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Impersonating The President: From Will Rogers To Obama's 'Anger Translator'

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele cooperate to impersonate President Obama in Comedy Central's Key and Peele. (Comedy Central)

Political commentators will be working overtime in the countdown to the presidential election. So will political comedians, including the candidates' impersonators.

Impersonators have been part of the political landscape for so long, it's hard to imagine a time without them: Rich Little, Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell, Dan Aykroyd, Darrell Hammond, Tina Fey and other comedians have all famously done their turns as candidates. Remember "I can see Russia from my house"?

But if you go back further in history, you won't find much. At one time, impersonating the president was a no-no. Take the time, in 1928, when Will Rogers announced on his radio show that President Calvin Coolidge was about to make some remarks. "Everybody believed that the next voice they heard was Calvin Coolidge," says Peter Robinson, author of the political comedy book The Dance of the Comedians. "And he had to go on the air within days and completely clear the air, as it were," says Robinson. Will Rogers also apologized to President Coolidge. In the 1930s, the White House officially came out against mimicking the president on the air.

A few decades later, the climate changed completely. It began in 1962 with the comedy album The First Family, starring Vaughn Meader's dead-on impression of President John F. Kennedy. This take on the Kennedy White House was like nothing people had heard before. Radio stations started playing excerpts. People started quoting their favorite lines, including, "The rubber swan is mine." Or "schwahn," in Meader's thick Boston accent.

Some people — including White House officials — were not amused by the parody. But pretty quickly, The First Family became a huge hit, selling some 6 million copies in the first six weeks of its release. Then a year later, Kennedy was assassinated, and the recordings all but disappeared. "It did evaporate very quickly," says Robinson. "Americans just had no stomach for the imitation of a dead president."

But Robinson — who teaches history at the College of Mount St. Joseph — says Vaughn Meader and his writers threw open the door. "The tremendous success proved that the American public was willing to entertain the thought of presidential impersonation," he says. That was a very good thing for people like Rich Little and Dana Carvey. Presidents have given them some of their biggest hits.

When Barack Obama ran for president the first time, he posed a bit of a challenge for some comedians, says Bill Carter of The New York Times.

"I went around to a lot of the comedy writers for late night shows, and I said, 'What is the comedy take on this guy?' And ... it was driving them crazy, because they didn't have one. It's obvious what the take is on Clinton, you know, he's a sexual hound, right? Or Bush was sort of a bumbling idiot. You find this theme about a guy," says Carter.

Even Saturday Night Live struggled to find the right Barack Obama. The first comedian to try him was Fred Armisen, who isn't black. Bill Carter didn't think it worked. "Fred was doing the character and doing the cadence right, but he wasn't making much fun of him, and you have to make fun of him to work," says Carter. Part of the problem, thinks Carter, was that Armisen played it too safe. This season, Saturday Night Live introduced a new president, played by black comedian Jay Pharoah. Carter is a fan. "I think it's kind of interesting that they've shifted at Saturday Night Live to a black performer. I think it frees them up more."

Former Gov. Mitt Romney is also a tough one to impersonate, says Robinson. For starters, physically, he doesn't lend himself to caricature. Robinson says SNL's Jason Sudeikis wisely relies a lot on a beady-eyed stare. "His ability to look like Romney as the man who projects — or tries to project anyway — a sense of averageness," says Robinson.

During the last campaign, two comedians figured out a way to do a completely different kind of impersonation — and it takes both of them. On Comedy Central, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key came up with a comedy hook that operates on a whole other level. Peele, as President Obama, sits in his chair looking calm and unflappable. Key, as his anger translator, Luther, flails his arms and paces back and forth, unleashing Obama's inner thoughts.

Key and Peele came up with this presidential-alter-ego-subconscious spectacle because they never saw Obama get angry, says Jordan Peele. "Luther is the id," says Peele. "The thing that all of Obama's supporters are thinking and a lot of other people as well, but just goes unsaid."

Key and Peele's impersonation has gotten a lot of attention. Even the president has commented, and Key and Peele got to meet him. "First of all he said, 'I need Luther. I need Luther.' It was bananas," says Peele.

As thrilling as it was to meet the president, Peele admits this hasn't been the best year for impersonations. "Last time we had Sarah Palin, who came in and who, as far as comedy is concerned, she's the grand slam," he says.

Without Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, there is, says Peele, a campaign comedy "vacuum."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, political commentators are working overtime in the countdown to the presidential election. And so are political comedians, especially the impersonators.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a closer look at the rich tradition of presidential impersonation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Seems like you can't have an election without impersonators.

TINA FEY: (as Sara Palin) And I can see Russia from my house.

DARRELL HAMMOND: (as President Clinton) Yah-di-yada-yada.

DANA CARVEY: (as Ross Perot) Vote for me. I'm Ross Perot. I'm running for president. Vote for me, please.

(as President H.W. Bush) Feel like going to jogging tonight. In the nude.

RICH LITTLE: (as President Nixon) I signed these letters. I don't get them.

BLAIR: But if you go back further, you wouldn't find much. Impersonating the president was a no-no. Take the time when Will Rogers announced on his radio show that President Calvin Coolidge was about to make some remarks.

PETER ROBINSON: Everybody believed that the next voice they heard was that of Calvin Coolidge.

BLAIR: Peter Robinson wrote a book about political comedy.

ROBINSON: And he had to go on the air within days and completely clear the air, as it were.

BLAIR: Will Rogers also apologized to Coolidge. In the 1930s the White House officially came out against mimicking the president on the air. But the climate changed in 1962 with this comedy album.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM, "THE FIRST FAMILY")

VAUGHN MEADER: (as President Kennedy) Alright (unintelligible) move ahead with your question.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, there seems to be some confusion as to the toys to be taken into the bathtub...

BLAIR: The first family starred Vaughn Meader impersonating President John F. Kennedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM, "THE FIRST FAMILY")

MEADER: (as President Kennedy) Nine of the PT boats, one of the Yogi Bear beach balls, and the two Howdy Doody plastic bouncing clowns are Baby John's. The rubber swan is mine.

BLAIR: Some people, including White House officials, were not amused. But pretty quickly it became a huge hit, selling some six million copies in the first six weeks of its release. Then, a year later, JFK was assassinated.

ROBINSON: It did evaporate very quickly. Americans just had no stomach for the imitation of a dead president.

BLAIR: But Robinson, who teaches history at the College of Mount St. Joseph, says Vaughn Meader and his writers threw open the door.

ROBINSON: The tremendous success of "The First Family" proved that the American public was willing to entertain the thought of presidential impersonation.

BLAIR: Good thing too for people like Rich Little and Dana Carvey. Presidents have given them some of their biggest hits.

CARVEY: (as President H.W. Bush) We got a regulatory issue here. We've got to regulate that or we're going to get more bubbles. They're going to get bigger. Larger. Then pop. Money goes to the weasels.

BLAIR: Now, when Barack Obama ran for president the first time, he posed a bit of a challenge, says Bill Carter of the New York Times.

BILL CARTER: I went around to a lot of the comedy writers for late night shows and I said, what is the comedy take on this guy? And they were like, it was driving them crazy because they didn't have one. It's obvious what the take is on Clinton. You know, he's a sexual hound, right? Or Bush was sort of a bumbling idiot. You find this theme about a guy.

BLAIR: Even "Saturday Night Live" struggled to find the right Barack Obama. The first comedian to try him was Fred Armisen, who's not black.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FRED ARMISEN: (as President Obama) Good evening my fellow Americans. I am speaking to you tonight from Europe. And as you probably heard, they all went nuts for me.

CARTER: Fred was doing the character, he was doing - the cadence of his voice. But he wasn't making much fun of him and that - you have to make fun of him to work.

BLAIR: Bill Carter thinks part of the problem was that Armisen played it too safe. This season "Saturday Night Live" introduced a new president, played by black comedian Jay Pharoah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JAY PHAROAH: (as President Obama) (Singing) I'm so in love with you...

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: So I think it's kind of interesting that they've shifted at "Saturday Night Live" to a black performer. And I think it frees them up more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

PHAROAH: (as President Obama) Let's get something straight right now. I'm not your friend.

JASON SUDEIKIS: (as Mitt Romney) Yeah, and I'm not yours either, Sparky.

BLAIR: That's Jason Sudeikis impersonating Governor Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SUDEIKIS: (as Mitt Romney) By the way, what's your salary as president?

PHAROAH: (as President Obama) Four hundred thousand dollars. Four hundred thousand dollars. Yeah, I m mean what's it to you?

SUDEIKIS: (as Mitt Romney) Four hundred thousand? Yeah, that's what I pay my cats, OK?

BLAIR: Mr. Romney is also a tough one, says Peter Robinson, because physically he doesn't lend himself to caricature. Sudeikis relies a lot on a beady-eyed stare.

ROBINSON: His ability to look like Romney as the man who projects - tries to project, anyway - a sense of averageness.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

(LAUGHTER)

SUDEIKIS: (as Mitt Romney) You know, people think I'm fancy. But I like nothing more than to end the day with one of these fine hamburger sandwiches from the good people at the McDonald's.

BLAIR: During the last campaign, two comedians figured out a way to do a completely different kind of impersonation. And it takes both of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY CENTRAL BROADCAST)

JORDAN PEELE: (as President Obama) Good evening, my fellow Americans. With me, as always, is my anger translator, Luther.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (as Luther) Hi.

BLAIR: On Comedy Central, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key came up with a comedy hook that operates on a whole other level. Peel, as President Obama, sits in his chair looking calm and unflappable. Key, as his anger translator, Luther, flails his arms, paces back and forth, unleashing Mr. Obama's inner thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY CENTRAL BROADCAST)

PEELE: (as President Obama) After the last debate, I was criticized for not showing enough emotion.

KEY: (as Luther) I should've been on that stage. Oh, my God. Mitt, if I was a Siberian tiger, your ass would've been Roy. Straight-up.

BLAIR: They came up with this presidential alter-ego-subconscious spectacle because they never saw Mr. Obama get angry, says Jordan Peele.

PEELE: Luther is the id. You know, the thing that all of Obama's supporters are thinking, and I think a lot of other people as well, but goes unsaid.

BLAIR: Key and Peele's impersonation has gotten a lot of attention. Even the president has commented about it. And Key and Peele got to meet him.

PEELE: Well, he said, first of all, he said, you know, I need Luther. I need a Luther. It was bananas.

BLAIR: As thrilling as it was to meet the president, Jordan Peele admits this hasn't been the best year for impersonations.

PEELE: You know, last time we had Sarah Palin, who came in and just, as far as comedy is concerned, and excitement, she's the grand slam.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FEY: (as Sarah Palin) The American people are angry and John McCain is angry too.

(as Sarah Palin) And you can tell he's angry by the way he sighs and grits his teeth. And the way he's always going like, grrggh.

BLAIR: Without Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, there is, says Jordan Peele, a campaign comedy vacuum.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Although there is still the unintentional humor of the campaign itself. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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