The Presidential election is still almost two months away, but there’s already a personnel shift in the Oval Office. In an interview with the New York Times, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels says that the show is retiring Fred Armisen’s imitation of President Obama and giving the job to Jay Pharoah, who demonstrated that he could do a mean Barack (above) since before he joined the show in 2010.
I like Fred Armisen a lot—for other things he does, especially his work on Portlandia. But I’m not sure many people will miss his Obama much, even Armisen himself. But I don’t welcome the change just from the standpoint that (1) it’s about time an African American comic got to play and African American president on SNL or (2) Pharoah sounds more like Obama, so he’s perfect for the job. The first matters, when there are few enough big comic or dramatic parts for African American actors, but it doesn’t make one individual impression better or worse.
The second, though, gets to a fixation that I’ve had about comedy, SNL’s in particular, for a long time: that a good impression of someone is about much more than a good imitation of them. In other words, looking and sounding like your subject matters, sort of—people need to at least know who you’re doing. But it’s not what makes an impression lasting, funny or effective comically and satirically.
Capturing the person’s voice is less important than capturing something about their character—having an idea about that person, and executing that idea through the performance. The classic example I’d give is Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, which looked absolutely nothing like the man and sounded fairly little like him, but did (fair or unfair) solidify an image of him as a comic bumbler. (That’s why it’s an impression: it forms an outline and casts it in cement.) Phil Hartman’s early Bill Clinton captured a kind of slick cockiness; Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin is possibly, in some minds, more Palin than Palin is. (Thanks to her, there are people who now believe Palin actually said she could see Russia from her house.) Armisen’s Obama was not a dead-on imitation, but that wasn’t the big problem; it just never really seemed to have a point, an animating theory of the man.
So I’m excited about Pharoah taking over Obama duties, but to get on the Mount Rushmore of SNL political imitations, he’ll have to not just impersonate Obama but capture his being and mannerisms—not just sound like him, but say something about him. (The clip above is promising; the premise of “How Obama would pick up women” lets him play off the President’s verbal tics and studied-cool persona.)
And of course, none of that will matter long if Mitt Romney wins the election—but at least Jason Sudeikis will also be back.