Analysis | SNL honors George H. W. Bush for ‘being able to laugh’ at himself. Was it a commentary on Trump?

“On a serious note,” Michael Che said to close the segment, “Friday night, former president George H.W. Bush passed away. He was 94 years old. Our thoughts and condolences go out this family and friends.”

“That’s right. President Bush, who famously was a warm and gracious man who always understood the power in being able to laugh at yourself. So, take a look,” Colin Jost added.

Then followed several clips of Dana Carvey doing his famous impression of the former president. The impression was wildly popular for how absurd it was. And, as The Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald wrote, the impression “was never mean, though also not particularly flattering. In Carvey’s rendering, Bush was a little more weird, a little more out of control with his hands, a little more prone to inexplicable, staccato phraseology.”

Even so, Bush once called up the actor and “invited him to the White House to do what Carvey had been doing nearly every week the previous year: to play Bush, goofy warts and all.”

The reverse also happened: Bush appeared on SNL. One of the clips Che and Jost showed was the real Bush speaking with Carvey’s version of Bush.

“George Bush here. I’m watching you do your impression of me, and I gotta say it’s nothing like me. Bears no resemblance. It’s bad. It’s bad,” the real one says.

“Well, I’m sorry Mr. Present. I think it’s a fair impression,” Carvey’s version says, waving his hands crazily around the air like a drunk maestro conducting an orchestra.

Bush then says he doesn’t do the “crazy hand gestures” and, “in all my years of government service, I never once said ‘na ga da.’” As he does, Carvey continues making the erratic hand gestures.

The segment starts at the 1:41 mark of the clip below:

The short clip makes it clear that Bush was happy to play along, even with a comedian — and a show — that generally disagreed with his politics and made no effort to hide this fact.

In some ways, to borrow a modern parlance, the segment felt like a subtweet. After all, it’s difficult not to draw the obvious parallel (or lack thereof) between Bush and the current president, especially after watching the clips of Bush playing along with the joke.

SNL relentlessly mocks President Trump. And yes, the show has always mocked presidents, but its treatment of Trump is far harsher. But Trump is no ordinary president.

All that aside, Trump has never responded to the show in any way that suggests humility or good humor — and it seems that he should have a closer relationship with Lorne Michaels and his crew than most, since he has hosted the show twice.

Instead, he’s attacked it over and over and over again. A couple of examples:

It is not unreasonable to assume Trump wouldn’t appear on the current iteration of the show and make jokes about himself, which is actually something of a tradition among some politicians.

Bush is far from the only politician to appear on the show in a somewhat self-effacing manner. Just a few weeks ago, Republican representative-elect from Texas Dan Crenshaw joined Pete Davidson on Weekend Update to address a joke Davidson previously made about the loss of Crenshaw’s eye, a wound caused by an improvised explosive device during his third tour in Afghanistan. Davidson apologized, and Crenshaw lobbed some jokes both at himself and at the young comic. There was a genuine warmth to the moment.

The late John McCain regularly appeared on the show and made fun of himself, such as when he popped by Weekend Update during the 2008 presidential race. It was fairly clear he was going to lose to then-Sen. Barack Obama, and he appeared anyway and mocked his own campaign by offering some of his political strategies, such as “Sad Grandpa.”

“That’s where I get on TV and go, ‘C’mon, Obama’s gonna have plenty of chances to be president. It’s my turn!’ ” he said. “Vote for me!”

Though Trump has hosted the show, he has made no secret of how much he now despises it. Nothing could be further from the way Bush handled the program’s ribbing. There’s no telling if raising this comparison was Che and Jost’s intention — but in such a Trump-heavy episode, it’s likely that the viewers couldn’t help but make the connection.

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