From the moment he started imitating Donald Trump during the 2016 election, Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of the future president became a point of fascination. Twitter, blogs, the New York Times, even Trump himself had an opinion on Baldwin’s semi-regular Saturday Night Live performances. Like Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation a few election cycles ago, the appearances regularly shifted the conversation around the election—and continued to do so long after President Trump entered the White House.
But here’s the thing: Baldwin’s impression isn’t just good because he’s making fun of a person in power with a distinctive patter. The impression has bite because Baldwin skillfully picks out pieces of Trump’s inflection and speech patterns, and amplifies them to just the right pitch. “Baldwin’s made a lot of really sharp observations, and of course he’s turned the dial up on them,” says dialect coach Erik Singer. “But there are subtle things that he’s doing as well, things that he’s doing with the vocal quality. Something about the rhythm that’s really cool.”
In particular, Baldwin expertly mimics the trumpeted (heh) lip shape that Trump uses. People might think that’s just a way of making a funny face, but it actually reinforces the president’s speech, even if Baldwin does it to the extreme. Trump also frequently lengthens out some sounds while shortening others, giving him a slowed-down, sped-up cadence, another trait that, “Baldwin does really well,” Singer says. (Check out his full analysis of the actor’s impersonation starting at 9:19 in the video below.)
The result is an impersonation that The New Yorker calls “perfect,” that actual New Yorkers thank him for on the street. Baldwin himself might think it’s “not some finely etched rendering,” but for those who study this sort of thing, it very much is. And in contrast to, say, Melissa McCarthy’s intentionally over-the-top sendup of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the impersonation comes off as subtle to the point of being artful.
It is also—and here Baldwin agrees—a salve in the current political climate. Baldwin, who has previously said he was going to hang up the Trump wig, currently plans to bring his presidential impression back when SNL returns in the fall. It will have been a year since he started the gag. Inevitably, news will arise—a contentious press conference, a White House staffer firing—that Baldwin will have to spoof. And when he does, it’ll be pitch perfect.