SNL Premiere 2012: Jay Pharoah to Play Barack Obama in Saturday Night Live Cast Change Up

Saturday Night Live has made a name for itself in the political comedy world. The series first aired in 1975 just a few months after the Watergate scandal. Lorne Michaels the show's creator and executive producer said of those early days, "politics was something that we felt we needed to pay attention to." And pay attention they certainly have.

In recent memory we have been graced with Dana Carvey's George Bush Sr.; Will Ferrel as Dubya; Bill Clinton as played by Phil Hartman, Amy Poehler, or Darrell Hammond; and of course Tina Fey's unforgettable Sarah Palin. 

Since 2008 President Obama has been played by the white actor Fred Armisen, but this year the SNL Obama will change races and be played by black cast member Jay Pharoah. 


Armisen has faced scrutiny for his portrayal of Obama which many people have said is just not funny enough. But as the New York Times wrote in a 2011 article, Armisen had a weighty task at hand portraying the perpetual straight-man, "Mr. Obama doesn’t have a thick accent or easily mocked tics (lip biting, eye squinting). When not delivering a speech, his affect is flavorless or elegant, neither very funny. And would it kill him to have a sex scandal? How about just a rumor?"

Previous presidents have been easier to mock. Chevy Chase made Gerald Ford into an absolute klutz and Will Ferrel made George W. Bush even more bumbling, squinty, and clueless than he was in real life. Dana Carvey's Bush senior was a character who gave long solo speeches behind desks, and as the year's went on Carvey perfected his portrayal turning Bush into an over-the-top flamboyant caricature. 


While Armisen's Obama is spot on in terms of voice, cadence, and delivery, he never found the humor. "So far we haven't found it," Michaels said about the Obama humor. 

Mitt Romney, as played by Jason Sudeikis, is easier to play admitted Michaels. "He’s easy to play because of that caution of his."

When Saturday Night Live returns this weekened audiences will get the opportunity to assess a new version of their president: The Jay Pharoah version. As Lorne Michaels said in an interview, "Jay has been doing Obama in his act this summer, and Jay is coming into his own. I just thought it might be time to shake it up." 

White or black, the 2012 Saturday Night Live Obama will begin his legacy this weekend, and maybe this year they'll find the humor. 


Saturday Night Live premieres Saturday Sept. 15 at 11:30 p.m. EST on NBC.

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Elena Sheppard

Elena is the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Mic. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Time Out New York, The New York Times Upfront, ABC News, and various travel publications. She is also a Princeton alum, a former Thailand resident, and a Brooklyn native.

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