Spin Cycle

10.08.12

A Devastating Presidential Parody

Why the Saturday Night Live sendup matters

For all the perpetual punditry that continues to cast Barack Obama as the biggest debate loser in recorded history, Saturday Night Live may have landed the most devastating blow.

In a debate skit depicting the president as detached and daydreaming, the late-night show did more than make Obama look like a buffoon (which is, after all, its stock in trade). The bit cemented an image of Obama as totally checked out, hardly the kind of guy burning with desire for a second term.

Darrell Hammond, who famously played Bill Clinton and Al Gore on SNL, told me a couple of weeks ago that Obama was almost impossible to successfully parody because “he’s an elegant man with perfect speech.” Well, he’s a lot easier to lampoon now, and not just because Jay Pharoah does a better impersonation than Fred Armisen. The remoteness, the coolness, the lecturing style is now a liability.

If you missed it, Obama is shown daydreaming about what anniversary gift to get Michelle when the faux Jim Lehrer interrupts: “Mr. President, Governor Romney has just said that he killed Osama Bin Laden. Would you care to respond?” Obama, looking startled, replies: “No, you two go ahead.”

Video screenshot

Watch a clip of SNL's entertaining presidential debate.

True, Jason Sudeikis portrays Romney as a droning, ’50s square who will say anything to get elected. But Romney, who’s always been seen as awkward, is riding high at the moment because he won the debate. It’s Obama who was supposed to be the great communicator.

In case you think this doesn’t matter, remember how Tina Fey’s routine came to define Sarah Palin in the public mind. Or the way that Hammond’s condescending Gore, sounding as though he was speaking to a slow-witted fifth grader, so rattled the vice president’s camp after Gore’s eye-rolling performance in the first debate against George W. Bush. Dana Carvey made "wouldn't be prudent" the most famous catchphrase of Bush's dad.

Comedy matters. That’s why Obama spends time on Letterman, Leno and The Daily Show, and why Romney is starting to work that circuit as well. It may no longer be possible to be elected president of the United States without displaying, or at least faking, a sense of humor.

It’s one thing to lose a debate, another to have your own allies saying it looked like you didn’t want to be there. In the grand sweep of history, the SNL sendup of Obama could prove a fleeting impression. But if the president doesn’t step up his game in the next two debates, he’ll have a lot more time for daydreaming.