If there's one thing this country needs other than a cosmic bailout it's a decent Obama impersonator. Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, a 42-year-old comedian of white and Asian heritage, just doesn't cut it, at least according to the President-elect, who said of Armisen during the presidential campaign, "Compared to Tina Fey and what she's doing with Governor Palin, my imitator isn't doing as great of a job."
Then again, even Barack Obama does a lousy impression of himself. When he called Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen on Dec. 3, the Florida Republican hung up on the President-elect not once, but twice, apparently believing herself to be the victim of a prank call. (See the top 10 awkward moments of 2008.)
Admittedly, America's comics have had it easy for the past 16 years. George W. Bush's malapropisms and Bill Clinton's hoarse Bubba twang made them broad targets for satire. Obama's biracial heritage and personal gravitas make him a far more difficult President to imitate and that's before taking his unique preacher-professor cadences into account. "It's somewhere between Ted Koppel and an alien," impressionist Frank Caliendo said of Obama's voice during an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman, admitting he's struggled with his Obama impression (and not just because he happens to be a short, fleshy white dude). Another comedian, Donald Glover, told Tina Brown's Daily Beast that Obama's speech sounds like a cross between Laurence Olivier and Elvis Presley. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
"There's certainly no national figure comedian or actor who's known for doing Obama these days; that's for sure," says Matt Hovde, director of Chicago's famous improv group the Second City, where SNL alum and Sarah Palin stunt double Tina Fey got her start. "Someone's got to be ready to cash their ticket out there somehow."
But while there might be a shortage of convincing Obama doppelgangers on TV, the same cannot be said of YouTube. The site boasts thousands of mimics, ranging from excruciatingly off-the-mark to the exceptionally spot-on. Take Iman Crossun, a 26-year-old Ohio native, who posted his first Obama impression three months ago. "I just thought it would be funny," Crossun told TIME from his new home in Los Angeles. His videos now draw hundreds of thousands of viewers, which prompted the aspiring actor to move to L.A. "As of yesterday, I finally have a manager," he said.
Japanese comedian Nozomu Sato can relate. The unlikely Obama impersonator has become a star in his own right, despite not knowing who Obama was 10 months ago. "I thought he was a pro wrestler or a fighter or something," Sato told TIME last month.
Janna Joos, organizer of the annual Celebrity Impersonators Convention in Las Vegas, said far fewer Obama look-alikes showed up this year compared with the number of Hillary Clintons, Ronald Reagans and George W. Bushes in attendance just one guy, to be exact. Then again, the convention was just after Clinton won the Kentucky primary in May, when Obama's presidential prospects were cloudy at best.
Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but some blame Obama for the lack of effective satire. Novelist Joan Didion recently told a group of New Yorkers that because of the political wunderkind, America has become an "irony-free" zone. "You know, you're allowed to laugh at him," Daily Show host Jon Stewart quipped in July to an unresponsive audience after several Obama jokes fell flat. (See the top 10 late-night gags.)
"Especially in the months before we got to know him, he was appealing to so many different groups that everyone saw what they wanted to," Hovde says. So instead of perfecting Obama impressions, the Second City's seven-actor ensemble each took turns portraying the Obama the performers wanted to see (white ladies included). "We tried to capture whatever it is we want to find in him, from gay Obama to homeless Obama to college-student-partying Obama," adds Hovde.
Of course, when it comes to race especially mixed heritage the line between funny and offensive can be difficult to maneuver. Following Armisen's Obama debut in February, Chicago Tribune writer Maureen Ryan wrote, "Call me crazy, but shouldn't Saturday Night Live's fictional Senator Barack Obama be played by an African American?"
Despite rumors to the contrary, the folks at Saturday Night Live say the topic is effectively closed for discussion. Armisen's Obama is here to stay.