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11.21.08

The Comedian-in-Chief

Is SNL's Fred Armisen up to the job? Jocelyn Guest says Lorne Michaels should recast the role. Plus, view clips of four actors who auditioned for the part.

Update: An NBC spokesperson says “Fred Armisen is our Barack Obama,” and that they are standing by him. We have updated the piece to reflect their input.

Barack Obama's transition is well underway, with Rahm Emanuel, Eric Holder, and Tom Daschle all signed onto his staff. But with inauguration day fast approaching, speculation is still swirling about one critical post: Obama's Saturday Night Live doppelganger.

During the primaries, when no one knew whether Obama would have a chance at victory, Lorne Michaels gave the job to Fred Armisen, a 6-year SNL veteran. At the time, Michaels did not know he would someday have to squeeze a term’s-worth of jokes out of the character (And let's face it—Barack's term will be ripe for comedy; the man's mother-in-law, and maybe a hypoallergenic puppy, are moving in!).

The trouble with finding a suitable Obama has been this: it is less about how a comedian portrays our president and more about how he portrays our first black president.

While Armisen handily pulled off the arduous task of poking fun at a man we'd follow off a cliff, many critics agreed that his interpretation left a little something to be desired. Fred neither looks nor sounds quite like Barry.

The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh put it this way: “[Armisen] speeds up at the end of a phrase to make everything he says seem declarative, and the way he frowns as a sign that he’s listening intently—but not much more; his Obama has no backstory.” Because the rest of the political impressions on the show have been so spot on this season—Tina Fey’s Palin, Jason Sudeikis’ crazy-eyed Joe Biden—an imperfect Obama stands out. With four-years of Barack-baiting to go, it might be time for Michaels to let go of Armisen and pick a replacement. So now big question looms: Who, if anyone, shouuld Michaels hire to match the hype surrounding Obama himself?

Insiders say there are four comedians who auditioned for the original spot, and some argue they could be a better option than Amisen. They are:

Jordan Carlos, who currently plays Alan, Stephen Colbert's token "black friend." Carlos has made the circuits on Funny Or Die.com, the online Jeannie Tate Show, and even a Nickleback music video. Carlos has been staying busy perfecting his Obama impression including a sketch called BA-L-ACK Obama.

Donald Glover, an Emmy-winning writer for his work on 30 Rock and a well-known comedian throughout New York for his writing and acting with the sketch/improv group Derrick. He's certainly not biding his time waiting for SNL to come knocking—Glover and his Derrick just wrapped their first feature film, Mystery Team.

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Wyatt Cenac, now a correspondent on The Daily Show. Cenac is a favorite with the Comedy Central crowd and has won attention for his popular Obama sketches online, where Obama toys with potential campaign slogans.

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Jordan Peele, known for both his work on MadTV and David Alan Grier's Chocolate News, he is the rumored favorite to play Obama. He's been a standard on MadTV (which was recently cancelled) since 2003—one of his most famous characters being “Funkenstein.”

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The trouble with finding a suitable Obama can be boiled down to this: Michaels needs to find a comedian that can not only portray our president but also play our first black president. The comic chosen has to manage a delicate balance: finding the funny in Obama’s mannerisms without alienating black viewers who might take offense. Right now, Armisen’s interpretation is acceptably mild, but doesn’t advance the conversation about Obama in the way that Fey’s Sarah Palin may have changed the race. Michaels needs to bring in fresh meat; someone to shake up water cooler talk.

SNL is entering unfamiliar territory, and at time when the cast is glaringly homogenous. Without regular political debates, random McCain appearances, and Amy Poehler to lean on, the show has to up its game, A fresh Obama is the push that SNL needs to remain relevant.

But is Armisen too safe a choice? Jordan Carlos, speaking to The Daily Beast, says that boundary-pushing humor is just what the show needs. He pointed out Obama’s relationship with Oprah as just one example of comedic fodder. “That’s stuff you can take shots at. It’s important, when doing comedy, to have a lover’s quarrel with people in power to show how can he be better.”

Comedians differ on who would make the best Obama. Those backing Glover talk about his uncanny impression that is more commentary than caricature, while Carlos has a knack for Obama’s cadence—what he calls “somewhere between Laurence Olivier and Elvis Presley.”

The next challenge will be to find a Michelle: With the glut of Obama wannabes out there, it’s clear there’s no comedienne on staff to play our new first lady, either. Though Michael’s just hired two cute, funny white ladies from the West coast, there’s a glaring absence of any black women on the show ready to fill Mrs. O’s well-tailored blazer every Saturday night. As he’s hunting for a new Obama, Michaels needs to keep an eye out for a new cast member with toned arms and an affinity for J. Crew.

Jocelyn Guest is a writer and performer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Nerve.com, Time Out New York, and the walls of various bathroom stalls around the city. She writes and performs with the sketch comedy troupe Rhoda.