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Pharoah, Sudeikis set a president on 'SNL'

8:56 AM, Nov 6, 2012   |    comments
Jason Sudeikis, left, as Mitt Romney and Jay Pharoah as President Obama on 'Saturday Night Live.' (Photo: Dana Edelson, NBC)
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It's Election Day and Jay Pharoah has already cast his ballot for President Barack Obama. He'd like the president to return the favor.

"I hope I get a follow from him on Twitter at least. He's following a lot of people. I'm not one of them," laments Pharoah, 25.

Pharoah has been doing his best Obama on Saturday Night Live since Sept. 15. To date, he doesn't know if the president is amused, or annoyed. "I have not heard from President Barack. I've never gotten a phone call. I get e-mails from him all the time. He wants me to vote," says Pharoah, referring to the onslaught of get-out-the-vote efforts leading up to Nov. 6.

On SNL, where every battle for the White House yields comedy a-plenty, Pharoah spars with his adversary Mitt Romney, played by Jason Sudeikis. His key to riffing on Romney? "I find something about him that's more human," says Sudeikis. "If my process was all that interesting, I'd be one of those fellows that tweets everything. But I'm not. I'm not trying to trick everybody. I don't know how I know that it works."

As the youngest cast member on the late-night sketch show, now in its 38th season, Pharoah took his Obama portrayal, which he began as part of his standup act, and refined it for TV.

"In the clubs, it's all out and you can say whatever as the character. TV has standards.You gotta tone that down and in some ways re-learn how to do it with cue card readers and put everything together. It's like making a baby again," he says. He took over for Obama 1.0 Fred Armisen, who gave Pharoah his blessing.

The biggest obstacle to entering presidential politics? Altering his physical appearance.

"I'm a chocolate guy. So getting light has been the biggest challenge. I have to go from Usain Bolt to Terrence Howard. It takes about 15 minutes, if that. The makeup department is great. They have pictures and they get his facial stuff and his mole and freckles on my face," says Pharoah.

Sudeikis can't imagine doing Romney for another four years. "But I'll help audition people that will," he says.

Each candidate is difficult to respectfully skewer. Obama is polished, and makes few gaffes, while Romney doesn't let much of his own personality show through on the stump.

"Obama's oratory skills are well noted. On a comedy level it was better for us that the first debate didn't go like everyone else thought it would," says head writer and Weekend Update host Seth Meyers. "Romney is a little stiffer. One of his biggest problems, his personality didn't come through on the campaign trail. We're lucky to have a performer as charismatic as Jason."

Sudeikis says his own political views don't affect how he personifies Romney. "I attempt to make people laugh. I try to make it believable for me. This is no different than me playing Adam Lambert. What's the thing about them that I have within me? " he says.

Pharoah pays attention to Obama's small nuances and the most subtle of gestures to hone his performance.

"You have to be diplomatic about some of the things that he says. You have to do everything in a smart way. He's a very smart guy. But you can break away and have fun," says Pharoah.

Sudeikis, meanwhile, takes note of how frequently Romney seems ill at ease while glad-handing. "He's not a very good politician. You can tell when he's (mad) or politicking," says Sudeikis.

For Meyers, each candidate presents his own set of challenges. "I've always thought the biggest issue with Obama is that he has a very strong self-awareness. He poked fun at himself on the campaign trail for how bad he did in his first debate. Guys with good senses of humor are always a little trickier for us to do," says Meyers. "With Romney, the core of what he thinks and what he says are a little muddy. He says things without quite knowing how they will be perceived. Joe Biden makes those mistakes from being passionate and Romney makes them from not being passionate enough."

Pharoah jokes that he's aged 10 years since he began impersonating Obama. He works non-stop and feels intense pressure to get it right and get some laughs, while also being respectful. "You're the person who kicks off the show. You set the tone of the whole show through the cold open, as two presidential figures. Everybody, I feel, has done an exceptional job doing that. It's not easy to do," he says.

Tina Fey's dead-on take on Sarah Palin in 2008 spurred the candidate to appear on the show, but so far, neither Obama or Romney or their running mates have appeared on SNL.

"I feel that 2008 will be the campaign more associated with the show than this one," says Meyers. "We knew coming into this one it would be less of everyone showing up and participating in the show."

But Meyers isn't giving up. " Let's see how crazy things get. Maybe the election will be so close they'll decide to come on. We'd love to have them both on."

USA Today

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