How to Mock Obama: 'Saturday Night Live's' Presidential Impersonators Spill Their Secrets

Claudine Zap
Yahoo TVAugust 20, 2014
Fred Armisen as President Barack Obama on 'SNL'
Fred Armisen as President Barack Obama on 'SNL'

Saturday Night Live has been doing political satire for decades — think Chevy Chase as a clutzy Gerald Ford or Tina Fey as a spot-on Sarah Palin. But mining gold from President Barack Obama has been serious work for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

In the updated oral history Live From New York, excerpted in The Hollywood Reporter, the cast and crew sound off on the Mount Everest — or should we say the Mount Rushmore — of political impressions.

"If I had to describe Obama as a comedy project, I would say, 'Degree of difficulty, 10-point-10,'" says SNL producer-writer James Downey. "It's like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled."

[Related: A Generation Raised on Fey and Poehler: TV's New Female Buddy Comedies]

Why? Obama's no joke. "There's not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature. [Al] Gore had these 'handles,' so did Bush, and Sarah Palin, and even Hillary had them. But with Obama, it was the phenomenon — less about him and more about the effect he had on other people and the way he changed their behavior. So that's the way I wrote him."

One way to mock Obama: with "'The Rock' Obama" skit. The joke: Don't get the always-calm president angry, or he morphs, Hulk-style, into Dwayne Johnson's professional wrestler persona.

Jay Pharoah — a relative newcomer to SNL, started spoofing Obama in 2012. He debuted his Obama even while the previous impersonator, Fred Armisen, was still on the show.

But the pressure had been on for an African-American to take over the impression of the first African-American president. Pharoah, a skilled mimic, had one ready to go.

At the start of the 38th season, Armisen introduced Pharoah in his new role. "I wouldn't want his job, right?" Armisen joked. The skit, Obama vs. Romney, featured Pharoah's Obama comparing himself to Jason Sudeikis as rich guy Mitt Romney.

"Things aren't great," Pharoah said in character. "But I'm not worried."  His "secret weapon" — the bumbling Republican candidate himself.

Pharoah's satire went over well. "There seemed to be a playful spark in Pharoah's portrayal of the president," the Wall Street Journal praised.

"He is unquestionably a gifted impressionist," Slate agreed.

The comic even performed his Obama in front of the real Obama.

"I did an event at Harvey Weinstein's house — very nice; I'd never been there," Pharoah recalls in Live From New York. "I was trying to take my makeup off because I was [Obama] at this event, and [Obama] stood right there watching me do it. He was laughing; it was so petrifying."

[Photos: This Year's Emmy Nominees For Best Lead Actress in a Comedy]

Pharoah would like to keep the real-life leader of the free world happy with his work. "As long as there's no beef between me and the president, that's good. When that happens, you're Kanye West," he says in Live From New York. And yes, Pharoah does a killer Kanye West, too.

Armisen was relieved to retire his Obama. The comic debuted his impression back in 2007, while Obama was still the junior senator from Illinois.

In Live From New York, Armisen explains how he got the gig.

"My approach to everything in life is, 'Sure, I'll give it a try,'" recalls the Portlandia star. "I knew they were looking for an Obama, so when Lorne called me into his office and [producer] Marci Klein said, 'Let Fred do it,' and Lorne was like, 'Would you want to try it?,' I was just like, 'OK, I'll give it a try.' They asked me on a Tuesday, and I think I did it that Saturday. I bought Obama's book on iTunes, and I watched videos."

There was method to his Obama. "Basically, when I do him, I just kind of make sure to kind of start up, I say, 'Hello!'" Armisen said on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2012.

"He shakes his head like, 'It's gonna be OK." Armisen added that it's "Everything all together," the set, the writers, the makeup, that made him seem presidential.

See Armisen's Obama in a SNL cold open as he delivered hard news about the economy, but not without a little presidential nostalgia first.