Impersonation's Real Deals

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Frank Caliendo plays George W. Bush as an overconfident frat boy who tries to pass off nonsensical pronouncements with a smirk, a chuckle and an ingratiating twist of his eyebrows.

"Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen does Barack Obama in a halting cadence, sketching someone so cautious and controlled that he's keeping his personality under lock and key.

And Hillary Clinton? "SNL's" Amy Poehler has portrayed her as a woman smiling through thwarted ambition and barely suppressed rage.

Political impersonations are an elusive thing, but when they are dead-on -- when the comic take on a subject rings so right -- the impression can nearly define a candidate. Think of Dana Carvey's George Bush the elder, or Darrell Hammond's Al Gore, to cite two of "SNL's" greatest hits, and sometimes the real person starts to seem like an imitation of the imitation.

This is, of course, high season for political impressions. "SNL" has scored huge ratings with its takes on Obama, John McCain et al. (tonight, in a kind of impersonation hall-of-mirrors, its guest host is actor Josh Brolin -- who portrays President Bush in the new Oliver Stone biopic "W." -- and Tina Fey reprises her Sarah Palin alongside the real Palin, who's scheduled to appear).

Meanwhile, the lesser-seen "Mad TV" on Fox and Caliendo's "Frank TV" on TBS are madly riffing on political figures, too. And legendary impersonator Rich Little, who turns 70 next month, is still performing regularly across the country.

With so much satire, and so little time (many political impersonations lose much currency after Election Day), here's a brief tour of the art form from the top practitioners:

It's the little things that count.

Hammond, "SNL's" indispensable impressionist, develops his impersonations by breaking his subject's voice down by age, dialect, tone, pace, speech impediments, among other factors. But he never studies the voice alone. Hammond looks at video images of his subjects to capture such things as their posture, facial expressions and distinctive gestures.

The key, he says, are the vowels. "All consonants sound the same," says Hammond, at 53 the show's oldest cast member, as well as its longest-serving (13 years). "If I had a tape of us, my consonants would sound just like yours. But you pick different vowel sounds than I do. Even just one [vowel change] can make someone sound different."

Once you've got that part down, he says, then you have to "italicize" it: exaggerate it, stretch it, blow it up for comedic effect.

Hammond has done dozens of famous people (Jesse Jackson, Sean Connery, Chris Matthews, among the more noteworthy), but some of his best-loved impressions are of political figures. Hammond does a brilliant Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton is still his most requested character during his stand-up shows. His characterization of Gore ("Lock box!" "Under mah plan . . . ") during the 2000 campaign was so devastating that Gore's aides showed it to the candidate to help him not act that way after his first debate with George W. Bush.

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