Kenan Thompson is a world-class professional funny man. The longest serving cast member of 45-year-old Saturday Night Live is a proven comedic quantity with the awards, credits and pay grade to prove it.
However, despite his best attempts, Thompson struggled to get more than a grin or chuckle from viewers during last Saturday’s show when he labored to convincingly channel Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings as a caricature.
The Saturday Night Live skit featured Representative Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, presiding over the hearing of President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen.
Although Thompson’s superb makeup job uncannily transformed him into Cummings visually, he could not quite transcend the congressman’s serious, commanding demeanor into raw humor.
Thompson’s ability to mimic some of the great contemporary pop-culture characters of our time in his 15-year SNL career precedes him, but when the subject was Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore the complexity, intensity, and depth of this particular man overshadowed attempts to portray him as the butt of lighthearted humor.
Despite a couple of amusing wisecracks from Kenan’s Cummings persona, anyone familiar with the congressman’s actual countenance would clearly recognize the comedian’s relatively no-nonsense exhibition being more comparable to the actual committee chairman who wielded authority at the outset of last Wednesday’s televised Capitol Hill proceeding.
Republican Oversight Committee member, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tried an abrupt bullying tactic to postpone the Cohen hearing before it started, followed-up with aggressive maneuvering by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Ranking Republican member, in an apparently scripted tough-guy intimidation ruse that backfired when street-savvy Cummings, quickly recognizing an attempt to punk him, called for a procedural vote that shot down the Republican’s weak pseudo-thug strategy without a second thought— and without losing his Baltimore cool.
Although Congressman Cummings’ hearing was conducted by-the-book without partisan grandstanding or malice, it was equally clear he was no pushover. Cummings was carefully chosen for this committee chairmanship, leapfrogging over another Democrat who exceeded his seniority on Oversight, to command the chair.
New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney with three years congressional seniority over Cummings campaigned for the top spot with the support of the immediate past Democratic chair, Edolphus Towns, also from New York.
Media consensus suggests that congressional leadership chose Cummings in 2011, as a stronger counter against powerful incoming Republican oversight chair, Darryl Issa of California, whom it was believed would attempt to wreak partisan havoc on the Obama Administration.
Despite Kenan Thompson’s best effort, the Elijah Cummings who coolly resisted and prevailed over the Republican’s political sleight-of-hand at the beginning of the Cohen hearing, and subsequent attempts to coerce him, found its way into Saturday night’s comedy sketch.
A champion of the moral principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which were honed and fortified by his Apostolic preacher-father’s religious teachings, Cummings reverent, judicious demeanor could not be upstaged even by a skillful comic like Thompson.
For these reasons it should be no surprise that while Cummings overall performance as the hearing’s chair was given plaudits because he maintained decorum and civility, it was his closing remarks that garnered the most praise.
Rep. Cummings never lost sight of the big picture. He advised the hearing that this too shall pass. That the country must pull together to overcome the current national political crisis in a way that assures Democracy will prevail intact. Cummings refrain, “We’re better than that!” as Americans, strongly reverberated throughout the media and political circles.
Despite the seemingly no holds barred disrespect and the demeaning conduct Democrats suffered at the hands of Republicans these last two years while the GOP controlled the House, this very first oversight hearing under Democratic control was run with fairness, even-handedness and congeniality under Elijah Cummings leadership.
Baltimore voters who have sent Elijah Cummings to Capitol Hill 12 times know the measure of the man. Yes, he smiles. He has a keen sense of humor and a very hearty laugh. However, when he presents legislation, votes on a bill or gavels his committee into session, he is all business.
In fact, the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL), just last week ranked Congressman Elijah E. Cummings second for effectiveness among all House Democratic lawmakers, 196 members, for the 115th Congress (2017 – 2018 session).
Regi Taylor is a West Baltimore native. The married father of four is an artist, writer and media professional specializing in political history.