A new Obama has been elected… and it could make things awkward in Studio 8H. Saturday Night Live suzerain Lorne Michaels announced that celebrity-impression savant Jay Pharoah will be taking over as President Obama for fellow cast member Fred Armisen this season, which kicks off Sept. 15.
For most SNL fans, it’s change we can believe in. Armisen, who has played Obama on the sketch show since 2007, never received kind reviews for his unconvincing work as the (arguably) easily imitated president, particularly when Pharoah was waiting in the wings with his spot-on impression. And when Pharoah’s take on the commander in chief debuts this weekend, the bit will join a canon of impeccable celebrity impressions from the performer. From Will to Jay-Z, here’s a rundown of his best.
Just listen to the spontaneous applause when Pharoah first previewed his famed Obama impression—he had previously been doing it during standup routines around the country—on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2010. The lowered voice, the precise articulation, the measured pauses at the end of phrases, the purposeful repetition, and furrowed brow: Pharoah nails everything, down to the hand-in-fist gesturing. Following the recent news that Jason Sudeikis will be returning to SNL with his Mitt Romney impression, we may be in for a political season as uproarious as when Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush faced off against Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore.
While doing his Eddie Murphy impression for Letterman, Pharoah says—in Murphy’s voice—“the craziest thing is that I look like Eddie Murphy.” While the two do look remarkably similar (Pharoah should top any casting list for a Murphy biopic), the most astounding aspect of Pharoah’s uncanny take on Murphy is the mischievous grin and self-satisfied look he has in his eyes when he’s done. It’s Murphy’s signature, and Pharoah has it down.
Pharoah made his first SNL appearance in 2010 on Weekend Update as Will Smith, a kind of star-is-born debut for the actor. He zeroed in Smith’s tendency to stealthily mask insufferable braggadocio with irresistible charm, erupting in spontaneous “Woo!”s and self-consciously rubbing his fingers under his nose (as Smith irritatingly does so often) as he overexcitedly boasts about his kids’ breakout Hollywood careers. If you close your eyes, you may swear that it’s actually Smith talking and not Pharoah.
Denzel Washington’s mannerisms never seemed overly distinct or unusual—until Jay Pharoah spoofed the Oscar-winner on SNL. In a sketch that had Pharoah-as-Washington researching a role as customer-service employee at a retail store handling returns and exchanges, Pharoah channels Denzel’s hyped-up laughing, dramatic turns of the head, and repetition of the innocuous words like, “OK! All right!” Any hack comedian has a take on actors like Jack Nicholson, but it takes a skilled impressionist to do such an uncanny version of someone who previously seemed unimpressionable.
Jay-Z, Drake, and Notorious B.I.G
Pharoah is so good at impersonating rappers, apparently, that rather than have him play just one in a Thanksgiving-themed Weekend Update segment, the SNL writers had him play three. The result: a Turkey Day music medley that should give Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song” a run for its money. First he takes on Jay-Z, tossing off an “It’s your boi!” aside in typical Hova fashion. Then he moves on to Drake, perfecting the stylized hand movements that accompany the rapper’s delivery. Finally, he brings it home with a perfectly bombastic Biggie.
Ever dreamed you could see Chris Rock in “all your favorite theater classics?” Maybe not. But seeing Pharoah play Rock play Annie may just change your mind. Once again, Pharoah hammers down every screechy, scratchy vocal tic while doing a Rock-sian riff on Romeo and Juliet. From the hunched-over posture to the wide-open mouth gape Rock typically punctuates his one-liners with, Pharoah expertly embodies his SNL predecessor.
Before he hit it big on SNL, Pharoah made a spoof of VH1’s Behind the Music explaining the perceived beef between Jay-Z and 50 Cent. In the clip, the talented Pharoah, of course, plays both rappers. His 50 impression is a little spottier than his other brilliant send-ups—a bit too Mike Tyson-ish to be instantly recognizable as 50 Cent. But he makes an admirable attempt to replicate the rapper’s twitchy facial expressions.
If Chris Tucker’s role in the upcoming Silver Linings Playbook means he’s returned from the land of obscurity he’s been living in for the better part of the last decade, it would be a warmly welcomed comeback, if only because it would mean more opportunity for Pharoah to trot out his impression of the comedian. Wide-eyed, jittery, and delivered as if he had just sucked up helium, Pharoah’s embodiment of Tucker makes us actually wish that there would be a Rush Four.