By now, readers of this column should know I was the first person to go on the record predicting an Obama presidency back in April of 2007. When he’s elected, it’s only natural that I’ll assume the title of America’s Smartest Columnist. But this isn’t about me patting myself on the back for being so in touch with the people. This is about me questioning how Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” could be so clueless as to stand by his decision to cast Fred Armisen to play soon-to-be President Obama on the show — ostensibly for the next eight years.
In his defense, Lorne Michaels isn’t as smart as I am. Like everyone else who doesn’t live in Illinois and hasn’t been a Democratic Party activist, he didn’t see Barack coming. Making things even more complicated was the fact that the WGA strike was in full swing when Obama won the Iowa Caucuses back in January, so “SNL” was dark at the time. Behind the scenes, however, Michaels was scrambling to find someone to play the role and was reportedly looking “both inside and outside the current cast” before settling on Fred Armisen — or, more accurately, settling for Fred Armisen.
Armisen is funny, he’s just not that good. His main talents are mugging (like his Prince impression), overacting (like his Dov Charney), and a combination of both (like his Larry King). His unconvincing Obama wouldn’t be such an issue if he wasn’t in the same cast as the premier political impressionist of the last 20 years, Darrell Hammond — whose Jesse Jackson is so good I don’t even mind that he does it in blackface — and if the role was anything short of a dream job for a black actor. A dream job that Lorne Michaels, once again, isn’t giving to a black actor.
This is the same Lorne Michaels that created the position of the “Other Black Guy” who isn’t in any sketches (unless he’s in a dress), almost never speaks, and only existed so the show could claim two black cast members.
This is the same repertory company that hasn’t had two black players at the same time since 2005, and even then the “OBG” was the totally forgettable Finesse Mitchell. I guess Michaels figured that the gifted Kenan Thompson has enough size, range, and talent to qualify as two people, so there was no need to cast another black guy.
Like a dummy, I went into the summer hiatus thinking that Lorne would be searching high and low for a better Barack. After all, political humor is “SNL’s” bread and butter and Armisen as Obama on screen with Hammond as Bill Clinton or Al Gore would be like Linda McCartney trying to keep up with Paul McCartney on stage when they were in Wings.
Michaels didn’t get the memo that Obama was coming, so casting a new “OBG” didn’t happen because he had Amy Poehler and her (adequate) Hillary Clinton impression. Hillary was “inevitable” back then, so everything was going to be fine. When the show starts with the cold open, “live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” there is, literally, only one place in New York City you can go and not see at least two black people and that’s backstage at Studio 8H in the G.E. Building at Rockefeller Center where “SNL” is taped.
As for the new cast, it turns out there is no room for a new “OBG” because Lorne Michaels took the revolutionary step of reaching all the way out to the Upright Citizens Brigade (again) and his own production company (the same one that gave us “A Night at the Roxbury” and “Stuart Saves His Family”) to find Bobby Moynihan. Bobby Moynihan? At this historic moment in our culture and our politics when a black man is poised to become the icon of a generation, the executive producer and grand poobah of the definitive satire showcase of the last 30 years didn’t cast a black comic actor to play the role because he simply had to make room for the transcendent talent of Bobby Moynihan? Really?
Lorne Michaels has been passed by. His 90-minute show is too long by a third, its sketches end with a whimper instead of a bang, and a better version of the best part (“Weekend Update”) is available on “the Daily Show.”
As a content provider, there is a silver lining in this cloud of comic mediocrity for me. If, for some insane reason, no syndication services ever pick up my column and no publishers ever release my books, I can take comfort in the fact that a coattail-rider like Lorne Michaels still has a show on network TV, but a comedic genius like Dave Chapelle doesn’t.
Ain’t showbiz a bitch?
Kenny Mack is a writer, comedian, and social commentator living in Santa Monica who is shopping his book, “Word In Edgewise — The Collected Opinions of America’s Smartest Columnist” to forward-thinking publishers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org