Monday, November 19, 2007

Double Tonguing, Dept.

Funnyman, Who Art Thou? - New York Times

The above article from Sunday's Arts and Leisure section features Frank Caliendo, a comedian and impressionist who debuted a sketch-comedy series on TBS Tuesday. Apparently, Mr. Caliendo, using his mimicry skills, plays most of the characters on the program. (Promo trailers for the show itself here and nearby.)

Watching Caliendo's act on Letterman brought up the principal difference between him and the old-school impressionists, Cézanne and Degas aside: he amplifies the accuracy of his impressions with decent comedy material. In contrast, say, to the tiresome Fred Travalena, who, despite years at the game, has neither accurate impressions nor jokes worth a damn. In contrast, actually, to the vast majority of impressionists I saw on YouTube who lean heavily on catchphrases and the same half-dozen voices--Mommy, please don't make me watch another rendition of DeNiro arguing with Pacino, I swear I'll be good!--to sell their routines.

Basically, says I, there are two types of impressionist acts. The "quick-change" act wherein the impressionist will trot out all his or her impressions one after the other with only the slightest hint of narrative (here and here for Frank Gorshin's intense and kinetic "what if actors ran the government" bit and here for Rich Little's career-overview-as-routine) and the "immersion" act wherein the impressionist only does one impression in depth (here for Marilyn Michaels' Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand).

Most non-singing impressionists will opt for the former because it gives them the opportunity to show off a number of impressions quickly and, by this quickness, avoids the danger of revealing the limitations of the impression. Marilyn Michaels does a very good Garland but hearing her do an extended medley of Garland's signature tunes allows the audience to notice both where she doesn't sound like Judy and also exactly how she is making herself sound like Judy. Once the impressionist's tricks become apparent, as they almost inevitably must do in an immersion act, it's like seeing the trap door behind the magician's cape. By contrast, the quick-change act can ride from gasp of recognition to gasp of recognition without sagging and without revealing either the flaws in the impression or the wheels and gears of the illusion. The downside of the quick-change act, aside from the clunky set-ups (what if Hollywood actors advised the President? what if Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson played golf together?) however, is the tendency to become a rapid-fire slideshow of the clichéd tics and moues of the easy caricature in the manner of the many, many living-room impressionists who have hiked up their shoulders, hitched up their forearms, and growled, "You dirty rat" to convey Jimmy Cagney. An extreme example of this is the YouTube appearance of 100 voices in under five minutes, 101 voices in under four minutes, and 200 impressions in fifteen minutes.

Watching the assortment of impressionists' videos on YouTube, I was struck by three things. First, how amazingly sucktastic some of these performers are. One apparently need only don a fright wig and be in the vaguest vicinity of an approximation of a celebrity's voice to make a decent living as an impressionist before the gomers and goobers who fill the seats at casinos and cruise ships. By way of illustration, I point you to the sampler reels of Larry G. Jones, of Tony Mosti, of Tony Pace, and of Bethany Owen. Unfortunately, I could find only a short clip of the king of the crap "comedian"/"singer"/"impressionist" lounge circuit, Danny Gans, a man whose popularity makes me fear for Western civilization as a whole. I mean, can't America and the world-at-large do without yet another version of ol' Satchmo singing "What A Wonderful World"? Apparently not.

Which leads to the second thing by which I was struck: the extent to which the impressions most of these performers do are the same impressions done by their predecessors. Jack Benny, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson. Richard Nixon, for fuck's sake, right down to the V-for-Victory signs and "I am not a crook." Presumably these tired bits go down easy with the elderly patrons of Branson and the Vegas and A.C. lounges. But does this say anything Bigger about the lack of iconic figures in American entertainment? Were someone to do a spot-on Julia Roberts or John Cusack or, flashing forward a bit, Reese Witherspoon or Jake Gyllenhaal, would anyone recognize the source and the accuracy of the reproduction? And, for the singing impressionists who are still doing Sinatra and Johnny Mathis and Cher, who is currently universally recognizable? Not too many people working on their Britney Spears or Alicia Keys or Eddie Vedder, I daresay. While current-day film and television celebrities are not totally ignored, the bulk of the contemporary impressions I've seen tend to come from the world of animation (Family Guy, The Simpsons, South Park, Spongebob Squarepants), sci-fi (Terminator/Star Wars/Star Trek), and politics (Bush 43 and Bill Clinton). Of course, there may be a built-in lag for celebrities outside politics to become sufficiently iconic that they are identifiable by a catchphrase and a facial quirk. Current impressionists seem to be stuck in the mid-'80s with their DeNiros and Pacinos and Robin Williamses. But it is still hard to imagine anyone being plucked out of contemporary film and television in ten years who will have the same resonance and universality that a John Wayne or Cary Grant or Bette Davis had for an earlier generation. Which may be why these long-dead stars are still being exhumed nightly by the hack impressionists of the world.

The third thing which struck me was the extent to which the repertoires of impressionists past and present serve as a barometer of the Eurocentricity and androcentricity of our popular culture, with the corollary observation that there are almost no female or Black impressionists. Marilyn Michaels was it during the '60s and '70s, and even she based her success on her singing ability coupled with her gift for mimicry. Without the opportunity to build an act around the songs of Garland, Streisand, and others, whom would she have had left to "do"? Or, rather, what women would have been universally familiar and sufficiently memorable for her to caricature? Bette Davis, okay. Tallulah Bankhead. Joan Crawford, maybe. And they're still a generation before Michaels. Jane Fonda? Could you tell if someone was doing a great Jane Fonda? Or a Maggie Smith? Or a Lee Grant? How about Emma Thompson? Or Meryl Streep? These are all great actresses of their respective generations and yet at best one might recognize an impression of them in a specific role. Of course, someone could point out male actors who've never been "done", but the point that seems to glimmer here is that, traditionally, female actors--at least those who have not been willing to play the grotesque--have, consciously or not, presented fewer features to caricature than their male counterparts.

Similarly, Black impressionists (old-school: George Kirby; new-school: Reggie Reg) are few on the ground. Their situation, interestingly, is a twist on that of female impressionists: they do not want for recognizable (male) models to caricature but, on the national level, they are constrained by the Black figures who will be recognizable to a mass audience. In the preceding clip, Reggie Reg "does" Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Denzel Washington, Bill Cosby (no-one, black or white, doesn't "do" Cosby and his frickin' Jello Pudding Pops), Jesse Jackson, and Richard Pryor along with a few White voices before a Black audience. On his Letterman appearance, he leads off with a so-so Bush 43, features the most famous of the Black impressions from his club act, and introduces Schwarzenegger and Clinton. In the 1978 Kirby clip, before a White audience, he focuses on Black singers (Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Joe Williams), "does" Archie and Edith Bunker only passably, then Gregory Peck, Edgar Buchanan, John Wayne, and back to Bill Cosby. Kirby's emphasis on White impressions is a function of the times in which he developed his act, just as is the case for Sammy Davis Jr. who, among his many skills, was an excellent impressionist (witness his fine 1960 Royal Command performance, impressions starting at 6:00 of the clip, here and an impressionist mano-a-mano where he kicks Rich Little's butt here). Thirty years later, the situation has improved, but only just.

After watching a flock of impressionists and hearing audience reaction to their routines, I think the appeal of these acts, which, as I've noted, are not exactly masterpieces of narrative, comes in two ways. First, the accuracy of the impression is delightful to audiences, particularly in that first moment when the impressionist opens his or her mouth and out pops a voice uncannily like that of a celebrity. There is an audible frisson of pleasure at recognition for the best impressions. Second, and related to that shudder of delight at the accuracy of the impression, is a shudder of delight at the unease caused by the temporary possession of the impressionist by the disembodied celebrity. Like the human-riding Loa of Haitian Vodou, the spirits of singers and actors appear to enter the impressionists and speak through their mouths. Our protective line between the Self and the Other is temporarily smudged, albeit in a safe environment. The more accurate the impression, then, the greater the sense of uncanniness about the performance. Of course, the hokiness and corn of many performers' routines tend to undermine an audience's sense of wonder and awe, as does the careless way in which one impression follows another in quick succession, but occasionally a performer can hit that seam of pleasure and unease and it is clearly audible in the audience's reaction.

For those who, for some reason, have not seen or heard enough impressionists, here are the lineups from David Letterman's 2006 and 2007 Impressionist Weeks, some of which have already been linked above: (2006) Rich Little, Fred Travalena, Gordie Brown, Frank Caliendo, and Kevin Pollak. (2007) Rob Magnotti, John Byner, Mike MacRae, Joe Piscopo (for whom no YouTube Letterman clip exists), and Reggie Reg.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go practice my Ronald Reagan-meets-Robert DeNiro.
"Weeell, there you go again..." "You talkin' to me? You talking to ME?!"


Anonymous said...

holy cow!
This is not a blog, it's a tome on Western civilization, a history of popular culture, and a "Stand Up for Dummies" edition all rolled into one of the sobsister's best pieces!

And Frank Caliendo is nothing short of a Revelation! I was ROTFLMAO and LOL and FUBAR and the whole time I was watching him! Really!

brb, Barry

Anonymous said...

OMG! Our SobSister's a national treasure, in't 'e, Pastor?
A treat to see you 'round these parts.

BTW, mad vocal mimicry props to Jane Horrocks - watch "Little Voice" and cringe in shame, knowing that you never spent your childhood "doing" Judy & Shirley Bassey in your loo mirror.
Oh, for what could have been.

the sobsister said...

Thanks to you both for reading this lengthy bit and writing.

And, yes, OF, I utterly spaced on including Jane Horrocks after intending to do so. Maybe I can find some good YT footage to cite...

frenchtwist said...

I'm a bit late reading this outstanding essay, but what a pleasure to find it waiting to be read!

The entire piece is marvelous, and your dissection and analysis of the appeal of impressionist acts provided its own shudder of delight and unease. Fine writing in combination with a clear view of popular culture is a deadly combination.

And extra special thanks for the many clips to watch and compare.

Anonymous said...

My aren't we quick to judge what we cannot do.

the sobsister said...

We are quick to judge what we ourselves cannot do. You should hear us wail on crocheting. Ouch!