Late last September, NBC announced that Taran Killam would be taking on the role of Donald Trump for the show’s 41st season. Entering his fifth year as a cast member, Killam was poised to become a leading player in the vein of Will Ferrell or Bill Hader before him.
That first cold open, with Cecily Strong by Killam’s side as Melania Trump, went well enough but was quickly forgotten after Hillary Clinton made an attention-grabbing cameo with her SNL impersonator, Kate McKinnon. Killam definitely had Trump’s bottom lip curl down, but beyond that it just felt like something was missing.
At the time NBC confirmed the casting news, they also mentioned that Darrell Hammond, the former SNL cast member who recently stepped in for the departed Don Pardo as the show’s announcer, would be reviving his Bill Clinton impression this election season. But the network made no mention of Hammond playing Trump, as he had throughout the record-breaking 14 years he spent at Studio 8H.
Then, like Jay Leno coming back to steal the Tonight Show away from Conan O’Brien, the changing of the guard was officially reversed. Not counting one Christmas-themed episode, Hammond took over the reins after appearing alongside Killam and the real Trump in November. His grand return culminated in this past week’s cold open featuring another former cast member: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.
During the final episode of 2015, Hammond’s Trump re-entered the fold out of what appeared to be necessity during a GOP debate sketch that also featured Killam as Ted Cruz, whom he has been playing on the show for the past few years. By the first episode of 2016, Trump and Cruz were the two frontrunners in the Republican race, which meant Hammond and Killam faced off once more, this time over the meaning of “New York values.”
Producers clearly felt Killam wasn’t ready to pull double-duty as both Trump and Cruz, replicating the feat Dana Carvey pulled off during the 1992 election when he played both George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in the same sketch. At that point in SNL’s history, Phil Hartman was feeling America’s pain as Bill Clinton.
(Fun fact: David Spade was told by the show he would be playing Perot and even perfected his impression, but later discovered he would only be used in wide shots to make it look like there were three people on the debate stage.)
“I wasn’t planning on being in any sketches,” Hammond told Esquire magazine last spring after he first re-appeared as former President Clinton during Season 40. “I like the announcer thing because you can do it from New Orleans, or you can just come to New York for two weeks and then go back. But then [when I learned] that Kate McKinnon was gonna be Hillary, then I went, ‘OK. I have to do it.’ I mean, this kid is a virtuoso. You don’t even know what this girl can do, how good she is. She’s out of this world.”
But those comments do not fully explain why Hammond decided to start playing Trump on what has become a weekly basis. If he needed convincing to essentially rejoin the cast, it has paid off for both the show and viewers.
Trump has become such a larger-than-life figure in the American political conversation that he needs to be played by a comedian who can imitate the gravitas the candidate himself claims to possess. Just as only Tina Fey can be Sarah Palin in the public imagination, Darrell Hammond is our one and only Donald Trump.
The same goes for another of this election cycle’s most indelible characters: Bernie Sanders. I’m sure Kyle Mooney or Beck Bennett could pull off a decent enough Sanders impression, but the world wanted to see Larry David as the Vermont socialist and SNL has delivered that dream casting now on multiple occasions. The show has already tapped David to host on Feb. 6, which just happens to be the first show to air following the Iowa Caucus. Expect multiple Bernie Sanders sketches in that episode.
Trump, Hillary, Cruz, and Bernie are the four biggest players in the 2016 election so far, but only two of them are being played by full-time cast members. And only Kate McKinnon’s Clinton rises to the iconic level of performances like Ferrell as George W. Bush, who also came out of retirement this year to remind us how much we miss him on SNL.
Imagine that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the general election nominees—not an unlikely scenario as each candidate is leading in their respective national polls. That would leave Hammond portraying both the Republican contender and the aspiring First Gentleman during what would surely be the most heavily watched SNL episodes of 2016.
At 60 years old, Hammond is at least twice the age of nearly every other SNL cast member currently on the show (aside from Leslie Jones who, at 47, became the oldest actor ever hired by Lorne Michaels last year). From the beginning, Saturday Night Live has always been a young person’s game. But more than two decades after he first joined the cast, Hammond is suddenly SNL’s MVP.