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