Jay Pharoah took over Obama duties on “Saturday Night Live's” 38th season opener, prompting a few million conversations over the weekend about who was a better prez: Fred Armisen or the new guy (a couple of seasons “new” anyway).
Pharoah came to the show as a solid impersonator so there's no doubt his Obama was expected to be more technically proficient — the tics, pauses, vocal inflections and so on. Armisen's almost eschewed impersonation: The voice sometimes matched, sometimes did not; facial expressions only somewhat. His was a triumph of makeup; Pharoah's is a triumph of everything else that goes into an effective impersonation.
Armisen relied on writing — the Obama “I keep it cool” was a standout — and Pharoah's .?.?. well, we haven't really seen where he's going to go with this yet. But first impression so far: Pharoah's should work better comically in the long run. Obama's a hard impression to do — The subject is too tightly controlled, the image too carefully crafted. Pharoah, working with what he's got (which isn't much to begin with) exaggerates the small details, making them outsized, absurd, a fun house mirror reflection; Armisen took those and let them lay flat on the page and screen.
His impersonation, as a result, edged closer to idealization — nothing particularly mean or negative or even satirical about it. Pharoah has the chance to place his “Obama” in a the proper context — as an object of satire. His “Obama” stands a chance of actually being funny, and that's why this casting move (by Lorne Michaels, who else) is so shrewd.