Why It's Time For Fred Armisen to Hand Over SNL's Obama to Jay Pharoah
Last week, the news broke that President Obama split his lip playing a pickup game of basketball. My thoughts immediately began to drift toward the parody Saturday Night Live would no doubt have done this past weekend -- and which I presume remains imminent after the show's week off. Then I remembered, Oh yeah: It's still Fred Armisen doing Obama and not Jay Pharoah. Never mind.
First of all, let me make it clear that I am a Fred Armisen fan. In fact, I'm only one of a handful of people I'm aware of who find Nicholas Fehn hilarious. I love Frondi, Sidecar, Manuel Ortiz, Garth and Kat and Fericito (Ay dios mio!). I even defended Armisen's Obama impression at first: When Obama hit the scene, Armisen's take as a "never gets rattled, always plays it cool" kind of guy was just right. To this day, Armisen's "Obama Plays it Cool" sketch is one of the funniest presidential parodies SNL has produced.
Unfortunately, Armisen's "cool Obama" shtick doesn't work in 2010. It's a one-note play that's about two years too old. Armisen specializes in the absurd -- and Obama is the complete opposite of absurd. It doesn't even look like Armisen is having fun playing Obama any longer -- so why doesn't Armisen just hand over the reigns to Pharoah, who is actually African-American and does a much better impression of the 44th president, anyway?
Well, it's complicated. Playing the President of the United States on SNL is about as high of an honor that can be bestowed upon a cast member. Other than Ronald Reagan, every U.S. President is readily associated with his SNL counterpart: Ford had Chevy Chase; Carter had Dan Aykroyd; George H.W. Bush had Dana Carvey; Clinton had Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond; and George W. Bush will always be Will Ferrell. (During the show's tumultuous '80s era, Joe Piscopo, Randy Quaid and Hartman split Reagan duties fairly forgettably.) I always remember the 1992 election, when Dana Carvey mentioned that he felt like he was actually running for President against Hartman's Clinton; whoever won the election in real life would, in theory, assure the SNL counterpart job for four years. (Hartman would leave SNL at the end of the 1993-1994 season, a little over a year into Clinton's presidency.)
So now Armisen is Obama, and I completely understand why he wouldn't give up his title. Nevertheless, for the sake of the show -- not to mention for the tradition of SNL's legendary presidential portrayals over the years -- he should hand it off. It's by far Armisen's weakest character and one of Jay Pharoah's strongest. Worse still, we're denied Pharoah's art off the SNL set as well; considering his situation with Armisen, Pharoah's awkwardness was obvious last week when asked to do his Obama on The Late Show:
This needs to end. For the good of SNL, it's time for Armisen to please hand over the reigns. Not just for the good of SNL, but for the good of Armisen, too. Sure, we have a sitting president who is struggling and is ripe for satire, but Obama is no longer the picture of "cool" that Armisen so relished sending up.
Also: Armisen is not African-American. Pharoah is, and his version offers the chance to take more risks at a crucial time without the customary accusations of caricature -- fair or not fair -- always thrown at Armisen. And consciously or unconsciously, Armisen seems to be really careful about sensitivity. I get that, but that shouldn't be the first concern a comedian has when constructing a parody. The first concern should be, "Is it funny?" And lately, it hasn't been funny. In fact, Obama is a hindrance to the dynamic, energetic comedy Armisen does best. The cold opens this year have been painful. Remember when the highlight of an SNL episode was seeing Ferrell as Bush or Hammond as Clinton? As is, it's not working.
For the record, there is precedent to the presidential role changing hands without a cast member leaving the show. After Farrell left, Chris Parnell lost the role of Bush 43 to Darrell Hammond, who then lost it to Will Forte. Forte then lost the role to Jason Sudeikis who still performs the role of W. today. But in the end, Lorne Michaels has too much respect for Armisen to simply tell him Obama is not his any longer. At least for now, that decision seems up to Armisen. And again, as a fan, all I can do is hope to see him in as many sketches as possible from week to week -- just no longer as Obama. We need some change we can believe in -- Pharoah in 2010.