“You can just feel it simmering,” says Darrell Hammond while walking down the hallways of Studio 8H with his hands out, as if he can touch the energy around the new season of “Saturday Night Live” pulsating from the walls.
The premiere of “SNL” is Saturday — Michael Phelps is hosting — and it’s one of the most anticipated seasons in the 34-year history of the comedy institution.
With one of the most passionate elections in recent times — along with comic material galore — “Saturday Night Live” is beginning early this year. Three prime-time shows are also planned on NBC, as well as a special the night before the election.
“The stakes are really high and everyone knows it,” says “SNL” executive producer and creator Lorne Michaels. “We’ll definitely make some noise.”
At the center of that noise will be Hammond and Fred Armisen, the cast members playing the candidates: Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, respectively. While McCain and Obama duke it out on the campaign trail, their every move will be observed and reflected in the fun-house mirror of these two mimic maestros.
“SNL” has been on an upswing in recent years — creatively and in the ratings — and last year’s strike-marred season reminded many of the show’s political relevance. Particularly influential was a sketch by veteran writer and political humor specialist Jim Downey that depicted the media fawning over Obama.
Armisen and Hammond, though, prefer not to think about any effect “SNL” might have on the polls.
“I almost feel like it would be a bad idea to put that much pressure on yourself,” says Armisen in an interview in his office with Hammond. “I enjoy the theater of it.”
“We’re distorting a piece of temporary perception of a changing piece of information,” says Hammond. “I kind of think of myself as a clown who wears funny noses. I don’t think that I’m a policy wonk or a legislator.”
In many political sketches last spring, Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton was the focus. Now, though, Armisen and Hammond can be expected to be heavily featured in the show’s most prominent segments. (That is, besides whoever plays McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. Michaels says she likely won’t be cast until just before Saturday’s show, but didn’t rule out “SNL” alum Tina Fey, who many have observed resembles the Alaskan governor.)
It can be a career-making gig. Think of Gerald Ford and a tumbling Chevy Chase springs to mind. George W. Bush immediately brings an image of Will Ferrell muttering “strategery.” And Hammond has already defined Bill Clinton, an impression Michaels says “is more real than Bill Clinton.”
Hammond, 52, is the longest running cast member in the show’s history, joining the players in 1995. He’s proved to be one of the most talented impressionists of his generation, with indelible portraits of Donald Trump, Sean Connery, Jesse Jackson, Chris Matthews, Don Imus, Ted Koppel, Regis Philbin and many more.
Armisen says he’s been inspired by Hammond in his impression work, which has included Prince, Steve Jobs, Larry King and Iranian Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 41-year-old comic can also do just about everyone on “SNL,” including a version of Hammond, which Hammond describes as “not that flattering, but it’s accurate enough that it makes me laugh.”
Though it’s easy for a viewer of “SNL” to see these impressions as delicately created caricatures built up over months of work, the fast-paced nature of “SNL” means they often have only a day or two to prepare. Hammond jokes of getting an assignment, “Here’s the script. Here’s the tape. Go see Louie in makeup. He’s making a nose.”
It was under such circumstances that Armisen landed the role of Obama in the midst of the last season. Hammond’s help came in handy.
“I almost don’t want to give it away,” says Armisen of the advice. “It’s like secret recipes in a way. He simplifies things for me. He’s like, `Do this. Do this. Listen to this.'”
“We were really reaching and trying to find things to hold on to the first few times,” recalls Hammond, whose McCain was becoming topical at the same time. “Fred would go, `Here’s something I see.’ And I’m like, `Here’s something I see.’ Our dressing rooms are next to each other so we were running back and forth.”
Obama might at first seem almost too straight of a character for Armisen. While Hammond is a somewhat traditional standup (he performs frequently and has recently begun appearing on Broadway, notably in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”), Armisen is closer to absurdist, Andy Kaufman territory.
Armisen was a drummer in the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth before transitioning into comedy in 1998. He joined SNL in 2002 and has kept up side projects that show his commitment to character: a 2007 drum instruction DVD and Web videos with Carrie Brownstein. (The video “One Man Show” on his Web site is especially worth watching.)
But he says Obama reminds him of another character of his: Steve Jobs.
“There was something about Senator Obama that I felt they had some similarities — in their presentation, in their love for what they do,” says Armisen. “Steve Jobs really makes moments happen.”
Armisen says he’s been working on his Obama all summer, listening to podcasts of his speeches and observing the different tones of voice the candidate uses in interviews. He has tremendous respect for Obama: “I admire him — I always did. I was always drawn to him. I find him brilliant and charismatic.”
Hammond feels similarly about McCain, who hosted the show in 2002 and made a funny guest appearance last season. McCain’s sense of humor, Hammond says, made him “some serious friends here.”
Neither, though, has been obvious fodder for comedy. To many, Obama has seemed too heroic, too admirable to poke fun at. McCain material has centered on his age.
“Obama and McCain both have this thing `good guy, works hard, does well,'” says Hammond. “They both have this American ideal.”
Hammond thinks the key to McCain on “SNL” will be putting him in unusual situations. Armisen believes the more the country gets to know Obama, the more fleshed out the character will be — or as Michaels says, “I’m not sure if familiarity breeds contempt, but it definitely can lead to some laughs.”
With so many focused on the election, critics will be watching “SNL.” Last season’s shows (which also included a segment of Fey supporting Hillary Clinton by declaring “bitch is the new black”) caused some to call “SNL” Clinton-biased.
Others questioned the racial appropriateness of Armisen — whose ancestry is Japanese, Venezuelan and German — playing Obama.
But “SNL” has a long history of playing characters across gender (Ferrell’s Janet Reno) and race (Hammond’s Jackson or Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr.).
“I’m a bit of an optimist, so I try to focus on the good things people said,” Armisen says. “If there’s criticism, I feel like, great, let’s talk about it.” Hammond points out that they are, after all, a sketch team with only so many resources: “I’m as sensitive to it as the next person, but we study these guys. We’re not taking this assignment lightly.”
The election-year observations and parodies of “SNL” have a track record of reverberating with audiences. Hammond’s Al Gore in the show’s mock debates of 2000 made the term “lock box” one of the most memorable of the campaign.
“We don’t do comedy of indictment,” says Michaels. “We let the audience make the decisions. We’re nonpartisan. You have the greatest influence when you let the audience make their own decisions.”
In the bizarre, ever-shifting world of “Saturday Night Live,” pointing exactly where parody and reality end, where influence and refraction separate, is, in the end, impossible.
“That’s the thing about `SNL,'” says Hammond. “After a while, I just quit trying to grasp it. You’re standing in the hallway and Hillary walks by. There’s a llama over there and a sword eater over there. People are dancing by Mick Jagger.
“It’s all a lot larger than life.”