This weekend, Saturday Night Live premiered Jay Pharaoh as President Barack Obama, a long-anticipated switch that will mercifully allow Fred Armison to retire his blackface makeup. The impersonation was competent, probably more technically accurate than Armison’s, but it failed to inspire any real laughs on its own, or highlight a quirky character trait that we’d all noticed before but couldn’t quite express. The paragon of that style is, of course, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, which set the gold standard for comedic political impressions. But before Fey burst onto the scene, Will Ferrell captured the bumbling bluster of George W. Bush to the delight of comedy fans (and liberals); Phil Hartman nailed Clinton’s goofy, slimy charisma; Norm MacDonald perfected Bob Dole’s droning aloofness; and Jason Sudeikis--now on double duty as Mitt Romney and Joe Biden--has mastered the art of emphasizing clueless creepiness and lovably buffoonery, respectively.
Politicians are often stranger than we would expect them to be as public figures, and the weirder ones heighten this cognitive dissonance by attempting to sublimate their weirdness into bland likeability. That’s what makes them so fun to parody: when Amy Poehler played Hillary Clinton, she slowly dropped the calm, stony facade to reveal the fierce ambition lying underneath. When Ferrell played Bush, we watched the impersonated president struggle as his party line sound bites clashed with his own uniquely folksy syntax. Those skits were huge hits; many are still beloved today.
But Facebook doesn’t explode every time an SNL sketch features Barack Obama; in fact, the show seems to avoid placing him alone in a skit, instead setting him in the context of debates or alongside his Vice President. This practice likely won’t change with the introduction of Pharaoh as Obama; indeed, in his inaugural sketch, Pharaoh shared screen time faux-Romney and faux-Ryan, the camera constantly cutting away to those other, better impersonations.
It’s not Pharaoh’s fault that his impression is unmemorable, nor is it SNL’s for giving him weak jokes. The fault lies exclusively with Barack Obama. As a president, Obama has shown remarkably few character flaws. A recent New York Times article highlighted his competitiveness and cockiness, but those are widely considered assets in the United States, more charmingly human than grating. Obama’s intellectualism is occasionally mocked as well--Maureen Dowd is fixated on his cerebral coolness, while other commentators question whether he lacks true passion. And, of course, the disappointed left-wing take is that Obama is irresolute, too intent on being liked to be politically effective.
None of these complex qualities makes for easy mockery. Both Pharaoh and Armison lean heavily on Obama’s professorial side, Armison focusing on the intellect stifled by hesitation, Pharaoh zooming in on the tentative stutter that sometimes undermines eloquence. Actually, so far that’s all Pharaoh’s done; although he nails the voice and gets high marks on gesticulation, Pharaoh’s constant, stammering pauses do not count as a joke. If you google “Obama stutter,” you’ll get a lot of hypotheses about a speech impediment (some of them race-based). It’s something people have noticed, sure, but it’s not something everybody dwells on. Sarah Palin’s winks, George W. Bush’s malapropisms, Biden’s unbridled silliness: these tics seem to capture the essence of the figure, and, when magnified by a skilled actor, feel slyly, observantly brilliant. But all Obama does is take too long to choose his words sometimes, apparently because he’s more focused on choosing the right word than most U.S. political figures. That’s not a character flaw. That’s a breath of fresh air.
Undoubtedly the writers at SNL will find better lines for Pharaoh, and perhaps he can yet be coached toward a more nuanced impersonation. The exaggerated “ums” and “uhs” are already stale, but Pharaoh did capture a speck of that overconfidence so many of Obama’s aids have dished about. Still, he’ll never be the instant classic that Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin was. Obama projects a powerful presidential aura, authentic without being faux-folksy (Bush) or smarmy (Clinton). If he’s hiding any heretofore unnoticed character flaws, he does so effectively. Obama looks like a president, talks like a president, and acts like a president. And unfortunately for SNL, those are hard traits to ridicule.