I don’t find standard impressions remotely funny or impressive, and am totally baffled by the effect they have on audiences. For starters, 99% of impressionists are just doing impressions of other impressionists. All those hacks you saw doing Shatner impressions in the 80s? They were just aping Kevin Pollack’s impression. They saw he got famous with it, so they added Pollack’s exact version of Shatner to their toolkit. They brought nothing new to the party.
But even if they had added a new wrinkle to the standard Shatner impression, who cares? Being able to sort of sound like someone isn’t that impressive. You know who else can mimic people? P-A-R-R-O-T-S. I’ll take a cross-species impression over some comedy dinosaur doing a bad Pacino at a Holiday Inn.
The only time I find an impression funny is when the person doing the impression perfectly encapsulates what that person would say and do in a particular scenario. Example: George W. Bush at a taco stand.
Most hack impressionists would just have Bush ordering “nuke-u-ler hot sauce,” and then stand back as the crowd laughed like laughter was a new fuel that was going to make us energy independent. But Bush saying nuke-u-ler hot sauce isn’t funny. Anyone can memorize and repeat someone’s stock phrases. That isn’t a talent, and it certainly doesn’t conjure up the person being impersonated.
A funny impressionist (a breed that is probably in the single digits) would instead simulate the kinds of words George W. Bush would say and the kinds of behaviors he would exhibit while talking to a woman at a taco stand, and would do it so that you could envision the man you know from seeing him talk to heads of state suddenly shooting the breeze with Tina Tamale.
When I say capturing someone’s essence, I don’t mean: “Picture Robert De Niro as a farmer. You balkin’ at me? You balkin’ at me?” Stuffing a line from someone’s film career into an absurd situation isn’t an impression. That’s the kind of garbage they do on SNL, which is packed with sketches where cast members just fill time sort of sounding like celebrities. They never capture the person (half the time they just pick a cast member who kind of looks like him). To see it done well, check out Mr. Show; a sketch show with idea-driven sketches that sometimes features impressions; all of which place less emphasis on mimicking a guy’s facial tics and more time copying his character.
Howard Stern is an underrated impressionist. Stern doesn’t do the voices so much as he skillfully pinpoints how the person he is impersonating would respond to whatever situation he is inventing for him. When he would do the news, he would so seamlessly distill the celebrity in the newsstory that it didn’t matter that he didn’t always sound like him. You still knew you were listening to Madonna.
Another master of recreating someone’s essence is Norm MacDonald; not shocking then that he was fired from SNL. Of course, Norm is the funniest person in the English-speaking world and everything he says is gold, which sort of skews the data.
Probably the worst offender in the impressionist lexicon is the “Man of a 110 Impressions.” If you ever see that on a flyer at your local comedy club, go bowling that night. Nevermind that 109 of his impressions sound exactly alike; the mere fact that he says “Here’s Moe from the Three Stooges” is supposed to distract you from the fact that his Moe sounds exactly like his Tom Brokaw. Quantity over quality does not work with impressions. Impressions aren’t Wal-Mart.
Remember: a funny impression, a real satire of a person isn’t about forcing a line from Taxi Driver into a De Niro impression; it is about what De Niro would say in a specific situation. De Niro might be a bad example actually…that pretentious cadaver can barely talk.