Over the past few months, it eventually became hard to look at Ben Carson and see Ben Carson—at least, if you’d been watching Saturday Night Live. Instead, you saw only the squinty eyes; the slack, bored-looking mouth; the hands folded against his chest like a genteel T-Rex. In other words, you saw Jay Pharoah’s impression.
Pharoah has always been an incredibly precise mimic. He might as well have bottled Obama’s voice and absorbed it with his vocal cords. His cross-eyed Shaquille O’Neal is exactly the right mix of charismatic and doltish. He nails the staccato HA’s of Jay Z’s laugh. But while Pharoah can sometimes lean too hard on mimicry (his Obama is so technically sound that it can feel overly literal), his Carson is not just hyper-accurate. It’s also animated by very clear ideas about Carson: his lethargic overconfidence, his multifaceted lack of qualifications for the job he’s been campaigning for, the uncanny disconnect between his outrageous ideas and his flat affect. It’s Pharoah’s strongest impression yet—and arguably the best of the 2016 election season. So now that Carson has at last conceded that he can’t see a “path forward” for his campaign, it’s worth remembering that his very bad presidential run at least gave us this one great gift.
Pharoah debuted his impersonation back in November in a sketch about Young Ben Carson—spoofing Carson’s self-reported past as an angry teen who once tried to stab a guy with a camping knife—in which Pharoah wore a mustard-colored ’70s turtleneck and tonelessly declared “I am hot. With. Rage.” The dubious specter of a wrathful Carson has been a through-line of SNL’s election coverage (“I’m amped, I’m jacked, and I’m ready to throw down,” Pharoah said flatly in a GOP debate cold open, making tiny punching gestures with his hands), as have jokes about how he looks like he’s asleep. But one of the most striking things about Pharoah’s impression is the way it has sharpened over the course of Carson’s campaign.
The impersonation started by skewering the low-hanging fruit of Carson’s political inexperience (in one early sketch: “I’m like a koala bear; on the outside, I might seem nice, but on the inside, I’ve never held elected office”), and evolved to accommodate the dawning revelation of just how little he knows about foreign policy (in SNL’s most recent GOP debate spoof: “Our enemies can now send an electromagnetic pulse into our exo-atmosphere scrambling our electrosity. I’m talking dirty bombs, cyber fights, laser people, and robotrons”). As Carson himself slid further into irrelevance, Pharoah’s impression could have petered out—but instead Pharoah exploited that irrelevance, mocking the dull constancy of Carson’s smugness as his campaign fizzled.
SNL has already given us some very memorable impersonations during this election cycle, from the murderous striving of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary to the reckless bluster of Darrell Hammond’s Trump to Beck Bennett’s Eeyorish Jeb. (And obviously Larry David’s classic non-impression of Bernie.) But it’s rare for the breakout impression of an election to be such a marginal, forgettable candidate. Eventually, every time Carson took the stage for a debate or showed up in a Fox News split-screen, the shadow of Jay Pharoah loomed:
Serious question: Can we just replace Ben Carson with Jay Pharoah on stage?— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) February 14, 2016
I can’t hear Ben Carsons voice without making me think of Jay Pharoah’s impersonation on SNL. “Go to my website. It’s Ben Carson dot com.”— Jeff Herr (@TheJeffReport) February 14, 2016
Oh dear God I see nothing but Jay Pharoah when Ben Carson speaks now.— Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) January 29, 2016
It’s a particularly impressive feat because Carson could easily have seemed like a boring target for an impersonation. Yet Pharoah managed to find something specific and alien in Carson’s complacent listlessness. And in the end, that impression was an unlikely blessing for the Carson campaign: the one thing that could make America wish he were still in the race.