NBC’s legendary sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live has recently announced a history-making change to their lineup, deciding to have the nation’s first black president played by (gasp) an actual black man. The 37-year-old show is replacing Fred Armisen as their resident Obama impersonator with young cast member Jay Pharoah.
Well it’s about damn time.
SNL producers caught a lot of flack for casting Armisen as Obama back in 2007, predominantly because, not only is the comic actor not black (he’s Venezuelan, Japanese, and German, in case you’re wondering), it highlighted the massive lack of diversity within the show’s cast – the only black man on the show at the time was Kenan Thompson, who apparently didn’t have an Obama impersonation up his sleeve.
To be fair, Armisen and the SNL makeup artists do a fair job in making the actor look like Obama, but his impression left much to be desired, hampered by the fact that the writers seem to have a hard time crafting memorable of funny material (with a few notable exceptions) for him to perform.
Jay Pharoah’s appointment to SNL POTUS position marks not only a turn-around for political sketch comedy on SNL, but it could prove to be Pharoah’s breakout year on the show.
“Jay has been doing Obama in his act this summer, and Jay is coming into his own,” legendary SNL producer Lorne Michael said in a recent interview. “I just thought it might be time to shake it up.”
The young comic joined the cast in 2010, in large part for his spot-on impersonation skills. Since joining the show he’s reprised his impressions of Will Smith and Denzel Washington in random sketches, but Obama will be Pharoah’s first shot at having a strong leading recurring role – no doubt with election season coming, and SNL’s Thursday night politics special, the actor will find himself becoming much more popular in the coming months.
That said, when it comes to parodying Obama for comedy, it’s not only how you say it, it’s what you say. Up until this point SNL writers have struggled to find a sticking point to make an Obama impersonation not only accurate but extremely funny, something it appears comics nationwide have struggled with.
A few have had some success — Comedy Central’s Key and Peele has taken a hearty stab at it with their “Obama Anger Translator” sketch, and popular YouTube character Alphacat has also developed a strong online following with his Obama parodies as well.
Jay Pharoah as Obama is a promising start to improved political sketches, but the fact remains that you have to write funny jokes and scenarios to really make the impersonation really shine. Perhaps Obama isn’t as ripe for skewering as Sarah Palin or Bill Clinton, but surely there’s something more ripe for laughs than the way he talks.
If Pharoah really wants to use this Obama gig to raise his professional profile, he needs to get the entire SNL cast and crew on board with some seriously funny fodder for the president.
Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse