Here's The Deal, Folks: A POTUS Impression Is Harder Than It Looks

Nov 14, 2020
Originally published on November 14, 2020 10:30 am
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When it comes to pulling together a convincing, funny Joe Biden impression, there are a lot of pitfalls for comics. The president-elect sometimes hesitates when he speaks, but he's overcome a stutter and he's 77 — and those are tough things to make fun of without looking cruel.

Impressionist/actor Jay Pharoah has a zeroed in on a few distinctive traits — some comics call them "handles" — to help flesh out his version of Biden; there's the little rasp in his voice, as well as favorite Biden phrases like "c'mon man," "malarkey" and, of course, "here's the deal."

"The key to a great impression and keeping it fresh, is always trying to look for things that person does, that other people don't know yet," says Pharoah, who played President Barack Obama, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington and many more notables in six years on Saturday Night Live.

With Biden poised to take office as the nation's 46th president, comics like Pharoah face a crucial question: How to impersonate him in a way that really resonates?

That's an even tougher question for Saturday Night Live, a comedy institution known for defining the nation's most important politicians. But it hasn't yet settled on a great version of Biden.

Film star and ace impressionist Jim Carrey has played Biden on SNL since the show started its 46th season, offering the best actual impression of the former vice president — though he comes across as a little more animated than the real guy.

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Most recently, Carrey referenced another of his classic characters, Ace Ventura, while re-enacting Biden's victory speech — making an "L" with his hand and pronouncing Trump a "looooser." It felt like a moment he'd been angling toward all season.

The best political impressions, especially on Saturday Night Live, sum up the subject in a way people haven't quite considered before.

Consider Dana Carvey's stiff, patrician take on George H. W. Bush, complete with phrases like "wouldn't be prudent."

Or Tina Fey's giddy, homespun version of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, recreating her folksy-sounding word salad with a line the real-life Palin never said: "I can see Russia from my house."

And there's Darrell Hammond's work as another tough-to-mimic Vice President, Al Gore. Hammond played him in a classic SNL debate sketch — opposite Will Ferrell's equally classic, dimwitted George W. Bush – speaking slowly and patronizingly, constantly mentioning one word: "lockbox."

According to The New York Times, Gore's aides showed the sketch to their boss, just to show him what not to do in the next debate.

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"I always thought of him as an overbearing schoolteacher, you know," says Hammond, who has appeared on Saturday Night Live since 1995, playing everyone from Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton to Sean Connery and Donald Trump.

Hammond says the key to finding Gore was going over the sketch's dialogue with Jim Downey, long known as one of the sharpest political writers on the show. As they said the lines, trying to make each other laugh, the character was created – a meeting of great writing and execution.

"The first time I did Gore on Weekend Update a year previous to the election, people didn't even know who he was," adds the comic. "Like, the audience has to understand your premise and kind of agree with it. At what point does the audience figure out the same thing you figure out?"

James Andrew Miller, co-author of the bestselling book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, says the show's impressions often teach us how to feel about certain politicians and candidates.

"When they get it right, it becomes a de-facto branding of the candidate," he says. "It's not clear that it actually changes votes ... [But] I think SNL has proved to be a very easy way for people to have a point of entry to [understanding] these people."

Jim Meskimen is an impressionist, voice artist and character actor known for his spot-on recreations of George W. Bush, Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. He predicts Biden impressions will get better as the nation gets to know him as president.

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"Presidents ... already it seems to me like they have a public persona that is very much a created thing ... it's like they're already imitating somebody, so they're meeting you halfway," Meskiman says, laughing. "Like, Richard Nixon always seemed to be trying to pretend to be someone other than he was."

Asking an impressionist about signature impressions feels a little like asking a magician to give away their best magic trick. But Hammond is more than willing to dish, revealing that he looked up old speeches by Bill Clinton's idol, John F. Kennedy, to get a handle on how Clinton himself spoke.

For Hammond, those mannerisms, or "handles," are so important he names them. For Donald Trump, he picked the term "solipsism" — the philosophical view that the only reality you can be sure of in life is that your mind exists — to describe how Trump uses his hands to bat away anything he doesn't want to think about.

"These men and women of destiny, they're complicated," Hammond adds. "And I've been studying them my whole life."

Pharoah recalls Saturday Night Live sat on an idea he brought up when he joined the show in 2010; a character who was Obama's more emotional subconscious. Years later, Comedy Central's show Key & Peele debuted Obama's "anger translator," Luther, in a similar sketch, and Pharoah saw an opportunity missed.

"There was not a Black person in America, sitting there while Barack Obama had to take everything that he took from the Republican party, [who didn't think] 'He has got to be ticked off," Pharoah adds.

These days, Pharoah is building his resume as a more conventional actor, co-starring in Hulu's new comedy Bad Hair. He says he had fun on Saturday Night Live, but feels they held him back too much on playing Obama.

"A lot of the time I was told I had to keep him presidential," Pharoah adds. "I was just forced to be a part of the machine and try to do the best I can."

Hammond, who now serves as the announcer on Saturday Night Live and performs occasional cameo appearances, says his impressions are created specifically for the show. They are developed quickly, under the stress of putting on a live program each week, with scripts that can change right up until airtime.

And the one thing he wishes people understood better?

"I want people to know how goddamned hard it is to do this, in front of those lights, with words you've barely seen," he says. "You didn't have five years to work on this ... In some cases, we haven't even had eight hours to learn how to talk like Geraldo Rivera. And it's only the whole world watching."

As comics across the world face the prospect of lampooning a President Biden, it doesn't seem that job will get any easier anytime soon.

Nina Gregory edited this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

With a new president poised to take office, comedians across the globe face a crucial question - how do they impersonate BJ Leiderman, who does our theme music? No, no, I mean, how do they impersonate Joe Biden, soon to be the nation's 46th president? NPR TV critic Eric Deggans asked alums from a show known for its political impressions, "Saturday Night Live," and found the answers illuminating.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Here's the deal with pulling together a convincing, funny Joe Biden impression. It's got a lot of pitfalls for comics. For example, the president-elect sometimes hesitates when he speaks. But he's overcome a stutter, and he's 77 years old. Those are tough things to make fun of without looking cruel.

JAY PHAROAH: For me, Biden says, here's the deal, a lot. Come on, man.

(Imitating Joe Biden) Here, come on, man. This is malarkey. Here's the deal.

DEGGANS: Jay Pharoah, who played celebrities like Barack Obama, Jay-Z and Will Smith for six years on "Saturday Night Live," says the key to a great impression is finding unique things about that person the general public hasn't noticed yet. That's how one phrase helped sell one of his best-known impressions, Denzel Washington.

PHAROAH: I remember when I was first doing him, like, that was his - that was the tick that really got me into it was, like, (imitating Denzel Washington) All right. OK. OK. All right. OK.

(Laughter) It's kind of just clueing into those and just exaggerating them.

DEGGANS: "Saturday Night Live's" impressions have indelibly defined the nation's most important politicians. But they haven't yet settled on a great version of Biden. Film star Jim Carrey plays Biden this season as more animated than the real man, echoing his other characters. Most recently, when Carrey directly referenced Ace Ventura while enacting Biden's victory speech, it felt like a moment he'd been angling for all season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JIM CARREY: (As Joe Biden) Unfortunately, there are situations in life where there must be a winner and a loser.

DEGGANS: "SNL's" best political impressions take a key trait about a politician - some comics call them handles - and exaggerates them, summing up the subject in a way people haven't quite considered before, like Dana Carvey's stiff, patrician take on George H. W. Bush...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DANA CARVEY: (As George H. W. Bush) Not going to do it. Not going to do it.

DEGGANS: ...Or Tina Fey's giddy, homespun version of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TINA FEY: (As Sarah Palin) And I can see Russia from my house.

DEGGANS: ...And Darrell Hammond as Vice President Al Gore. He played him in a classic sketch recreating his debate with rival George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Al Gore) Governor Bush and I have two very different plans to offer tax relief to American families. I would put it in what I call a lockbox.

Well, I always thought of him as an overbearing schoolteacher, you know?

DEGGANS: Darrell Hammond's impressions of Gore, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Donald Trump formed the backbone of the show's political parodies for many years. But his Gore didn't really come together until he and legendary political sketch writer Jim Downey read the lines to each other. As they made each other laugh, Hammond learned what would make the audience laugh.

HAMMOND: The first time I did Gore on Weekend Update a year previous to the election, people didn't really even know who he was. What's the hook? Like, the audience has to understand your premise and kind of agree with it. At what point does the audience figure out the same thing you figure out?

DEGGANS: According to The New York Times, that impression had such an impact, Gore's aides showed it to the vice president as an example of what not to do in the next debate.

Jay Pharoah, now developing his acting skills costarring in Hulu's new comedy "Bad Hair," says he had fun playing Obama on "Saturday Night Live." But he feels they held him back too much.

PHAROAH: I was told that I had to keep him presidential. I was just forced to be a part of the machine and, you know, try to do the best I can.

DEGGANS: Hammond says "SNL" impressions are unique - created quickly under the stress of putting on a live show each week with scripts that can change right up until airtime. And the one thing he wishes people understood better...

HAMMOND: I want people to know how [expletive] hard it is. You know, you didn't have five years to work on this. We haven't, in some - you know, we haven't even had eight hours to learn how to talk like Geraldo Rivera. And it's only the whole world watching.

DEGGANS: As the cast of "Saturday Night Live" and other comics face the prospect of lampooning a President Biden for the next four years, it's worth keeping in mind just how tough that assignment is likely to be. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.