When one cast member inherits a political impression from another cast member on Saturday Night Live, it’s usually because the first comedian has left the show. Will Ferrell exited SNL long before George W. Bush’s presidency ended, leaving the role to Chris Parnell and Will Forte. Hillary Clinton impersonator Ana Gasteyer left in 2002, allowing Amy Poehler to put her own spin on the character. And in the ’80s, SNL’s instability meant everyone from Harry Shearer to Charles Rocket to Joe Piscopo got a chance to do a Reagan impression – even if none of them reached iconic status.
So it’s a little unusual that Jay Pharaoh will reportedly start playing Barack Obama on the show this fall – even though SNL’s old Obama, Fred Armisen, is still a member of the cast. For many viewers, this transition is long overdue; it seemed ludicrous to keep Pharaoh, a skilled mimic, sidelined while the half-Venezuelan Armisen continued to play the African-American president. (Sure, Obama’s biracial as well – but he strongly identifies as an African-American, and Venezuela isn’t exactly Kenya.) Even so, Armisen’s Obama does have his fans – and since he’s been playing the part since 2007, Armisen is also the only Obama SNL viewers have ever known.
But Pharaoh can take heart by looking back to the early ’90s, where there’s some precedent for the Obama Affair.
From 1992 to 1994, Phil Hartman delighted SNL audiences with his pointed take on Bill Clinton – a jovial, charismatic guy who couldn’t control his impulses for sex or french fries. While Hartman wore many hats on the show, Clinton may have been his best-known impression; the president himself was a good sport about it, reportedly sending Hartman a signed photo that said, “You’re not the president, but you play one on TV. And you’re OK, mostly.”
But after Hartman left the show, Darrell Hammond took over the Clinton impression – and his version, while not as winky as Hartman’s, won praise for being a lot more technically accurate. Like Pharaoh, Hartman is primarily an impressionist who rarely introduced original characters; like Pharaoh, he also bears a closer physical resemblance to the president than his predecessor.
Hammond ended up peddling impressions on SNL for 14 years – longer than any other cast member. His masterful take on Clinton was the key to his longevity. Who knows if Pharaoh has any desire to stick around for that long – but either way, he seems the cast member most likely to inherit Hammond’s throne, even if the two of them impersonate very different types of celebrities. Just look at how much more precise his Obama voice is than Armisen’s:
Are you excited to see Pharaoh’s take on the president? And do you think he’s in line to be SNL’s next great impressionist?