” By comparison, everybody, it seems, has a take on Trump.

Mr. Nasso’s solution: he played both Trump (trying to convince the new president to let him back into the White House) and Biden (responding with get-off-my-lawn crankiness: “Who’s callin’ me so late—it’s 5:15 p.m.!”) in a series of TikTok videos that resulted in Mr. Nasso’s biggest spike in followers.

The comedian says he’s still looking for ways to develop the president-elect as a character that goes deeper than “generic old man,” and wants to grow his audience beyond TikTok. “There’s a vacuum in the market,” he says. “Even though Jim Carrey is one of my favorite comedians ever, I was kind of selfishly happy that he wasn’t doing well. I thought, maybe there’s an opportunity!”

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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