Monday, September 17, 2012

‘Saturday Night Live’ tweaks the conversation

RIGHT OR WRONG, better or worse, the last few weeks of the nation’s political conversation have been crowded with polls, many of them slowly beginning to statistically concretize the idea that the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney is likely to be a doomed forgone conclusion. The New York Times (via Nate Silver’s projections), Gallup, Rasmussen, ABC/Washington Post, Marist, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Fox freakin’ News — all have the various hard numbers to suggest we may be closer to the end of this than we think.

But of all the forecasts of the high probability of an Obama victory in November, the one that may have the most impact on people where they live in America was broadcast on Saturday night from Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Barack Obama got a renewal on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” and everything old is new again.

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It was announced on Sept. 12 that Jared (“Jay Pharoah”) Farrow, toiling in the vineyard of the SNL featured-players team for two years, had gotten the nod from SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels to take over impersonation duties as the 44th president, replacing Fred Armisen, the Japanese-German-Venezuelan actor who’s been the SNL Obama since shortly before the real one took office.

Jason Sudeikis, who’s been portraying Mitt Romney on the show, will return, accoirding to Michaels, who spoke to The New York Times. However, and provocatively, Michaels suggests that Sudeikis’ time with the show may be brief.

“Right now the idea is that Jason will go through at least until January,” he said, announcing a timeline that generally dovetails with that of the next inaugural.

Pharoah, an adept at impersonation (his Denzel Washington and Will Smith are witheringly dead-on), opened the 38th season of the award-winning NBC repertory series Saturday, and in four minutes claimed the presidential pretend as his own.

But this is more than a random cast change. Pharoah’s ascension to being the show’s permanent Obama is both a vote of confidence in his abilities, as if one were needed, and SNL’s vote of confidence in the gathering national meme that Romney will be defeated in less than two months. The subtext of the decision — new term, new Obama — couldn’t be more obvious.

And while anything can happen between now and the election, the show that’s long been a part of the pop-cultural discourse (and by extension the national discourse) for almost two generations advances an idea that’s immune to Romney campaign talking points and spin.

Over the next two months, you’re more likely to remember something from one of Pharoah/Obama’s skits on SNL than you are to recall Romney’s fulminations on the campaign trail. And for Team Romney, that’s a problem.

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PHAROAH’S new gig is something of a cultural milestone for another reason. For the first time on SNL, an African American cast member will portray the first African American president. That fact alone awakens the controversy that NBC and the show’s producers had to contend with when Armisen was named the presidential impersonator, in 2008.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, told me in 2009 that “SNL has a tradition of underusing their African-American characters. Garrett Morris [the show's charter black cast member, from 1975 to 1980] was a good example of that, and even Chris Rock complained about it.”

Not that there weren’t black players to choose from. Starting with the show's debut in October 1975, SNL effected a policy that became something of a revolving door for male African American players. Look at who’s come and gone: Eddie Murphy (1980-1984). Damon Wayans (1985-1986). Rock (1990-1993). Tim Meadows (1991-2000). Tracy Morgan (1996-2003). Finesse Mitchell (2003-2006). Kenan Thompson, who joined in 2003, is still hangin’ in, and on pace to eclipse Meadows as the show’s longest-distance black cast member.

In March 2009, Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, a pop-culture scholar and a doctoral candidate in American culture studies at Bowling Green State University, wrote of his problems with the show. “Given SNL's centrality in political discourse and in popular culture, its failure to embrace more racial and gender diversity perhaps does not threaten the show's relevance, but it undoubtedly undermines it.”

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Pharoah’s securing the plum presidential role undercuts that problem for SNL. The SNL commitment to a new Obama comes months after NBC made an earlier commitment to prime-time comedy based, however loosely, on the presumptive assumption of an Obama second term.

In March — in the heat of the primary season — the network ordered 104 episodes of “The First Family,” a sitcom about a black First Family in the White House, The Root and The Times-Leader reported. The series, produced by Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, will star Christopher B. Duncan (“The Jamie Foxx Show”), Kellita Smith (“The Bernie Mac Show”) and comedy legend John Witherspoon. It’s set to roll sometime this fall.

But that’s on the come. What we’ve got for sure right now is another challenge — at least an optical one, maybe a perceptual one, too — for Team Romney: one of pop culture’s enduring barometers of the public zeitgeist, investing heavily in the idea of Obama II.

Image credits: Jay Pharoah as Obama: NBC/Saturday Night Live © 2012 Broadway Video. Promo image from “The First Family”: NBC/© 2012 Entertainment Studios.


  1. Jay Pharoah was perfect as the president. Fred Armisen was good, but his act was a bit aged. Seth MacFarlane did a great job opening up the season! I’m definitely looking forward to new shows in the future. I’ve set my Hopper to record the entire season to my two terabyte hard-drive since I work late at Dish and can’t see them live. It’s nice to know I won’t run out of space! I also can’t wait to see the new people even more!

    1. Hey --

      Thanks for commenting. Yeah the Saturday Night Live crew was starting to get a little stale (I think that's why Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg bolted when they did, although movie deals didn't hurt, either!). Jay's gonna get better as Obama, just like Armisen did. Looks now like Jay's gonna have four years to get it down!!


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