Likeness: What Makes for Successful Impressions

One trait I have inherited from my mother’s side is mimicry and impersonation. I’m grateful for this ability, and it is an almost-visceral need or habit when I hear someone with a particularly salient speech pattern, or see a celebrity or well-known individual with distinct mannerisms, to do an impression of that person. But I am not alone in this, as there are many voice actors, dramatic actors, comedians, and individuals who share this trait. TV shows such as “MadTV,” “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color,” endless viral videos, and comedy clubs all attest to the popularity of mimicry and people’s love for seeing their celebrities re-created. Sometimes, this is not comedic, as we can see a film like “My Week with Marilyn” or the series “The Crown.” What makes for a good impression? Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply “sounding just like” a person and replicating them exactly, but something much more. Let us explore.

The voice is, certainly, the most important part of an impression. But the voice is made up of components and is not one singular thing. The timbre of someone’s voice is often what lends itself most to a successful impersonation. Does their voice sit in the same place and have the same tone color as the person they are trying to imitate? For example, Alec Baldwin’s voice sits in the same low, raspy register as Donald Trump’s when he plays him on “Saturday Night Live.” The late Carol Channing had an unmistakable sound that’s funny to imitate. The physiology lends itself to creating the same sound. Another big part of the voice is the speech pattern. How slow or fast does someone talk? How do they pace their speech? Are there particular cadences, rhythms, ways they emphasize their words? Are there particular things someone says? A pilot on a British Airways flight I once took was a vocal dead-ringer for Hugh Grant, not only for the class of British accent, but also the timbre and the particular cadences. Naturally, it entails that an impression may involve an accent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s sound was unmistakably Brooklyn Jewish and Bill Clinton still hasn’t lost his Arkansas drawl over the decades. Tracy Ullman is a genius with her impersonations, for she is able to catch the speech of endless celebrities and accents with her flexible voice.

Beyond voice, there has to be an understanding of the type of utterances by the person one is trying to imitate. Trump’s bombastic, self-congratulatory language, and Queen Elizabeth’s small talk that is friendly but not personal, or a particular culture’s way of speaking insults are all examples of how one must use the meaning behind the speech to create a successful impression. In other words, this is creating character and not simply repeating sound. Unsuccessful impressions don’t understand the personality of the person speaking or the culture of the accent being done. One can speak in a British accent as an American, but if you don’t understand the nuances and subtleties of the way a Brit uses language, you won’t be successful. Conversely, Brits imitating the American accent overexaggerate the “Americanness” of our language and our enthusiasm, and it sounds forced. Granted, exaggeration can be an element of an impression. Think Jim Carrey as Joe Biden. Joe Biden will never go over the top as he is a leading political figure. However, Carrey always pushes boundaries and he knows where to go too far in order to create a humorous effect. 

We have to look next at gesture and the physicalization of the person we are trying to imitate. James Brown had his famous dance moves, sliding back and forth on the floor–something captured so well by actor Wayne Brady. Physical comedians have a gift of being able to imitate another person’s body language. How do they sit, move, gesture? George W. Bush’s frequent smirks, Barbra Streisand’s stroking of her hair with her long, manicured fingers, a Japanese woman’s bow, and the infamous Indian head nod are all things we would immediately recognize are central to conveying someone physically. There is the danger with this of gestures being reduced to tics. This is all too frequent on “Saturday Night Live,” which is not necessarily a bastion of good comedy.

Physical appearance is probably something most viewers would say is important to creating an impression when the impression is in acting. You might do a spot on impression of Chris Rock, but if you are a heavyset redhaired man, you might not be too convincing (not to mention potentially offensive to some black people). In “The Crown,” the characters do not closely resemble the royal family. The wonderful Helena Bonham Carter does not have Princess Margaret’s facial shape or piercing blue eyes, nor did Claire Foy recreate the Queen’s relaxed, polite expression, wearing an impenetrable cold, wide-blue-eyed stare instead. However, most of the cast does a strong job in portraying the royals as complex people and capturing their personalities. So one need not necessarily closely resemble the person being mimicked in order to capture them well. Cate Blanchett did a wonderful job as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” despite the lack of the angular face and famous cheekbones, and no one would have said Michelle Williams resembled Marilyn Monroe before the film “My Week with Marilyn” though she did a wonderful job in the film. Certainly, an excellent hair, makeup, and wardrobe team can help, as can lighting and understanding how a person moves. Of course, we love best the people who actually resemble the people they are impersonating: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin was beyond belief and the Australian musician who is a double for Kim Jong-Un. There is something so primal and human about having a good laugh at someone who strongly resembles a celebrity.

Impressions can also be nonverbal. The Prince William and Kate Middleton wedding video parody was fantastic, not only because the cast closely resembled the members of British royal family, but also because the choreography was so apt for each character. Of course Prince Harry would gyrate his pelvis, Princess Anne would do a dance move like she was riding a horse, and the queen would smile and clap in a dignified way. So there is also the physical aspect of movement that helps to create an impersonation of someone in addition to the looks.

Finally, the impersonator needs to capture that elusive quality known as essence. This is why, even when someone does not exactly resemble the person in question, they are able to give you an impression so convincingly. It’s a question of understanding what makes someone tick me: what do they say, do, how do they react? If Woody Allen was being interviewed, an impersonator might have him start off by trying to clear his name from the MeToo blame and go off on a tangent about all the women who told him he was a nebbish. The late genius Phil Hartman’s SNL skit as Bill Clinton jogging into a McDonald’s and sampling the other diners’ meals was perfect, because it juxtaposed Clinton’s keen intellect and knowledge of global affairs with his appetite for fast food. Naturally, this is not something the president would have done, but it was just so fitting and in character with Clinton!

Of course there are unsuccessful impersonations. Usually these are because someone does not resemble the original person, is trying too hard, or makes a caricature out of the original person when not in a highly comedic setting. Personally, I found Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy quite bad, for her accent was forced, she had no resemblance to Jackie, and she captured none of Mrs. Kennedy’s strength and iron will that was masked by her graciousness and seemingly delicate manners. Though graceful, Jackie Kennedy was no shrinking violet. Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek was something I never found funny, because Alex Trebek is not stiff and mannered in the way Ferrell portrayed him.

All of this falls under the umbrella of acting, an art form that is not easy to do. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of understanding of all the choices that one has to make. Doing impressions is certainly a lot of fun, and something that is universally funny, part of the human experience. After all, who hasn’t been accused of being a “copycat” at some point in their childhood?!

We Love Lucy: The Enduring Comic Genius of Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball is the best female comedian America has ever known–or rather, one of the best comedians America has ever known. Why so? Why do we love that crazy redhead even half a century later?

-She was willing to make a fool of herself. Any true performer knows it’s not about ego, that one has to let go of the self in order to completely inhabit the character and to serve the text and the spirit of what is being performed. Lucy was willing to go there, be it saying things she wasn’t supposed to say (think the episode where she had to tell the truth for 24 hours), physical comedy, or making a complete mess of things. Carol Burnett also has this gift, as do Jim Carrey and Alex Borstein, among others.

-Related to the point above, pushing the limits. “I Love Lucy” featured an intercultural marriage, and one with a husband with a strong accent from a country that later became America’s number one enemy. It featured outrageous situations, such as international travel, drunkenness from a health tonic, or faking the ability to speak Spanish. The show was also set in New York City and then later Los Angeles, not in suburbia. Ricky lived the showbiz lifestyle and their beloved neighbors and friends, Fred and Ethel, had been vaudeville performers. The show makes good use of the medium, and was also the first show to be recorded live in front of a studio audience. That speaks to the talents of the cast, who were essentially performing a play in each episode.

-Excellent writers. The script for each episode is nothing short of brilliant. In less than half an hour (22 minutes), an entire microcosm of a story with rising action, climax, and dénouement is created. A start-to-finish story, perfect dialogue, and even cross-cultural humor are included. Note the occasional lapses into Spanish by Ricky Ricardo that heighten the comedy. Couple this with sharp timing all the actors involved, and you have a recipe for success. It is important to note that one of the key writers for the show was a woman, Madelyn Pugh, a rarity at that time.

-The battle of the sexes. Political correctness can fail to simply acknowledge that this is a human situation as old as mankind, and that relations between men and women are sometimes downright hilarious. Whether it’s Lucy forgetting to relay a message to her husband, buying something she shouldn’t have, Ricky excluding her from an event, Fred and Ethel’s eternal squabbles over his cheapskate nature, this is something that men and women can relate to not only in America, but all over the world.

-Glamour. No one can deny that the crisp black-and-white cinematography, elegant Dior-esque dresses, or romantic songs at the club are just a little more chic than what the rest of America had. Ricky Ricardo is certainly handsome, New York is the epicenter of style, so who wouldn’t want a little panache on the screen? The cast travel cross country, move to Hollywood, and travel in Europe. These were things that were still out of the reach for most Americans in the 50’s. Good TV over the years and even today fulfills this purpose, giving us a little bit of glamour and something just beyond our reach. Think “The Cosby Show” and their upper-middle-class Brooklyn life, “Sex and the City” with the women’s endless designer clothes and nights out at chic lounges, or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with stunning art direction and costume design. There’s something to be said for visual escapism.

The show has mass appeal as it its themes are universal and simple. Even my grandmother in India had enjoyed it! Everyone has a favorite “Lucy” episode. Mine is when Lucy’s mother-in-law arrives from Cuba and Lucy is not able to speak with her in Spanish. She enlists the help of a Spanish-speaking magician she saw in the club and wears an earphone into which magician dictates what she should say to her mother-in-law. Naturally, it backfires with hilarious results.

What’s yours?