By Jake Coyle
The season premiere of the late-night comedy show is tonight.
NEW YORK — “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, having joined 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.
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 or Armisen’s Jobs) and race (Hammond’s Jackson or Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr.).