A year and a half ago, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that it's kind of hard to make fun of Barack Obama. Naturally, conservatives responded that I was saying that because I'm an Obama shill, and I thought he was so terrific that he was impossible to mock. But here was my actual point:
Politicians who make good targets for humor tend to have a personality feature or physical characteristic, like a particular accent or a distinctive set of gestures, that are easily identifiable and thus can be exaggerated to make the politician look foolish, because exaggeration is what impressions and satire are built on. Some of these are simple and straightforward, like Bush's tendency to mangle his words. Others are more complicated but no less distinct, like Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" charm, which simultaneously made you suspect you were being conned and like it.
The trouble with Obama is that he doesn't easily lend himself to mockery. He's famously cool -- never too hot, never too cold. And coolness itself is nothing if not a concerted effort to avoid being mocked. The most successful impressions -- like Darrell Hammond's Clinton or Will Ferrell's Bush -- may or may not perfectly ape the target's speech (Ferrell certainly didn't), but they capture something essential and absurd about the target, something that is seldom cool. The presidential impression currently featured on Saturday Night Live, by Fred Armisen, is a good re-creation of the president's way of talking. It just isn't all that funny.
And today, this satirical crisis threatens to get even worse. The Republican party is about to nominate someone who may be eminently mockable in many ways (goodness knows I've been trying to do my part). But it seems almost impossible to do a funny impression of Mitt Romney.
Just look at the version of Romney that Jason Sudekis does on SNL. In fairness, Sudekis isn't an impressionist. But it's like he's not even trying to capture Romney's speech, let alone use it to create something insightful or funny. He's just reading the words, and adding some bit of nasal tone to his voice, which doesn't sound like Romney at all:
Romney does have a particular way of speaking, but he doesn't have a pronounced accent or a distinctive voice. That makes it a challenge to imitate him, but a creative comedian should be able to do something to capture that essential Romneyness that makes him what he is. But other than Sudekis, there is no one out there doing a Mitt Romney impression, much less a good one. America's comedians need to step up.
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