There’s a trick to satirizing Joe Biden: You need only look within.
So says Jason Sudeikis, who starred on “Saturday Night Live” from 2005 to 2013. To create his impersonation, he zeroed in on one trait: “He feels like a people person.” The actor grew up around that friendly nature back in Kansas and simply had to channel “the outgoingness and gregariousness of my father.”
The Onion writer Chad Nackers tapped his own background to create a different kind of satiric Biden – a popular “Diamond Joe” character who loves his muscle cars, motorcycles and hair-metal music. “The first full article was the shirtless Biden washing his Trans Am, wearing cutoff jeans shorts,” Nackers says of the piece, headlined “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway.” “That was a kind of young guy I grew up around in Appleton, Wisconsin, with jean jackets and Def Leppard shirts. It kind of helped that I had a strong connection to blue-collar life.”
Biden, who vacates the veep’s office Friday, has a blue-collar persona as big as a Delaware commuter train – a mix of genuine warmth and bold humor, with a mouth that can grin slyly right before committing a slip of the tongue, making him a fertile source of humor. Some of those satirical takes grew as warm as their source, as the character of an affable “Uncle Joe” could seem very much in on his own joke. This was notably true on “Saturday Night Live” and at the Onion, each of which, in its own way, portrayed him as a swaggering, seen-it-all pol who, riding in the White House’s shotgun seat, could thoroughly enjoy the sweet ride.
Sudeikis doesn’t work like some other SNL impersonators who depend on uncanny mimicry. “I am trying to find the thing inside of them that it is inside of me,” the performer says of his impressions. “I have not developed (them) in the same way as (Bill) Hader or Fred (Armisen) or (Darrell) Hammond. They sound like them.”
So Sudeikis has a trick in breaking down his impression: “Watching them with the sound off.” He picks up nuances, such as how much time that person actually spends listening.
Acquiring the look helps, too, he says. “Put a better pair of chompers on me, with a bald cap with some thinning hair, and I can get into the mode.” When he wears a Brooks Brothers suit to play Mitt Romney, for instance, “I can’t help but feel very different.”
And so Sudeikis, working with former head writer Seth Meyers and “SNL’s” longtime political writer James Downey, began to break down a take.
“He often speaks without thinking things through,” Downey says of Biden. “Our main take on Biden was pretty much related to the sometimes odd things he says.”
The “SNL” iteration was notable for his debates with the Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan characters. Biden mocked the young, gym-loving Ryan by shouting that he was old-man strong – “Biden Strong!” – and he promised the American people that he could be just as “sassy,” “unpredictable” and “off-message” as Palin.
Sudeikis didn’t meet Biden until last year, at a New York event. But his own parents met Biden in Kansas City, in 2008.
“My dad felt a connection to this man,” says Sudeikis, who was born in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. “So my dad introduced himself and joked about how Biden was doing an impression of me.”
The Onion’s Nackers says that when Biden took office in 2009, “it was so different from (Dick) Cheney,” whose persona, he says, was especially freighted with dark real-world underpinnings. By contrast, Biden seemed to be “just there to have a good time” – which freed up the Onion to create a lighter “Diamond Joe” character who exaggerated the blue-collar Everymen Nackers knew while growing up.
The rugged, easygoing classic metal-head who favors biker babes, Whitesnake T-shirts and a sixer of Schlitz became popular among Onion fans, with such headlines as: “Biden Huddling With Closest Advisers on Whether to Spend 200 Bucks on Scorpions Tickets”; “Biden Lines Up Sweet Summer Gig Installing Above-Ground Swimming Pools”; and “Biden Offers Government to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” And this week’s farewell flurry brought: “Biden Sadly Realizes This Could Be Last Time He Throws Lit Firecracker Into Press Conference.”
Nackers is the longest-serving writer now at the Onion – he joined in 1997 – and his inspirations for the character derive from much of what he saw around in the late ’70s and ’80s. Cutlasses and Corvettes. Quiet Riot on the radio. And guys who liked their cheap beer and weed.
“I wasn’t researching Biden to create this character,” Nackers says. “I was more researching different kinds of rims.”
“Biden is like a traditional Onion character,” Nackers adds, “where there’s a real strong viewpoint – like our (Bill) Clinton character in the ’90s” who was relatable in his charisma and boundless appetites.
To Nackers, this isn’t just about writing jokes; a running character like Diamond Joe involves internal world-building – such as when the character runs off to lie low in Mexico, or when a part-time roadie named Worm sits in for him at a Cabinet meeting.
“I think where his (Biden’s) real personality converges with Diamond Joe is that he has a heart of gold,” Nackers says. Each “stands up for the right thing.”
Nackers will go almost Method when writing Biden articles, putting on Mötley Crüe and White Lion tunes and trying to tap memories of his youth. “You never know,” he says, “what little thing might creep in and inspire you.”
The Onion even threw a Biden-themed party last summer at the Newseum, during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, complete with an ice sculpture of a Harley-riding Biden and a string quartet playing hair-metal music. Nackers only wishes he could meet Biden – “Oh, hell yeah!” – who passed on attending the party.
Biden himself has deftly embraced comedic guises that are somewhat similar to his Onion persona, such as in the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner video, in which the bomber-jacketed veep picks up HBO “Veep” Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), revs a yellow Corvette and ultimately hits the tatt parlor. And last October, “old pro” Joe, behind aviators, played an undercover agent (alongside Adam Devine) before delivering the serious message on sexual assault in a popular Funny or Die PSA.
Many political cartoons have taken a more traditional, “SNL”-like approach, finding material in his amiability and “shoot from the lip” style. “While they may not rise to the level of moral outrage, Joe’s gaffes always make good fodder for cartoons,” says Rob Rogers, the left-leaning cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Unlike Obama, who carried the weight of the office, Joe’s smile never faded, making his toothy grin a prominent feature in most caricatures.”
But the right-leaning Michael Ramirez, a two-time Pulitzer winner syndicated by Creators, sees the outgoing veep though a more cutting lens. “The clueless smile, his bulbous forehead, the odd but perfectly symmetrical hair implants and vacant beady eyes all add to defining the man,” Ramirez says. But really, he adds, “with Biden, it is more like stenography than editorial cartooning. He’s one of the best gag writers I have in my employ.”
The juxtaposition Rogers cites, between Biden and Obama, became comedic fodder for popular memes, especially in the wake of the 2016 election: photos of the pair together, with such phony captions as: “Ok, here’s the plan: have you seen Home Alone.”
“As president, Obama was so smooth. Biden was goofy,” Downey says. “He was like Jerry Lewis to Obama’s Dean Martin.”
Once Biden leaves office, the Onion’s Nackers says he’ll miss having his character around as a regular presence, but after eight years, the time feels right to bid his Biden farewell.
Or as Diamond Joe himself says this week in a new Onion piece: “End of an era, man.”