There were two “fancy” phrases –“he is smooth without big handles” and “he is getting his mojo back” in describing recent images of President Obama’s in New York Times’ (April 14) article titled “Come Back, Sarah Palin!”

“Saturday Night Live has always struggled with its Obama impersonation because Obama is “smooth without big handles,” as the show’s inimitable satirist Jim Downey puts it.

Seth Meyers, the clever “S.N.L.” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor. recalled that, after the Navy Seals raid that killed Osama last year, the show did a sketch with Obama “getting his mojo back.” “It would be really fun to see that Obama again on the show, the confident Obama who comes out on the campaign trail,” he said. “

From the context of the above lines, “get one’s mojo back” sounds like “get back one’s guts or perk up,” but I’m not sure. What do both phrases of “smooth without big handles” and “get one’s mojo back“ which were shown in the quotation marks in the text mean?

Are they both well-established phrases or idioms?

  • Define "mojo"
    – Bidella
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 5:48
  • 2
    "Get one's mojo back" is a well established phrase, but "smooth without big handles" is simply a figurative turn of phrase that one individual came up with.
    – Robusto
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 9:59

2 Answers 2


Mojo is like "personal magic" or an "innate otherworldly power". "the mysterious essence or momentum you possess that makes good things happen for you" — something which, like luck, may be lost or recovered, unaccountably, at various times in your life (see comments below by @Robusto)

I also had/have another meaning of Mojo: That Mojo is the essence of your personality that makes people recognize you, take notice of you etc. When you get your mojo back, you get back to being the person people recognize as [insert great personality trait(s) here].

This is an idiom.

In the next case, "smooth without big handles", from a comedian's perspective, simply means it's not easy to "pick up" the personality style of Obama, just like you'd find it difficult to pick up something that was "smooth without big handles". It's easy to "pick up" some people and impersonate them, you pick up their traits (see: Shatner, Walken impersonations for examples). This is not an idiom, it's just a verbal description of how Jim Downey describes the issues with his impersonation of Obama.

  • As a deduction from your answer, can I say “He has mojo.” instead of saying “He has substance.”? Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 7:17
  • Well, since "he has mojo" is a compliment used informally, using it in place of "he has substance" may work but just be more weary of the context as it can sound less formal and light hearted vs a more serious and critical tone with "he has substance". Very subjective and context sensitive so I'm finding it hard to give you a straight answer there. Sorry.
    – Roy
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 7:39
  • Roy answered well. "Mojo" is a very informal word.
    – J.R.
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 9:23
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    Not a bad answer, but the term mojo, which is notoriously squishy, means something more like "personal magic" or "innate, otherworldly power" or "the mysterious essence or momentum you possess that makes good things happen for you" — something which, like luck, may be lost or recovered, unaccountably, at various times in your life. It does not really describe a defining characteristic or personality trait, but almost the opposite of that.
    – Robusto
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 9:41
  • @Robusto - oh i see. Thanks. I'd better add your input in!
    – Roy
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 10:53

In this context, I would think it was an intentional reference to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, where it refers to Powers' virility, as well as his ability to get things done.

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