'SNL' Is Back, with a Non-Black Obama

When Saturday Night Live left off, it was with a strong episode featuring an impressively game Brian Williams as guest host, and with the real Sen. Barack Obama playing himself in a Halloween-skit cameo. A third of a year later, SNL finally returned with a fresh episode – showing rust as well as verve, but wasting no time whatsoever in lampooning presidential campaign politics and introducing its own version of Barack Obama. 

After 16 strike-imposed weeks off, the show got back to business with a rapid-turnover spoof of a TV event that had occurred just two nights earlier: the CNN/Univision Democratic debate between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. This immediately answered the question of who would get to play Obama for the next weeks, months and quite possibly years.

The answer: Fred Armisen, already a cast member. While the central conceit of the SNL skit was that everyone in the media was swooning over Obama, Armisen’s Obama was the straight man of the piece. He never smiled once, and Armisen settled for hand gestures and broken cadences to approximate Obama’s basic persona. Amy Poehler’s familiar Hillary, by contrast, was a funny loose cannon, defending the indefensible and showing mock outrage at an audience “question” from the real “Obama Girl,” mouthing part of her infamous YouTube video.

The writing wasn’t as strong as an opening piece should be – but since both the debate and the casting decision took place mere days before air time, that’s both understandable and excusable. So is the fact that SNL cast Armisen as Obama, a move likely to generate complaints from some quarters because a black cast member or new hire wasn’t chosen – but all the way back to when Billy Crystal played Muhammad Ali, SNL has been brazenly color-blind, letting the funniest performer win. And did anyone complain, or have cause to, when Armisen crossed the comic color barrier to present the perfect portrayal of Prince?

My guess is that very shortly, Armisen will find and channel his inner Barack, and make any casting questions a political non-issue. Meanwhile, it’s just nice to have Saturday Night Live back in business – and to learn that Kristen Wiig, in addition to her many other talents, does a mean Jennifer Tilly.

David Bianculli has been a television critic for a very long time. Currently, he’s TV critic and guest host for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, teaches television history at New Jersey’s Rowan University, and offers nightly viewing recommendations and observations on his website, www.tvworthwatching.com.