Fred Armisen hands over the presidential reins to Jay Pharoah on SNL

Lorne Michaels broke the news yesterday that when the new season of Saturday Night Live starts this weekend, it will be Jay Pharoah playing President Obama rather than Fred Armisen, who has played POTUS since 2008. Pharoah, currently a featured player (though that may change), has been honing his Obama impression for a while now, and it's good. Very good. But Michaels had reservations about throwing a brand new cast member into such a prominent role. Those reservations are gone, and now, we will get to watch Jay Pharoah's amazing Obama impression on actual television and not just YouTube.

(Actually, he'd done it on television, when he appeared on Letterman in December 2010. But you know what I mean.)

As much of a fan as I am of Fred Armisen (meaning, if he is on the screen, I cannot stop watching him because I know he will deliver something wonderful and weird to me), I was never a fan of his Obama impression. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't... his best work. (Like when Darrell Hammond, who is The Master as far as presidential impersonations are concerned, did George W. Bush. It was just weird.) The racial aspect (Obama being half black, half white, Armisen being partly white and then a bit of everything except black) didn't bother me completely, but it was a bit off-putting, especially when we had an actual black impressionist in the cast. And not only is Jay Pharoah talented, but he has an Obama! A good Obama! And a lot of people questioned why Michaels kept Armisen playing Obama once Pharoah was added to the cast in 2010. His reason was that Pharoah was still really new, and throwing him into the overwhelming role of playing the president might have been too much. (Consider the impact playing a president or a candidate had for Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Phil Hartman, and, of course, Darrell Hammond.) It's understandable, but when you have someone who actually sounds like Barack Obama when he talks, then you let that guy play Barack Obama! (And maybe a few other people this season!)

And now, he will! Armisen isn't going anywhere, he's just not going to play Obama anymore. This change might raise the question of whether or not he'll be here after this season; this will be his tenth year on the show, plus he's doing very well with his IFC sketch show, Portlandia. (Which, if you don't really dig Fred Armisen on SNL, then you should see him when he's doing his own show. It's pretty spectacular.) If Obama is re-elected, maybe Armisen felt like he didn't have another four years in him. (To compare, fellow presidential impersonator Hammond spent a record 14 years on the show, Tim Meadows is the runner-up with 11.) Which is interesting, considering how Jason Sudeikis agreed to just a few more months on the show to play candidate Mitt Romney before officially leaving the cast. (It now looks like he'll be on the show "at least until January," according to Michaels, rather than December.) I won't say Saturday Night Live is trying to predict the outcome of the election, as curious as this timing/casting is. I'm just saying it's curious.

What's also fun and worth mentioning about that NYT article is that Michaels acknowledges that they haven't quite found Obama's "hook" as a comedic character. And this makes him the first "Canadian president." Explained the Canadian: “[Obama] wants to think it through, do it in the fairest way possible and be thoughtful. And be a little distant, which I totally identify with, obviously.”

Open season on politicians on 'SNL' [The New York Times]



  1. Great news! Armisen’s Obama sucked! Everyone knew it!  But honestly, 4+ paragraphs devoted to that idea?

    1. Considering the state of the Romney campaign, I think it’s more likely he drops out of the race early than gets elected.

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