SNL's Fred Armisen on Passing the Barack Obama Impression to Jay Pharoah: 'I Just Answer to Lorne'
It has been one of the most discussed parts of Saturday Night Live since comedian Jay Pharoah was added as a featured player last September: Would the young impressionist -- who does a pretty mean Barack Obama -- replace incumbent Fred Armisen as the fake Commander-in-Chief. To the consternation of some, he hasn't thus far, but that's not because of Armisen. Movieline caught up with the comedian -- who is now in his ninth season on the legendary sketch show -- to discuss his Obama impression, his seniority at studio 8H, and how he keeps his relationship with Saturday Night Live fresh after all of these years.
[Editor's Note: Look out in a few weeks for part two of Fred Armisen's conversation with Movieline, in which he talks about Portlandia, recalls his favorite parts of the '90s and discusses his hopes for his post-SNL career.]
Lorne Michaels recently described you to the New York Times as being more of an artist than a careerist. Is that how you consider yourself?
Yeah that's a nice thing to say. Very, very nice. I don't think so much in long terms really. I think in terms of individual projects.
Which is amazing because you're on your ninth season of Saturday Night Live, which is one of the longest careers in Studio 8H history
That is probably the best way it could have worked for me because Saturday Night Live is such an immediate show. All of the ideas and sketches are current so I think that that is just kind of the way it works there. You have to just be concentrating on the short term.
When you are with a job that long, I imagine that it takes the shape of a marriage. How do you keep your relationship with Saturday Night Live fresh after all of these years?
It changes so much with the revolving door of hosts and musical guests and writers that it's always brand new. And even during the actual show, there are different costumes, wigs and you're always playing a different character.
Do you still get nervous before doing each show or meeting certain hosts?
No! It's always the same for me. I always get excited before each show. You hear the music and you think, "This is the coolest thing in the world."
How do you exercise your seniority on set?
This show never indulges anything or anyone. There is never a moment where you have an upper hand in anything and it's really great that way. It's so democratic here. All of the cast members' offices are mixed in with the writers' offices; nobody is treated special. The only thing that matters is, during the table read, is what's funny. That's the only criteria for getting a sketch on. I don't have any extra pull because I've been here longer. As long as the sketch is funny, that's what gets on.
Do you have a sense of what will play well during the table read at this point?
No, you never know! Sometimes you just crash in flames. Sometimes it goes great. Both reactions are part of the experience. They're both like miracles.
Can you recall one sketch you pitched that crashed spectacularly?
One? I can name fifty. There are a million, but it's not a bad thing. It happens to all of us. You read a sketch and it just doesn't work but there is something still miraculous about it because you learn from each one of those. You go, "Oh, that's right."
When are we going to see Nicholas Fehn and Frondi again?
You're so nice to even bring them up. I'll definitely do Nicholas again. Frondi (the mentally challenged character who panned Ben Affleck's film Gigli to his face) is a little harder. That came from a perfect storm of events and host. That was coming off of Gigli, but who knows?
Are there certain impressions that are more fun to do?
No, they're all fun for me.
Because it doesn't seem like Barack Obama would be that fun of an impression to do.
To be perfectly honest, it's all a dream. I used to just tour around and play drums and it was really hard. To do this, it is like every moment I am thinking "I can't believe I am doing this. I can't believe I'm in this studio working with these brilliant people. There are just geniuses around me all of the time."
There's been some internet speculation that Jay Pharoah might inherit the Barack impression from you. And I believe a few years back, Lorne Michaels told Will Forte point-blank that Jason Sudeikis would be taking over George W. Bush. What would your reaction be if Lorne told you tomorrow that Jay would be taking over Barack?
I just answer to Lorne. I serve him. I am a soldier for Saturday Night Live so whatever he wants is fine with me. The way I started doing Obama was that Lorne called me into his office and said, "Why don't you give Obama a try?" So however the show goes, whatever Lorne wants, all I can do is give my best.
Do you have any new impressions you've been working on that we might see soon?
Yeah, I watch a lot of TV and by default, just start doing impressions of people.
Anyone you're really working on?
Uh, I'm trying to do Bill Maher and figuring out a way to put him into a sketch. That's who I've been working on a little bit so you might see him.