Last night, it was confirmed that Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, both modern SNL mainstays, would be leaving the show for “other opportunities.”
After the fact, it was confirmed that Killam’s contract wasn’t picked up for the next season. In an interview with Uproxx, he stated that it appears to be because work on his directorial debut, Why We’re Killing Gunther starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, would be cutting into the SNL season and that meant they would not be keeping him around. In my mind, that’s a pretty solid reason and I think a well-earned bigger and better thing. Hopefully Beck Bennett will quickly be able to pick up Killam’s “Generic White Dude” slack, though SNL has certainly never been poor on that type.
The more confusing loss is that of Jay Pharoah. No statement has been made and I’m certainly not about to speculate. In fact, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised had he left soon enough, he’s been there for a while, but I wouldn’t have expected now. We still have 5 months left of President Obama, at least half a season, and Pharoah was the sitting SNL Presidential Impersonator.
For those unaware, the Presidential Impersonator is one of the highest honors an SNL cast member can get. It usually means getting guaranteed a few cold opens a season, as well as having a relative amount of immunity from the scrapping for airtime, given that it usually puts you in a good position with the viewing public given how much you’re likely going to be seen.
It also means that the show has deemed you a strong enough performer to be given that privileged position, and a strong enough performer can make a legendary character out of their Presidential impression. The most famous case of this being Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush, but most every President since then has had one impressionist who really took them to the next level, like Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush or Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton. It’s a tradition that started with breakout star Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford as a vehicle for Chase’s pratfalls, which actually made the public perception of Gerald Ford as a much clumsier guy than he really was.
It’s a role that requires a lot of performing confidence, something few ever come into SNL with. It takes time, which is why it’s rare to pop someone in and have them take over the role as a new cast member. Even Pharoah was given a season to become comfortable before he took over as Obama. So, whatever new cast member that plays the President (I don’t think the show should be without a President at any point, I’m not even a big fan of the fact that no one has really taken over as Biden, though Sudekis’ take is near untouchable) is going to be asked a lot in their first few months.
With all that in mind, I want to make a completely un-asked-for suggestion and suggest one of these two as the sitting President and the replacement cast member through the end of Obama’s run:
For those of you who’ve lived under a rock, the top is Jordan Peele, part of the Key & Peele comedy duo and star of the show of the same name. The bottom is Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino and a former NBC affiliate as a writer for 30 Rock and star on Community. Both have some SNL affiliation, given that both auditioned for the role of President Obama before it was given to Fred Armisen, well before both achieved the fame they would achieve.
Given that we’re dealing with a mildly unprecedented situation, I feel it’s only appropriate to have a mildly unprecedented solution. This isn’t to say SNL hasn’t had established hires before. Billy Crystal was on the show in the 1984-1985 season, a cast which also included Martin Short, Christopher Guest, and Rich Hall. Michael McKean also joined in the 1994-1995 season after a long run as a Christopher Guest film regular (starring in This is Spinal Tap) and Mark McKinney who joined in the 1995-1996 season was a founding member of the legendary Kids in the Hall.
It’s not however how SNL’s usual game to have cast members who aren’t necessarily “owing” something to the show for giving them the chance to be on the show. These are both people who the show needs more than they need the show. Both have thriving careers and would definitely ask for more than any other cast member.
But on the other hand, I think what Peele or Glover might bring to the cast would way out-strip being a known name or a higher salary they might ask for.
For starters, they allow the Obama impersonation and the performer to have significantly less learning curve. This is where Peele has his advantage given that his Obama impression is an incredibly known quantity, and already a huge crowd pleaser. But Glover does a strong Obama impression, and both are already consummate live comedic performers. There’s no adjustment period and both could hit the ground running, important for SNL going into one of its most high-potential seasons, given the insanity sure to ensue.
Next is the injection of excitement each of them could give the show. Both are phenomenal writers and exciting performers on a level with the best of what SNL has done in the past few years. Peele is one of the best comedic actors (I might even argue just plain actors) working and Glover has an artistic mind like few the comedy community has produced. Putting them into SNL could bring a lot of excitement, combined with the hot off Ghostbusters Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, and you could see a serious kick-in-the-ass. The show’s been in need of a reputation boost, and bringing in either really could help.
Peele and Glover are what this show needs in this interim period. A short-term injection, something to get people excited about the possibilities of SNL again and laughing along. The presence that they’ll bring and the new energy they’ll add is something the show desperately needs and it really could help in this brief period where they don’t have a sitting member to play Obama and while they train a new actor to take over the roles Pharoah was doing.
It amounts ultimately to this, comedy nerds. Don’t lie to me and tell me you wouldn’t watch religiously a show where Jordan Peele did live comedy with Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Leslie Jones, and Vanessa Bayer.
Edit: Jon Rudnitsky also left. I had to look up how to spell his name. That is all.