Based on this weekend's season premiere of "Saturday Night Live," Jay Pharaoh as Obama is perhaps the most accurate presidential impersonation ever seen on the show. The voice, the punctuating gestures, the sentences unfurling in fits and starts as if a machine were processing each clause before producing it—the effect could hardly be more uncannily Obama. And that is the problem with Pharoah’s impersonation so far: it is just too literal. It is a feat of mimicry, technical where it should be more whimsical, totally absent of any argument about what makes Obama tick.
In presidential impersonations—where the figure is so exhaustively familiar, and the public so saturated with images and footage of the real thing—accuracy doesn't matter that much at all. In fact, the best presidential impersonations have been animated by a specific kind of surrealness rather than obsessive faithfulness to the original. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford and Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush are prime examples of this. Chase’s Ford made the president into a boyish klutz, tripping over his desk and confusing a glass of water with a telephone; Carvey’s Bush Sr. became increasingly goofy and exuberant over time. Neither was particularly realistic, but they both conjured precise ideas about who the president actually was.
Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush was its own loopy character, not quite Bush but not quite not, a slaphappy frat boy who had no idea what he was doing and no apparent interest in learning. Ferrell handed W. off to Chris Parnell and Will Forte when he left the show, each of whom gave the president his own particular spin: Parnell his typical doofy smarminess, Forte a kind of nervous energy. Phil Hartman played Bill Clinton as an amiable womanizer who ambled into fast food joints, flanked by secret service, to chat up customers and steal a few french fries. Creative license is key to the project of impersonating political figures. (Except Sarah Palin, who gave Tina Fey everything she needed, no embroidery necessary.) Playing run-of-the-mill celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Michael Jackson or Miley Cyrus is more a matter of nailing vocal patterns and mannerisms. But a presidential impression needs an angle, an underlying worldview.
Jason Sudeikis’s Romney is the polar opposite of Pharoah’s Obama. Nothing about Sudeikis’s impersonation seems studied or attentive to Romney’s vocal and physical tics—he looks and sounds like Jason Sudeikis. But it is funny nonetheless because it is a statement about Romney’s wooden attempts at pandering. Here is Sudeikis’s Romney speaking to the Pittsburgh Trade Association: “I’ve always been an enormous fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. What a team! What a football team. With those uniforms they have with different colors, and the great coach, and the various players.” The same goes for Sudeikis’s Biden, which captures the general sense of a well-meaning loose cannon who seems like he would be more at home on a barstool than on the podium. Of course, it could be said that Obama offers less grist for the satirical mill. Fred Armisen has been impersonating Obama on SNL for the past two years, and his impression never really gained traction because it was neither particularly faithful nor particularly interesting to watch. Which begs the question: Is this president singularly resistant to caricature?
Proof that he is not: Key & Peele, a sketch comedy duo with a show on Comedy Central. One of the best recurring Key & Peele sketches features Obama and his “anger translator,” who hilariously translates Obama’s affectless politic-speak into apoplectic rants. And Jay Pharoah has done some incredible Obama impersonations outside of SNL—in particular, one in which he slips into the persona of a college-age Obama seducing a woman by saying, with presidential seriousness, “I’ve been noticing you, noticing me, and I have to say that I really do like it.” And even Armisen had one particular segment that worked quite well as political satire: a weird bit in which Armisen’s Obama, jacket slung rakishly over his shoulder, stands against a smoky blue background in a sequence set to jazz beats, slow-jamming his various qualifications (“I take my kids to cool, I don’t lose my temper, It’s my only rule, I keep it cool”). It doesn’t exactly make sense, as it doesn’t look much like a campaign ad. But this—along with Pharoah’s interpretation of college Obama—gives the president’s habit of “keeping it cool” a kind of absurdity, evoking a man for whom coolness is not just a way of speaking but a theory of being.
So going forward, Pharoah could probably loosen up his interpretation of Obama just a bit. He could forget about the precise way Obama enunciates his vowels. He should make the president a little bit less like the president, which might make his impersonation more fun to watch.