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Impersonation's Real Deals
The Best in the Business Read a Lot More Than Politicians' Lips, and Affect a Lot More Than Ratings

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.

Remember: It's not just the voice.

Caliendo doesn't just sound like his subjects; he often looks like them, too. His malleable facial features are a big part of his act (check out his squinty-eyed Robert De Niro or his mischievous Robin Williams, for example).

"Imagine drawing a triangle from your eyebrows to the point of your chin. That's where people see the impression, in that triangle. That's where I see it," says Caliendo, who develops impersonations by watching himself in the mirror.

Skilled impersonators get the body language right, too. Hammond punctuates his Clinton with a signature physical move -- biting his lower lip to convey (smarmily) his sincerity.

"It's easiest when you're doing someone people love or hate," Caliendo observes. "There's an emotional tie, and all you have to do is amplify that thing that bothers people or triggers that reaction."

Adds Little, who's been impersonating presidents since the Kennedy administration: "It's like imitating your teachers when you were a kid. People love to poke fun at authority and to bring them down to size."

Good material can overcome a bad impersonation, but even a great impersonation can't overcome bad material.

Dan Aykroyd impersonated Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to such hilarious effect in the '70s that few people cared that Aykroyd had a mustache ("SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels tried to get him to shave, to no avail). Jon Lovitz didn't sound much like Michael Dukakis, but he played a classic Dukakis just days before the 1988 election against George H.W. Bush ("I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!" whined Lovitz-as-Dukakis).

Chevy Chase's Gerald Ford might have been the most anti-impression impression of all. Yet Chase's pratfalls during "SNL's" first season largely painted Ford as a bumbler, and might have lent, in some small way, to Ford's defeat in 1976. And Poehler has never captured Clinton's voice or look (outside of wearing a pantsuit) this year. But her Clinton held up even with the real Hillary standing right next to her. Some pundits even credit those Poehler-as-Clinton skits -- which argued that the media were slighting Hillary and favoring Obama's campaign -- with toughening up coverage of Obama.

"It's much more about capturing some aspect of them that rings true," says Michaels, who co-founded "SNL" 33 years ago. "It's not so important to physically mimic everything they do as to get some essence."

When casting about for an Obama imitator last spring, Michaels auditioned "four or five" non-"SNL" players for the role, but rejected all of them (at one point, even Maya Rudolph, who has left the show, was under consideration). Then Marci Klein, one of the show's producers, suggested Armisen.

Although Armisen bears a faint resemblance to Obama -- and his eventual selection elicited some criticism because Armisen is not black -- Michaels liked what he saw. "Some of the others were technically great, but what Fred was doing seemed to have something strong and benign," Michaels says. "It was the funniest take" on the man.

Armisen, who has impersonated such figures as Prince and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the show, says he studied Obama by listening to a recording of him reading his memoir "The Audacity of Hope." He also consulted with Hammond.

But Armisen's inspiration, oddly, was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, whom Armisen has also portrayed on the program. "If you've ever seen [Jobs] introducing a new product onstage, he makes it into pure entertainment. It's pure art," says Armisen, 41. "He has these dramatic pauses. He believes what he's talking about, like it's almost religious. I see the same thing in Obama."

A great catchphrase goes a long way.

Dana Carvey defined George H.W. Bush with just two phrases ("Nahgonnadoit!" and "Wouldn't be prudent") and Ross Perot with one ("Can I finish?!"). He did so by repeating the catchphrases maniacally.

Did Will Ferrell need to say or do more to conjure George W. Bush after he said "strategery"? And just about anyone can suggest President Ronald Reagan with a slight turn of the head and a simple, "Well . . . " (Rich Little tells the story of doing Reagan in front of Reagan himself. Reagan was amused, says Little, and responded with some impressions of his own -- Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Truman Capote. "Well, what did you think?" Reagan asked. "Keep your day job," shot back Don Rickles, according to Little.)

While a catchphrase doesn't an impersonation make, it's striking that no one has quite defined Obama and McCain this way yet. McCain, of course, loves to drop "my friends" into his sentences, and Obama likes to answer questions with a blunt, "Well, look . . . " But neither verbal tic has really been mined for its comic possibilities.

On the other hand:

Political impersonations, like politicians and presidents, tend to evolve.

"The guy on the campaign trail isn't the guy you'll see in office," Caliendo says. "Once you're in office, it all changes. People are focused on you. You're not entirely in control of that environment. The people running for office can't let their guard down. But as president, they might start acting normal again."

So count on a new comic take to emerge during an Obama or McCain administration.

Little says Reagan never was offended by his imitators and actually praised his impersonation, just as Bush the elder enjoyed Carvey's imitation of him.

Reagan "said to me, 'Rich, you do that so well you ought to be president. You can carry on for me when I'm gone.' And I said: 'But Mr. President, I don't want to be president. And besides, I'm Canadian.' "

"Well," said Reagan, momentarily becoming an impersonation of himself, "I can fix that."

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