Live from New York, it’s Barack Obama


Saturday Night Live came back this weekend with its first show since the writers’ strike, a strong effort since the writers hadn’t had much choice but to bank their A material. You wouldn’t have guessed it was going to be a good show from the cold open, though, which was the same old political sketch they always seem to put in that slot.

What it was notable for was being the first portrayal of Barack Obama on the show. (Of course, Obama himself cameoed earlier this season.) There was a little speculation about who would play him; word had it that no one in the current cast was deemed satisfactory, and that 30 Rock writer Donald Glover would be joining specifically to handle the part. (In a perfect world, my pick would have been Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s multiracial, he’s got SNL experience, and he’s got exactly the same voice. But then, in a perfect world, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would be too busy dropping elbows on anyone I told him to.)

In the end, Fred Armisen played the part, which drew a little criticism from certain quarters, the argument being that only a black man should play Obama. But Obama is biracial. It’s no more inappropriate for a white guy to play him than it would be for a black guy. As it happens, Armisen is biracial himself. It’s just that he’s half-Hispanic, half-Asian. If they really need a half-black-half-white cast member, they’d better bring Maya Rudolph back. Of course, she’s a girl. And if they really need a black man to play him, they could use Kenan Thompson. Of course, he is about a hundred pounds too heavy, looks nothing like him, and sucks.

The problem with Armisen as Obama isn’t race. It’s just that he wasn’t that good in the part. But that’s not even his fault. Armisen’s a decent impressionist. It’s just hard to nail an impression the first time out, and Obama is kind of impression-proof. In a lot of ways, he seems to be a bit of a blank slate upon whom people can project whatever they want. Todd Jackson at Dead Frog has an insightful post that you should read that argues that, as a relatively unknown quantity, Obama has been helped by the writers’ strike. Comedy writers already had Hillary Clinton pegged as a bitch, and once you have the comedic shorthand figured out, you can put the joke-writing process on autopilot. But no one had been able to take the time and effort to figure out a spin on Obama, so right now, it’s hard to make fun of him.

I think there’s something to this, and the role of late-night comedians’ influence on the electoral process is clarified in the long and interesting New York Times article from 2000 that Jackson links to. It’s really insightful in a lot of ways, though it’s laughable to read that the consensus was that painting Gore as a fraud wouldn’t work against him effectively. In fact, it worked too well, and the stereotype of Gore as a wild exaggerator who claimed to have invented the internet is what lost him that election. Considering that the late-night comedy circuit was part of the media echo chamber reinforcing that perception of Gore, it’s easy to believe that the hands-off treatment Obama’s gotten so far could have an important role in the 2008 race.

It seems obvious that to the extent that the late-night comics play any role in the democratic process, it’s a useful one. Surely shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do a public service by acting as gadflies and exposing hypocrisy. But it’s a little unsettling to contemplate that by playing favorites and going for the easy joke too often, comedy writers might do harm just as easily as they do good.

4 Responses to “Live from New York, it’s Barack Obama”

  1. 1 hilly

    I agree with a lot of your post, but I find it hard to come to the same definitive conclusion that the Internet gaffe was the deciding factor for Gore losing the election. That’s certainly not how I recollect it, and it would make the post into a essay to really run through my list of rebuttals. I’m not even certain it was a serious consideration for people who actually bothered to vote. The 18-29 demographic on the first page of the NYT article isn’t exactly politically pandered to, with probably good reason. They just don’t freaking vote most of the time.

    Also, I guess “harm’ and “good” in this sense depends on who you root for.

  2. 2 Peter Lynn

    Agreed on that last point, mostly. I’d say doing good is exposing whatever makes a candidate unfit to serve, no matter who that candidate is, but doing do through a rel journalistic process and not simply echoing the negative campaigning of an opponent. And I’d say it’s doing harm to give an undeserved boost to any candidate or to unjustly tear down a deserving one.

    The latter is what happened with Gore. It wasn’t just the internet gaffe. It was a series of similar unjustified digs at his credibility, and the media turned into an echo chamber and magnified that perception of him. On the other hand, Bush got a free pass even though there was much more real dirt about him than there was about Gore. (Bush was a drunk driver, for God’s sake.) The media handed Bush the election with its shameful treatment of Gore.

  3. 3 Eric

    Drunk driving is small potatoes for Bush. I think I remember hearing on a documentary that when he was younger, Bush ran an oil company into the ground too. Which, if I understand the oil industry properly, is about as hard to do as bludgeoning somebody to death with a Nerf ball. Goddamned media.

  4. 4 Eric

    Also, can you smeeeeelllll what Barack is cooking?

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