Shop Guys: SNL 'Fauxbama' Impersonation Offensive?

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The guys in this week's Barbershop — Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarette and Sam Fulwood — discuss the memorable takes from the latest MSNBC Democratic presidential debate and how some say the "Saturday Night Live" satire on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama isn't funny.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, listeners were all over our blog and comment line this week. We'll listen to what you had to say in our Backtalk conversation.

But first, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and whatever's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance writer and reporter Jimi Izrael, editor and civil-rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and I'd also like to welcome a new guy to the shop, reporter Sam Fulwood of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I may jump in once or twice, but for now, take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, hey, thanks Michel. Fellows, what's up? Welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, what's happening?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, Jimi.

SAM FULWOOD: What's up, man?

IZRAEL: All right, well yo, check this out. Yo, John McCain biting the hand that feeds him. He's distancing himself from the conservative radio host Bill Cunningham, who opened up for him in Cincinnati.

MARTIN: Do you want to hear how mad he is?

IZRAEL: Absolutely, yeah.

MARTIN: Okay, here it is.

BILL CUNNINGHAM: And I'm angry at McCain. Why would John McCain repudiate me? I've been able to unite McCain and Obama against me. I might become a supporter of Ralph Nader.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: He sounds kind of annoyed, right?

MARTIN: I don't believe it for a second.

IZRAEL: Thank you. Thank you so much. Is he angry enough? Fulwood?

FULWOOD: Yo.

IZRAEL: Do you see this as affecting McCain's base at all, or is this kind of like a family rift?

FULWOOD: It's a family rift. It will affect his base only insofar as the right wingers down in the southern part of Ohio listen to this guy. I mean, he says he's going to be on the radio every day to Election Day trashing McCain, every day, unless he apologizes. But it won't change the outcome of anything.

IZRAEL: Ruben - I'm sorry, go ahead, A-train.

IFTIKHAR: I like to call this the Ann Coulter vote, and I think that when McCain finds himself as estranged bedfellow to, you know, the right wing of the Republican Party, I think that you can tell that it's an oil and vinegar relationship. And, you know, this guy's a right-wing radio hack, and he's going to try to make McCain shift more to the right.

IZRAEL: You know what, though, Ruben help me out here. I'm wondering if McCain had a duty to distance himself from this guy, because you know, he made some comments about Barack, you know, about peeling his bark back, (unintelligible), and all this kind of stuff that could be construed as violent.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

IZRAEL: And I wonder if he didn't have an obligation to say, you know what? I can't co-sign that. What do you say?

NAVARRETTE: I'll tell you what. This is a guy who understands honor pretty well. And he thought that this was a dishonorable attack on Barack Obama, and he said so. This was a great week for John McCain. If he can get in a tit-for- tat with a right-wing wacko radio host every single week of this election, he'll win in November. This idea that he has to somehow snuggle up with the right-wingers who can't even elect people to the presidency, who picked six or seven losers in a row is a fools' errand. He shouldn't be doing that. He should just be John McCain.

MARTIN: Can I ask one thing? You know what's interesting is that the thing that people are saying was out of bounds was using Obama's middle name, which is Hussein. Now, obviously, we don't pick our own - most of us don't, unless you know, we're actors, right? But let's ponder that for a minute.

Unidentified Man: Well yeah, he was playing the Islamaphobia card. You know, not only is this the first African-American male to be running for the presidency of the United States, but lo and behold, he has the same middle name as the bad guys that we're trying to go against.

So it's pandering to the politics of fear, and I think that obviously, it's going to end up backfiring in the long run. But, you know, it seems as though this sort of Islamaphobia, this sort of xenophobia, has become accepted now in the presidential campaign on both sides, and we're going to talk about Hillary's story in a little bit. But, I mean, it's really despicable.

FULWOOD: I don't know that it's so much accepted, but it really does - I mean, I back up what Ruben is saying. If McCain can get the independent vote by attacking, you know, the wing nuts to the right, the only people who are undecided are the independents. And so you have to do something to be able to get those folks to come to you, because we already see that Obama is racking up independents right and left in every state. So in the general election, he's got to do something to be able to say I'm not what you think I am, and then taking on the right wing is a really good ploy to do that.

IZRAEL: You know what? Speaking of Obama, him and Hillary Clinton took the stage at my alma mater, Cleveland State. Hillary whined about being, you know, questioned first at the debates and all that kind of stuff. It was kind of like, you know, it was very Jan and Marcia Brady.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Oh, why me?

Man: "Saturday Night Live."

IZRAEL: Yeah, and then there was this kind of off-the-cuff, like, left- field reference to pillows and "Saturday Night Live."

MARTIN: Okay - do you want to hear - for those who don't know what Jimi's talking about, do you want to play a short clip?

IZRAEL: Sure.

MARTIN: Okay, here it is.

IZRAEL: Drop it.

HILLARY CLINTON: Can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time, and I don't mind. I, you know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious, and anybody who saw "Saturday Night Live," you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow. I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues.

IZRAEL: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: She's being a crybaby. I mean, you know, you're in a presidential debate. You're on stage for the national audience to watch, and you're going to sit there and whine about getting the first question?

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I do have to say that, you know, our dear friend Arsalan is an Obama supporter.

IFTIKHAR: If you didn't already know.

MARTIN: II just have to tell. Okay, go ahead.

IZRAEL: Fulwood, Fulwood, you were there. Check in.

FULWOOD: This was brilliant politics, raw politics, and let me break it down to you so you'll understand why it was brilliant. The only base that she's got are like 80-year-old white ladies, and they feel so aggrieved that somebody is doing something to keep them from having their turn at the White House, and she is stoking that anger and frustration that these people have that she's being mistreated. The media's treating her bad because they ask her the question first. Obama's being given softball questions.

So there's all of this anger saying why is this happening to me? She's rallying her base by doing that.

IFTIKHAR: Well, but she already has her based, Sam. Like you just said, the independent voters out there are the ones that are going to be the swing voters. Why is she already pandering to votes that she already has?

FULWOOD: Because she's run a very disorganized campaign.

IFTIKHAR: Well yeah.

FULWOOD: She wants to get that base so angry and mobilized that they come out in larger numbers.

IFTIKHAR: It's never a good idea to run against the media. I think that the significance of that is that while she may - and Sam's right that she's pandering to a small sliver of the base, but there's a price to be paid for that, and all those people who don't fit in the base, the just see this person who is whining and complaining about getting the first question.

MARTIN: because it was a tough question. It was a hard question, and she wanted to see how Obama would answer that question first, and she thought it was somehow unfair that she would have to answer the hard question first. I mean, is this the kind of person you want in the White House?

IZRAEL: Yeah, it just came across to me as really whiney. It came across as personal. I don't think there was any political agenda. I don't think there was any magical, you know, Dennis Kucinich type science to it. I just think she was just whining. I think...

MARTIN: Can I ask a question? Jimi, would you use the word whining if she were a man?

IZRAEL: Yes, absolutely. I would underline it, and I would bold-face it, absolutely. And wait a second, isn't it ladies first, anyway? What's up with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Man: Except when it's a hard question.

IZRAEL: Exactly, right.

FULWOOD: Well, it's to your advantage in a debate to go...

IZRAEL: You set the tone by shaping the response. No one's going to say anything other than what's on your script, anyway.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette, Sam Fulwood, and Arsalan Iftikhar in the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: All right, thanks so much. Yo, the whole bit about Hillary Clinton, you know, insisting that Obama renounced Minister Louis Farrakhan, you know, and his support. You know, Sam, what's your read on that?

FULWOOD: It strikes me that this is one of those litmus tests that white people want to play for anybody who has dark skin, that you have to denounce Farrakhan, Minister Farrakhan and not Reverend Farrakhan, and then you have become sanitized at that point.

IFTIKHAR: I just thought the whole thing was offensive.

NAVARRETTE: Well, you know what this is about, though?

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Ruben.

NAVARRETTE: This is about - I'm not making a judgment call one way or the other, a moral judgment on this, but you have a large Jewish population of voters in the Democratic party who for a long time made their voice known in that party, and they feel, I think rightly, apprehensive and oftentimes disgusted with a lot of what comes out of Farrakhan's mouth. And so I think that's justified.

What is not justified, and I'm not going to defend Farrakhan. You know, I think he's a crackpot, but I think that - and I think he's anti-Semitic, and I think all of that, but I think Sam makes a very important point about this litmus test business, the fact that this is really old school, the fact that somehow you can't be an African-American running for president unless you immediately denounce the Nation of Islam. It just doesn't seem like that's a question that normally white folks get.

FULWOOD: You know, I hear what goes on in the Jewish community, in the African-American community. Throughout this whole campaign, I haven't heard any Jewish leaders say anything about Obama's ties to Farrakhan. The only people I ever hear saying anything about this are white reporters. Nobody's feeling aggrieved by this except Tim Russert, apparently.

MARTIN: On the other hand, part of the deal is to try to throw people off their game with a debate. I mean, let's just be real about it. I mean, part of the deal is - some of this is about substance, and some of it is to see how you react, you know, in the hot seat, and on that score, Ruben, I'm asking on that score, Ruben, how do you think they both did?

NAVARRETTE: Well, I was going to say Hillary did not do well because she ended up in a semantic debate over, you know, renounce, denounce versus reject, and I think he made fun of that. He played with that a little bit and said Hillary, if it makes you feel better for me to say I reject as opposed to I denounce, I both reject and denounce it. The crowd went wild. They loved it. She came of again like Marcia Brady.

IZRAEL: You know what, she mentioned "Saturday Night Live," and Fred Armisen, a Latino comic, played Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live," on the "Saturday Night Live" sketch last week. Now, some of you may know Fred Armisen. He's been on SNL since 2002. he is of Latino and Asian background, making him the second Hispanic cast member and the second Asian. Yo, do we have clip of that?

MARTIN: Yeah, you want to hear? Okay, here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FRED ARMISEN: Just give us the news, not your personal opinion, and they're tired of it. They're tired of being told you journalists have to stay neutral. You can't openly take sides in a political campaign. And they're saying yes we can.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: All right, well some people were a little offended because they say, you know, Fred Armisen, he's doing the blackface, but frankly, I was a little more offended by Al Pacino as "Scarface." You know, was anybody offended by this, by a Latino brother taking on the role of an African-American?

IFTIKHAR: I was flattered by it. I thought it was cool.

FULWOOD: The "Saturday Night Live" cast has a finite number of people in it, and I think the African-American guy, Kenan, you know, he played Fat Albert. He's not going to be able to play a tall, skinny, Barack Obama, and actually, SNL has actually launched out looking for a nationwide Barack Obama look-alike to come on the show and play him. And so I think it was just the resources that they had, and...

MARTIN: That's not the issue. Forgive, that's not the issue. The issue is, is blackface ever appropriate?

FULWOOD: Only if somehow - yeah, only if somehow - the mention of the word takes you back to Al Jolson, and I think in the context of where we've been with entertainment, that's a justified grievance.

MARTIN: Did you see it, Ruben? What did you think?

NAVARRETTE: I did see it, and I - the least troubling part of that for me was the fact that this was not an African-American playing an African-American. There was all this other stuff running through it about whether or not it's fair to say that the press is being too lenient on Obama and all that other stuff, and all that got pushed aside for this side-show issue of this, and I think that you've - we've had Latinos play Latinos and non-Latinos play Latinos. That's the way it goes. That's the way it's been. That's the way it is.

IFTIKHAR: And "Saturday Night Live" has a history of satire. I mean, no one would complain about Eddie Murphy getting on the bus in whiteface and making what I think is one of the most brilliant satirical observations about...

MARTIN: That's different, though.

IFTIKHAR: How is it different?

MARTIN: First of all, humor is generally subversive, right? Generally, humor is a weapon of the people who are on the bottom, not on the top, right? So it's just the power dynamic that's at play.

IZRAEL: For me, Michel, it gets to intention. You know, if you're an artist, and you're trying to bring across a work of art, you know, like you're trying to bring a sketch to life or you're playing a part, I think that's a little different.

FULWOOD: I think you're absolutely on the money with that. I think you have to look at intent, and you also have to look at the setting. Art is different than mean-spirited racism.

IZRAEL: And gentlemen, with that I'm afraid it's going to have to be a wrap. Thanks so much for coming to the shop. I've got to kick it back over to the lady of the house, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: Why thank you, Jimi.

Jimi Izrael joined us from WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is a freelance writer and reporter and writes for theroot.com., Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and cnn.com, and he joined us from KPBS in San Diego. Arsalan Iftikhar is a contributing editor for Islamica Magazine and a civil-rights attorney, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington bureau, and Sam Fulwood writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and theroot.com, and he joined us from WCPN in Cleveland. You can find links to all of our Barbershop guests at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Gentlemen, thanks so much for joining us.

FULWOOD: Thank you, Michel.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IFTIKHAR: It was a pleasure.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

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