Why We Can’t Peg President Obama’s Pop Culture Persona

Every president and every major politician in the last 20 years has had a comedic identity. Bill Clinton was a charismatic playboy; Bush was a hapless cowboy; Al Gore was a well-informed snooze; John Kerry was a droning old man, as was John McCain; and Sarah Palin was a clueless hockey mom. Now, we have Governor Mitt Romney added to the mix as an out-of-touch rich guy stuck in the 1950s. But while we can easily sum up practically every major politician in recent memory (let’s not forget John Edwards as a pretty, pretty man with an infidelity issue), President Barack Obama’s comedy peg isn’t exactly staring us in the face.

When he first became a candidate for president, Obamas “thing” was that he was “cool.” He was young and with it. His soft spot for basketball, hobnobbing with celebrities, and an actual appreciation for Miles Davis set him apart from other, stuffy politicians. From the now classic Saturday Night Live faux-campaign ad “Be Cool” to his memetastic presence as the “Not Bad” guy (above) — thanks to a hilarious nonchalant expression he made being captured by a photographer — Obama made an initial comedy imprint as the coolest politician alive. “He was super hip and super cool and all the kids just loved him,” says Comedy Central’s Indecision.com Editorial Producer Mary Phillips-Sandy. “There was definitely a sense of wanting to sort of take that and looking at him and that persona and the way he was being perceived and sort of just finding the humor in how over the top it got.” And as time wore on, that peg didn’t exactly dissipate. Instead, it got a few bedfellows.

After we settled into the idea that Obama is a righteous dude, we started to notice him as something cool people tend to become: a celebrity. He wasn’t just the leader of the free world, he was a guy whose wife wears Michael Kors and Jason Wu dresses. He was a guy whose daughters could heighten the popularity of Uglydolls by dangling miniature ones on their school backpacks. He’s a guy who might get photographed by the paparazzi when he takes a dip in the ocean, much like any bikini-clad Kardashian. It was a status that had been brewing since he faced off against Hillary Clinton in the 2007 primary; just look at his “surprise” appearance on SNL, during which he removed an Obama mask to reveal himself to thunderous applause, accepting it like the most seasoned of celebrities. (Sure, Gore and McCain have both hosted the late night show, but their awkward appearances hardly had the same panache.) Add to this the public’s obsession with the inner-workings of Michelle and Barack at home and the Obamas’ friendship with pop culture and hip-hop royalty Beyonce and Jay-Z, and Obama is practically the new George Clooney. But even Obama’s celebrity is still not used for comedy.

Despite being both really, really ridiculously cool and a major celebrity, Obama still boasts another personality quirk. While wildly discordant with his other public traits, the quirk been referenced in comedy bits ranging from Fred Armisen’s now-dormant SNL impression, to The Daily Show’s approach, to Key and Peele’s name-making impression of a calm Obama assisted by a boisterous “anger translator.” It’s his unflinching stoicism. It’s the notion that while the president smiles often and genuinely, he’s not going to flash those pearly whites unless he’s already decided, hours before, that he should do so. It’s a meticulousness that begs notice.

And that’s where it becomes obvious that the President’s comedy profile isn’t as easy to peg as the country’s other famous politicians’. How can he be the cool, hip celebrity and the well-read, highly-intellectual, thoughtful, and stoic leader? Our pithy representations don’t usually allow room for that much variation. How can he be the guy who sings Al Green songs at the Apollo and the guy who’s so stifled that we’re inclined to imagine all the frustration going on in his head? How can he be all those things in the realm of pop culture, a place that loves to boil politicians down to their most ostentatious characteristics? “It feels more nuanced, [determining] what would be the characteristics of Obama in comedy,” says the artistic director of New York’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater, Nate Dern. “It’s not a one-note thing.”

Depending on where you look, different comedic outlets are picking up on varying subtleties of his personality. But why has Obama escaped the fates of all presidents and presidential candidates before him? (Heck, even Gerald Ford became “the falling president,” thanks to Chevy Chase’s inflectionless impression.) To be fair, many folks started off on the wrong foot with Obama-centric comedy. Phillips-Sandy points out that when Obama first hit the national stage, some folks in the comedy world feared there was no humor to be found in the could-be president. “I remember back in 2008 reading all these [articles] and people were saying, ‘Oh, how are we ever going to make fun of Obama?’ And that was fascinating to me that that was even a question,” she says.

But clearly those naysayers were wrong; over the past four years, Obama has been a presence throughout comedy \’97 after all, how could something like SNL, The Daily Show, or any comedy platform go four years without joking about the POTUS? They wouldn’t make it. “I think that, more than anything, revealed an inherent bias or confusion that some people are untouchable, but no one is,” Phillips-Sandy says.

The entertainment industry has indeed long been accused of harboring a liberal bias. But is that what’s keeping Obama from being tapped by pop culture? Let’s investigate.

Exhibit A: Comedic Bias

It’s not hard to understand that while most comedians strive to be equal opportunity observers, it’s a hell of a lot harder to write jokes about someone whose platform you support than it is to write jokes about someone who stands against most things you believe in. “There are clearly a lot of comedians and a lot of comedy outlets that are just biased one way or another, so no matter what happens with the subjects of their comedy, they’re going to have biased perspectives,” says Phillips-Sandy.

And while there are comedians on all sides of the political spectrum, many of the folks who dominate politics in the pop culture sphere are very obviously on the liberal end. Just look at the way in which SNL went after Bush, with giant swaths of generalization in the name of comedy, while their aim at Obama has swerved all over the place.

And speaking of indecision, over at The Daily Show, we can see a quick distinction in the coverage of both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. While the RNC was given the hilarious dig of a subtitle, “The Road to Jeb Bush 2016,” and was delivered with a side of never-ending “stripper capital of the world\” jokes aimed at Tampa, Fla., the DNC got the lighter (but still funny) “Hope and Change Part 2.” Where the RNC coverage was marked by segments like “Find a Black Person at the RNC” (which, for the record, did appear to prove difficult), the DNC’s week-long coverage included bits about the Democratic party\’s proclivity for excessive inclusiveness. Burn.

Further still, when one of today’s most respected and lauded comedians Louis C.K. took to Twitter to blast Palin in September, calling her a “c**t” among other vulgar things, few were quick to jump to his defense. But, all the same, the incident only helped to explode his persona as a comedian who cares so little about what we think that his brutally honest brand of comedy will both shock us and send us into fits of laughter. Yet former SNL star Victoria Jackson — who has argued such insensitive points such her the notion that Glee is “making kids gay,” referring to “homophobia” as a “cute little buzzword of the liberal agenda” in an attempt to lend an air of comedy to her beliefs on Showbiz Tonight back in 2011 — has become largely ex-communicated by fans and comedy brethren for her conservative views, which are largely labeled “radical” instead of comical.

Still, this inherent bias in much of mainstream comedy doesn’t wholly explain President Obama’s scattered profile. After all, Clinton was the Democratic party’s shining star and he still managed to nab a consistent comedic peg as an ol’ Southern boy who’s just out to have a good time (even before Monica Lewinsky gave him a hand with that, so to speak). The lack of a simple comedic profile isn’t a Democratic thing. It’s an Obama thing.

Exhibit B: Obama\’92s Stern Demeanor

Of course, the question now is, “What is the Obama thing?” After all, the man is purposefully difficult to read and to predict. (If we pit all the presidents of the last few decades against each other in a poker game, let’s just say my money would be on Obama.) “With Obama, I get the impression that he’s even smarter than he lets on, whereas with a lot of politicians, it’s all out there,” Dern says. And it’s true; while many of us are familiar with Obama’s intellectual background, he doesn’t often bring it into direct play. He allows himself to remain layered, bringing out the right armor at each opportune moment.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, stars of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, star in a recurring sketch that attempts to unpack this exact issue: What is the President really thinking when he appears so unflappable to the public? Key’s Luther stands next to Peele’s Obama in each iteration of the sketch, translating all of Obama’s diplomatic answers into harsh, angry truths as a method of turning the President’s subtext into farce. This take on the POTUS borrows what Key refers to as a “nugget” of the president’s personality, which is then “blown up” for comedic effect. “Our take is that he’s a guy who can’t voice all the things he would like to, that he has boundaries as a president and as an individual that prevent him from being emotive,” Peele says.

But that’s just one singular aspect that the duo chose to focus on. Key and Peele’s take also points to the other, sometimes hidden, aspects of his personality. “He is a very multifaceted character,” Peele adds. “He’s a funny guy; he’s a serious guy; he’s a smart guy; he’s a competitor, so it’s hard to put him in a box and I think that’s something that Keegan and I relate to.”

And Key’s “Luther” — who presents “what the president is thinking” in an anger-heavy throwdown week after week — is just one imagining of what’s going on inside our president’s head. “There’s nothing that sticks out because of his demeanor,” Key says. And that shows. The president’s calm and collected exterior leaves much to the imagination, which is likely why Key sees him as “a reserved, thoughtful man” while many comedic portraits see him as “a super-duper cool guy,” according to Key.

It’s that dichotomy that tripped up the comedians when they actually spoke with the president in person. Because, according to Key and Peele, he was neither of those men. “When we — I’m just going to name drop — so when we met the president [laughs], I called my wife and I said, ‘He’s warmer than you think he’d be in person. You think of him as really calm and collected and really cool, but he’s warmer than you’d think,” Key says.

The comedian even goes as far as to compare Obama to someone who’s often represented as the president’s polar opposite: George W. Bush. “That’s the interesting thing is that he has a very approachable warmth, much like everyone said Bush had,” Key says. “But he also exudes, simultaneously, sheer competence.”

That’s certainly one way to vary your comedic footprint: Be an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, and hide it all with a calm, collected demeanor.

Exhibit C: The Gold Standard of Impressions

Of course, there’s something to be said about the power of a single good impression. The honor of the de facto presidential impression usually goes to SNL, oftentimes because of its strength and because of the series’ lasting influence and visibility. “One thing that happens is that there will be a comedian who does impressions and kind of becomes the gold standard for that politician,” Dern says. “So with George W. Bush, it was Will Ferrell and then everyone’s George W. Bush impression after that really were just impressions of Will Ferrell doing George W. Bush.” Every iteration we saw of Bush after Ferrell attempted it, from Frank Caliendo’s impression to Comedy Central’s Lil’ Bush cartoon, was informed by Ferrell’s scope.

And to some extent, that happened with Armisen’s impression on SNL, but his influence was heavier in technique than content. Armisen was the first to nail Obama’s difficult cadence, laying the support for other impressionists to follow. And at first, the way of speaking, itself, was the joke. But that didn’t last long. (Especially when other folks, like Peele, were managing uncannily accurate vocal impressions.) A quick survey of Armisen’s Obama sketches over four years continually see comedy happening around the character rather than comedy involving the character, often bringing in hapless “Uncle Joe” Biden to bring the funny rather than relying on the President’s quirks.

Now, SNL has switched horses, blowing the “gold standard” format to bits. Jay Pharoah’s ridiculously accurate vocal impression is accompanied by caricature-like, yet fairly accurate facial expressions, eschewing one standard and introducing another. The sheer fact that we’re able to switch “standards” (and make a switch that was done without the pressure of a cast member suddenly leaving or becoming unable to perform) and not only continue the political satire without interruption, but also enjoy yet another take on the Obama comedy persona as more than just a ridiculously deliberate talker is significant. Especially when we had four years to get comfortable with Armisen’s take.

When Ferrell left SNL and forced other comedians to step into his rather large, Bush-impersonating shoes, no one could cut it. Chris Parnell was generally disliked; Darrell Hammond was fine, but only did it twice (and sounded remarkably like Clinton instead of Bush); Will Forte’s little lamb of a president didn’t sit too well with viewers; and Jason Sudeikis’ placeholder Bush just kept the spot warm until Ferrell could return to reprise the role in a guest stint. When Hammond did Clinton, no one else could compare. When Chase did Ford, he became the pop culture depiction of Ford, despite the fact that he didn’t look or sound anything like the president. And when we think of a George H.W. Bush joke, we’re still greeted with visions of Dana Carvey in our heads. Why then, was it so easy to replace Armisen?

It could be because Armisen’s impression simply wasn’t complete. The blame could fall on the comedian himself. But it’s hard to believe that SNL would let four years pass if people were dissatisfied with what Armisen was laying down. The more likely answer points, once again, to Obama himself. We’ve already established that his demeanor makes him difficult to read and that his plethora of public-facing personality features give comedians a great deal to work with. Perhaps the reason the “gold standard” rule isn’t really sticking with Obama is that none of his pop culture pegs are rising to the top of the heap. He remains a complicated guy, and as such, comedy consumers require a multifaceted array of presidential hilarity.

Exhibit D: The State of Comedy

So, Obama requires a more sophisticated array of comedic representations? It makes sense — the face of comedy and its impact on politics happen to have changed greatly in the last four years. “[Comedy] is something that registers and resonates with the voting public,” Phillips-Sandy says. “In the new social web, it flies around the country faster than any press release ever could.”

Politicians, Obama not excepted, can’t ignore the presence and relevance of comedy, thanks in great part to the legitimizing of political comedy wrought by The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and sites like Phillips-Sandy’s Indecision. And throughout his presence at the forefront of politics, Obama’s team has been on top of the varying offshoots of his image. “They put more thought into the branding and positioning of their candidate in pop culture than we’ve seen with any other candidate who’s run for president,” Phillips-Sandy says. “They’re smart, they’re younger, they’re digitally savvy, and they know that people like me are all sitting here waiting for our opportunity and they work really, really hard right out of the gate to package and present something that would be a little more appealing to people, just like when you’re launching a product into the consumer market.”

While we can certainly witness the effects of that process, especially through his presidency and leading up to this 2012 campaign, we’ve witnessed Obama being placed in specific realms of comedy, going tete-a-tete with Stewart on The Daily Show and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon over on NBC. He and his team see our game and they’re playing.

But the field is bigger than it has been for any president before him and it’s only getting bigger. “Also, we’re seeing an interesting phenomenon where we’re seeing more comedy than ever,” Phillips-Sandy says. \”Comedy is no longer just in a nightclub or on a TV, it’s on your phone, it’s on your tablet, it’s everywhere and you can access it anywhere. And that’s changed the dynamic I think,” she says. And perhaps that’s what has helped audiences seek more than a gold standard impression, and want more than a one-note comedic persona when it comes to our president. There’s just too much opportunity for something more.

When you devote time to creating comedy around a political figure in spheres that are seen daily and have further opportunities to expand on a subject (like daily political comedy blogs, memes, and Colbert and Stewart’s shows), we become accustomed to that comedy beast getting its daily bread. While weekly impressions on SNL can certainly add the levity that we often seek to the political conversation, they can’t keep up with the daily dissection we find elsewhere. “The Daily Show, that can devote several minutes to a segment and can return to it, day after day — it’s more suited to deliver a more nuanced portrait of someone or an issue over time,” Dern says.

What we have on our hands here is a full-fledged and valid political conversation going on through the medium of comedy. “I don’t think that anyone is going to tell you an animated GIF of Obama is going to replace a detailed report of his shifting position on gay rights or his refusal to stop drone strikes or his healthcare plan or whatever, but I think these items can help sum up truths or moments that are part of the national conversation and national consciousness and it can really, not just shed some light on things that are happening, but really bring people together in an awareness of what’s going on in the political scene,” Phillips-Sandy says. “That’s ultimately a really good thing for us.”

Of course, this opens up a big question: Is this peg-less comedy profile that Obama seems to be enjoying the product of his presidency and the way his staffers have played the game? Or is it a symptom of a growing and shifting comedy world? Would this question arise even if McCain had been named our nation’s leader in 2008? And the answer is maybe, to a certain extent.

We can’t discount what the Obama campaign has done to play along with the comedy world, or the unique nature of his public persona; however, we can see that other politicians are wising up to this new order. Phillips-Sandy says Romney’s handling of this new realm of comedy and its gaining relevance isn’t any different from Obama’s. “I think Romney’s evolved, especially from seeing the primaries in which you had all these wacky characters around him and it was sort of like Romney’s a robot,” she says. “We know a lot more about him. He’s sort of out there more — [now] he’s kind of like Eddie Haskell running for president.”

And this approach extends beyond Romney. Romney and Obama aren’t the only folks saddled with the effects of the comedy world. No one in politics (or outside of politics) is safe from the reach of a good joke. “I think in a lot of ways, it’s a function of what we know about people, of what we’re allowed to know about people and the opportunities that we have to sort of see them in action,” Phillips-Sandy says.

No matter who is president now, and who is president next, we’re witnessing a sort of new world order in political comedy. Whether or not you believe Obama is a hard target to spoof, it’s hard to refute that he’s, at the very least, enjoyed a realm of political satire unseen by his predecessors. That could be due to his uniqueness or it could be the world that’s changing around him. But hey, it’s an election year. If you can’t disprove it, it’s true.

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credits: WhiteHouse.org; Ian White; Dana Edelson/NBC; PictureGroup]

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