Tomorrow night Saturday Night Live
will debut its new Fauxbama, played by Donald Glover. In terms of true misanthropic rage so crucial to the genre, SNL‘s political satire was surpassed long ago by The Daily Show. Nevertheless, the SNL presidential caricature is a tradition in American television, and the choice of the actor to play the president has more cultural importance than the president’s choice to serve as, say, the Secretary of Energy.

Although SNL has always satirized the candidates in the presidential campaigns, Fauxbama seems to be debuting prematurely. Obama still seems like an undefined figure, and because he’s the only Democratic presidential candidate with any wit (the usually wit-challenged Republicans have two witty guys on their side, McCain and Huckabee), Obama has already co-opted any comic foibles that may have emerged so far. Here in Illinois Obama has been visible as a workaday politician for years, and so far the comic material is pretty thin. In fact, Obama can be kind of boring. His acceptance speech after winning his seat in the US Senate in 2004, for instance, was notable mostly for poor Michelle Obama holding her exhausted daughter as Obama droned on about airport expansion, or whatever he was talking about. Michelle looked like she wanted to say out loud, "Let’s wrap it up, Barack. This kid’s getting heavy."

What hasn’t emerged yet in Obama is that kernel  of identity around which a comic persona can be formed. By kernel of identity I mean something more existential than a mere foible. Rather, the basis of SNL political satire is usually some personality trait that can’t be reduced any further: Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, George H.W. Bush’s unpredictable syntax, Bill Clinton’s body. At first glance this trait functions to deflate an important political figure–a classic strategy in political satire. But on SNL this trait takes on a different dimension. Through repetition the trait becomes less familiar and more mysterious. Will Ferrell’s George Bush prompts us to ask, What’s that smirk really trying to tell us?

The deep structure of SNL‘s political satire becomes clearer when one considers its least typical presidential caricature, Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan. Every other presidential caricature is built upon a minor but immediately visible quality. Only the faux Reagan appeared as somebody completely different from his public persona. Hartman played Reagan as both a vague, genial fool and, as soon as the cameras moved on, as a crack schemer, directing his underlings with all the gruff certainty of a mob boss. It’s significant that the most genuinely transformative president we’ve had since 1975 had, as his SNL comic identity, a political figure who actually changed things.

By contrast, every other president’s caricature expresses the futility of trying to change American political culture. Every joke starts off in a different place, but always comes back to that mysterious, unchanging kernel of selfhood: Gerald Ford always falls down. A Saturday Night Live broadcast is a microcosm of the modern presidency. A commanding figure dominates a very small stage for a brief period of time, offering the promise of something new when all we’re looking for is the same joke repeated over and over again. Then it’s cut to commercial, and the next cliché is trotted out and ridiculed for our reassurance.


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