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Faux-bamas: Impersonators' tone is gentle to the new president

New Reggie photo.jpg

Reggie Brown poses as Barack Obama in California. Brown, a Chicago native, is one of the leading Obama impersonators.

The economy is in shambles, a two-front war continues to rage in the Middle East and Republicans in Washington still won’t play nice. But with this new president, another problem arises: Who will be the impersonator in chief?

It has been two years since Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency and a pre-eminent impersonator has yet to step forth.

There are some obvious, practical reasons why Obama may be hard to mimic. He is of mixed racial background—son of a white Kansas woman and a black Kenyan man. Unlike much of America, he’s in good physical shape: tall, slender and built. He speaks eloquently, without the regional twang of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush..

With his approval ratings consistently above 60 percent, Obama seems to have made fans of a president’s greatest nemeses: comedians. Instead of exaggerating his gaffes and idiosyncrasies, two of the leading Obama impersonators say they plan to “elevate” the tone of their comedy and “respect” the office of the president.

Two of the leading faux Obamas said the days of below-the-belt-humor are gone.

Iman Crosson said he doesn’t do “the negative. Crosson, a 26-year-old New Yorker, has been a YouTube hit for his Obama impression under the name AlphaCat. “I keep everything positive. Barack is different than Bush. People like Barack. People don’t want to see him made fun of.”

For Crosson, a budding actor and comedian, the quest began in the New York office where he holds a day job. Colleagues began calling him “Barack Obama” because he was the only light-skinned black man in the office. Crosson decided to seize the opportunity. “It’s not often there’s a light-skinned black guy in the news,” Crosson said in a phone interview from Washington. “I figured I’d put some steam under my acting career.”

Over the past six months Crosson’s YouTube videos mimicking Obama watching the Super Bowl and preparing for a debate with Sen. John McCain have gotten millions of hits. Within a few months of posting the clips, “Entertainment Tonight” hired Crosson to serve as a special correspondent for all things Obama. He said he plans to make “a lot” of videos during Obama’s first four years and latch onto any corporate gigs or commercials that come his way, as long as they meet his standards.

“I keep it very positive,” Crosson said. “I don’t curse or do anything offensive to his presidency.”

Reggie Brown, a Chicagoan, has been impersonating Barack Obama since before America knew who Barack Obama was. About seven years ago, Brown was waiting on tables in downtown Chicago and a patron urged him to do an Internet search for her University of Chicago law professor. Brown was a dead ringer, she told him.

Brown, a part-time model who blogs for the local NBC affiliate’s Web site, said several people approach him daily asking if he is, in fact, the president.

Brown spent months calling Randy Nolen, the Hollywood agent who represented noted Bush doppelganger Steve Bridges. Nolen finally agreed and brought Brown to Los Angeles.

Nolen is already charging $10,000 per appearance for Brown and said he has been rehearsing skits for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” where he is expected to appear. While Brown was at the NBC studios in Burbank, Calif., the rapper Akon was shocked at the resemblance.

Brown won’t do anything distasteful. Nolen employs a team of writers whom he pays $6,500 for five minutes of strictly above-board material. As a man of mixed heritage, Brown said he understands the kind of adversity Obama faced and could not think of turning even slightly against him.

“I always thought of it as a compliment to be put in the same sentence as him,” Brown said in a telephone interview.

Nolen says a comic does not have to mock his subject the way “Saturday Night Live’s” Darrell Hammond mocked Bill Clinton’s libido and Will Farrell mocked George W. Bush’s intelligence. In 2006, the agent said, he charged $35,000 per appearance for Bridges’ benign portrayal of Bush. Nolen said he cleared several million dollars that year.

But Brown says he isn’t in it for the money. Although he declined to elaborate, Brown said he and Nolen have declined several lucrative opportunities to portray Obama because the offers were “sketchy” and “shady.”

“That was one of my intentions, to kind of raise the bar and say he is a powerful figure and honorable person, that there were a lot of guys out there and people making a quick buck doing it,” Brown said. “Our goal is to maintain and uphold the integrity of the president and the office.”

Comics don’t always have to save their subjects, Nolen said. As much as Bush was mocked in his later years, during the beginning of his presidency, the president was seen as a bipartisan uniting figure, he said. No one wanted to mock him then. “There was nothing to make fun of,” he said.

But, Nolen said, public perception fuels parody and that may yet happen with Obama.

“In the beginning, yes, it will all be positive because so many people like him. So in that sense, sure it’s different,” Nolen said. “As he starts to stumble, there may be some openings and opportunities for parody.”

Brown said he won’t take those opportunities but he already has work lined up. He plans to portray Obama in a feature-length film called “The Obama Effect.”

He expects more movies, commercials and corporate appearances, but Brown plans to be more than just a run-of-the-mill mimic.

“I want to develop the character also,” Brown said. “I want to do charities, schools, retirement communities and hospitals. That’s what he deserves.”

E-mail: jss2180@columbia.edu