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.


  • I absolutely agree. Armisen's Obama is not effective parody because he plays the straight man in every scene.

  • OldTowneTavern says:

    There's not so small issue that all Black men do not look alike. Armisen resembles Obama much more than Pharoah does. Visual similarity helps a lot, which is why Fey was brought back to play Palin instead of handing the job over to just any woman on the SNL cast.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    Yeah, but you're comparing Armisen after he's had the Obama makeup put on. I would bet that Pharoah would look a lot more like Obama, too, after the SNL makeup transformation.

  • Rosie says:

    I couldn't agree more. Armisen does an amazing job but Pharaoh is way better. I hope Lorny reads this and makes some changes down at studio 8H.

  • OldTowneTavern says:

    No amount of makeup made Maya Rudolph look like Michelle Obama.

  • James says:

    I think that Armisen's portrayal is better than Pharoah's. And, racially, Obama has as much in common with Armisen as he does with Pharaoh. He is half-White and half-Black. He could be played by either. Armisen's not the best there could be, but this is not Pharoah's strong suit. Like his Denzel much better!

  • Mike says:

    Jay has the voice a bit better than Fred, but the impression he did on Letterman was only okay I thought. I agree with the guy who said Fred looks a lot more like Obama, his eyebrows and mouth especially. Pharaoh really looks nothing like Obama, perhaps if the make-up dept does a decent enough job. Either way, I'm sure Jay will take over the impression eventually, probably not this season though. Maybe next season when Fred will likely leave the show anyway.

  • Scraps says:

    If it is quality material, it could be Jay Mohr playing Obama for all I care. Do you really think the cold open from a few weeks back with Obama showing up at a Harry Reid campaign rally would have been any better with Pharaoh as Obama? The best Obama on SNL is The Rock!

  • Nerd says:

    You say Fred needs to 'hand over the reigns' but I think it is rather foolish to assume that he has final, if any, say in the matter. Im sure it is Lorney Mikes who is making the call to keep Fred in there.
    Lets not forget that Pharaoh is less than half way through his first season (as a feature, not full cast) on the show. The guy has only been in a handful of sketches. It seems highly unlikely that a featured cast member would be allowed to play the president of the united states. I bet next season Pharaoh will be bumped up to full time cast member (he certainly deserves it after standing out in nearly every sketch he has been in), Fred Armisen will leave the show all together (its definitely his time), and then Jay will get the part of Obama. Even if Armisen stays, Im sure Pharaoh will get the part though. There is just no way in hell he will get it until he's a full cast member.

  • mistersnark says:

    As we all know, Mr. Michaels will be stampeded into choosing a guest host (Betty White) but reserves the characters to himself. Jay Pharoh's impersonation of Obama is only as good as what he does comedically (this isn't some Rich Little Cavalcade of Stars). That was the brilliance of Will Farrell as Bush -- stratgery comes to mind. Pharoh needs to take Obama to another level of funny -- and be irreverant about it -- or it's better left with Armisen until he leaves SNL.

  • Jim says:

    Saying Jay should play Obama just because Jay is black and Fred is white is LUDICROUS. Obama is HALF WHITE. You could just as easily say that Jay should NOT get the role because he is 100% black while Fred is at least half of Obama's skin color.

  • Black-Black-Blackity Black says:

    Mike, enough with the child-like PC bullshit.
    Oh! Oh! Jay Pharoah is black! Obama is black! Jay Pharoah needs to play Obama! Armisen needs to "hand over the reigns..."
    SNL is a mess, the writing is lousy, Armisen's Obama is one of the few characters that work.

  • Greg says:

    I think Pharoah could do an Obama better, because Fred Armisen overdoes it sometimes and takes too many pauses and ends up sounding like C3PO. Just my opinion, im not trying to be offensive. I think Armisen is a Hilarious cast member of SNL but hes not as funny anymore. His '' Hey I am your Mother!" was the funniest freaking thing ive ever seen. But the Obama skits are okay and not as funny aanymore.

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