Michaels also left himself open to criticism with the casting of Barack Obama, who, during the strike, had emerged as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Last year, Michaels had toyed with the idea of asking Maya Rudolph who has since left the show to play Obama. More recently, several non-cast members auditioned for the role, as did Kenan Thompson, currently the SNL cast's sole African-American. But with less than a week to go before the Feb. 23 return, Michaels still didn't have his Obama. Then SNL producer Marci Klein suggested Fred Armisen, a six-season veteran known for his ability to morph into anyone from Prince to Steve Jobs. ''It just clicked,'' says Michaels. ''Fred is so benign, both as a performer and as a person. It wouldn't have any strong agenda.'' Michaels says he did hesitate before casting a non-African-American to play the man who could be the country's first black president: ''Then I thought, no one really complained when he did Prince.'' Says Armisen, who is part German, Japanese, and Venezuelan: ''I tried not to think about [the race issue]. I didn't think about it when I played Prince. I just wanted to look like Prince.''
But this time, people did complain. The Chicago Tribune's TV columnist Maureen Ryan described the choice of Armisen as ''inexplicable,'' while a black writer for the London Guardian argued, ''The moment anyone starts reaching for 'blackface' they are on extremely dodgy territory.'' Michaels is visibly irritated by the charge. ''The Guardian!'' he scoffs with an angry laugh. ''Now, where the f--- does the Guardian come to review Saturday Night Live? I have nothing but the greatest respect for Obama.'' Thompson says that Armisen playing Obama ''doesn't bother me. As long as it's funny. As far as, like, 'blackface' and all that is concerned? I don't go down those roads anymore because they only lead to negativity.'' That said, he hasn't given up hope of playing the man himself: ''I think I still have a chance maybe further down the line to play Obama. I'm definitely next in line. I'm the vice president of the Obama role.''
At 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 8, 90-year-old SNL announcer Don Pardo introduces cast member Jason Sudeikis to the dress-rehearsal audience. Sudeikis is here to warm up the crowd and immediately starts faux-ragging on the nonagenarian: ''Look at that guy! He has no idea who the hell he is!'' The audience lap it up, as they do Sudeikis' muscular version of the Doobie Brothers' hit ''Takin' It to the Streets,'' on which he is accompanied by a guitar-strumming Armisen.
It might seem strange that so much attention is lavished on the audience for a show that isn't even being broadcast. But the rehearsal crowd plays a crucial part in Michaels' time-tested production machine. The producer uses their reactions to help tweak the sketches; writers know that if Michaels doesn't give them any notes, there's a fair chance that he has already consigned their bit to the waste disposal unit of sketch comedy history. Off camera, things happen fast, which may be why cast members are never more than a few feet from a caffeine dispenser. (''Coffee is definitely the 2008 SNL's cocaine,'' explains cast member Kristen Wiig.) Once the monologue is over, Wiig who performed a song with Amy Adams is yanked off the stage by one of the crew. She then half-runs and is half-dragged to hair and makeup as if it would be simply impossible for a person just using her own legs to get there in time. Each member of the cast has his or her own tiny changing cubicle, but according to Poehler, ''We've all seen each other's kibbles and bits.''
NEXT PAGE: ''I really can't thank [scandal-plagued N.Y. Gov. Eliot] Spitzer enough. It is our fourth show in a row we have hit the wall. And then this comes along. I'm sure we'll do something about it, [but] I don't think he will be on.''