With the news that Jay Pharoah was taking over the Obama impersonation on SNL, many expressed relief that someone other than Fred Armisen was finally going to fill the President’s shoes. Pharoah made his debut this past weekend, and he’s clearly an upgrade—not simply because he’s black, but because he has a better feel for the Commander in Chief’s intonations and tics than Armisen ever showed. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the writers at SNL will delve into the complexities of Obama’s persona in a more sophisticated—not to mention funnier—way than they have in the past. The bar for such humor has been set by another sketch comedy show, Key & Peele, which has been doing great Obama sketches since it debuted at the beginning of this past year.
For those unsatisfied with SNL’s Obama moments, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele serve as a great, subversive antidote. The two former Mad TV performers, who are both biracial, have done several short sketches featuring a spot-on Obama impression (Peele) and his “anger translator” Luther (Key). Playing off of the President’s avoidance of the Angry Black Man stereotype, Peele’s Obama addresses the audience calmly and coolly in various situations, while Luther releases bombastic rants to explain what the President really means. When Obama diplomatically reaches out to foreign countries urging them to cut off their uranium enrichment programs, for instance, Luther explains angrily: “Mahmoud, Kim-Jong! I think I already done told both y’all: 86 your shit, bitches! Or I’m gonna come over there and do it FOR Y’ALL!”
By poking fun at the President’s need to remain palatable and “safe” to mainstream America in order to steer clear of preconceived notions about how black men are supposed to act, Key and Peele make a far more interesting point than SNL ever has with its rather bland take on Obama’s “cool” personality. No doubt it helps that at Key & Peele two black men are running the show. While there is obviously much more to the President than his race, the subject has given Key and Peele a way into their impression that SNL is still struggling to find.
Pharaoh’s debut was serviceable—and decidedly “cooler” than Armisen’s, though not as convincing as Peele’s. (The emphasis on his “uhhhhs” felt particularly forced.) But Pharoah is a more formidable impressionist than Armisen, and he may continue to make the role his own. To do so, though, he’ll need some help from the SNL writers: If they tackle the inevitable campaign fodder over the next few months more aggressively, I don’t doubt they could find an angle that Pharoah could latch onto and make his own. And if not, Key & Peele will return with Season 2 next week.
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