Many people know Kevin Nealon best from his “Saturday Night Live” years, when he anchored “Weekend Update,” impersonated such figures as ’90s-era Joe Biden and was half of the Schwarzenegger-spoofing Hans and Franz. Some folks are fans of his more recent shows such as “Still Standing” or “Weeds.” These days, though, when not onstage, he is winning some of his heartiest raves for drawing upon the inspiration of celebrity itself.
The comedian who’s performed so many physical impressions now devotes long hours to his painterly impressions of famous faces.
Pop on to Nealon’s Instagram and you’ll see his skewed view of such showbiz friends as Dana Carvey and Dave Chappelle, as well as Hollywood acquaintances like Lauren Bacall and Emma Stone. The performer has long relished rendering people loosely — whether strangers on a plane or castmates at a table read — but in the past several years, the funnyman has become quite serious about learning to master the tools and techniques of caricature.
For decades, art “was something to please me,” Nealon says by Zoom from Manhattan, shortly before a late-night show appearance. “But the more I did it, the more people responded to it. You sketch somebody and people really appreciate it.”
Now, the 68-year-old Emmy nominee is sharing his art as curated experience. His playful portraits of entertainers present and past will be on display in his first art book, the highly engaging “I Exaggerate: My Brushes With Fame,” due out Tuesday.
Nealon says this collection was largely born of the pandemic: “I started drawing a lot because I couldn’t do comedy. I realized that the caricatures were nonverbal comedy.”
During this time, when not posting seasons of his “Hiking With Kevin” video series online, the Los Angeles area-based Nealon was painting people with whom he had a direct connection or whose professional work he admired, often both. Throughout the book, he blends his predominantly digital works with mostly personal anecdotes about the boldface names in his orbit, whether enduring turbulence with pilot John Travolta, playing star-studded basketball on Garry Shandling’s home court or chilling at the Tennessee spread of Brad Paisley.
The country singer-songwriter got an up-close view of the actor’s passion for his craft after the coronavirus hit, as the Paisley and Nealon families isolated together for several months. Paisley would walk past his kitchen table to find his friend hard at play at his computer screen.
“He really works at capturing the essence of a person,” Paisley says by phone from the Nashville area. So is Nealon’s portrait of Paisley a truthful depiction? “Yeah, unfortunately,” Paisley says with a laugh, noting that his portrait deftly reflects how he smiles in concert when something especially tickles him.
Paisley sees a connection between Nealon’s comedy and art. “He finds humor in some of life’s simplest things,” the singer says. “He’s able to take something that you would think of as a bedrock of reality, and he exposes it as absurd. And he’s done that with all of our faces.”
Adds Paisley, “To be inside his head, it’s a funhouse mirrors existence.”
Nealon wryly acknowledges that developing his eye for caricature has affected him: “Whenever I’m walking around, I don’t see people in their regular form. I see them with their exaggerated features.”
The comedian has drawn inspiration from another friend: esteemed caricature artist Jason Seiler. “I can honestly say that I was shocked when I saw Kevin’s work, and to be honest, a little annoyed,” says Seiler, noting that caricature is about more than lampooning a face. It requires capturing a person’s essence, likeness and feeling.
That collective gift for rendering? Seiler says, “Kevin has it.”
Nealon has long been fascinated with the humorous line. His family split time between Connecticut and Germany while his father worked in the helicopter industry, and Nealon vividly recalls discovering a back-of-napkin caricature as a kid while on a base in Germany. The goofy cartoon fired his imagination.
So, too, did the exaggerated pastel portraits in his bedroom as a boy. A Paris artist had humorously rendered Nealon’s parents. “Subconsciously, I would lay in bed and stare at them,” says Nealon, who also has a sister who is an artist. “I was studying how to do caricatures. I could see what he did with my father’s forehead or with my mother’s eyes.”
Nealon devoured the Mad magazine celebrity caricatures of Mort Drucker and liked Al Hirschfeld’s artwork. By high school, his margin doodles were being praised by teachers.
He kept idly sketching on the go. By the ’80s, he also enjoyed talking art with castmate Phil Hartman, who before joining “Saturday Night Live” designed album covers for such bands as Steely Dan, Poco and America.
As Nealon decided to grow his talent in recent years, he took online classes with master caricaturist Paul Moyse, who calls Nealon an “exemplary” student. “His work was already showing potential before he started, but he was determined to improve and worked hard to get even better,” Moyse says, noting that his student has “a great eye for likeness.”
Beyond his sphere of comedy, some of Nealon’s art reflects his appreciation for such musicians as Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Prince, Tom Petty and his dear friend James Taylor.
Vedder, a songwriter and lead singer of the band Pearl Jam and on “Earthling,” says he’s humbled by the portrait, which impressed him because “this was one of the first times I ever saw one I felt captured me.”
Speaking by phone, Vedder emphasizes Nealon’s attention to detail: “The wool army socks I’m wearing, the Boy Scout shirt, my teeth. I have longer nails on my right hand for guitar picking, and he got that very subtly.” Even the feeling of hitting a note that takes significant effort: “I feel like that is represented there.”
The rock singer appreciates the “good humor” of the artwork, too, right down to the ukulele under his arm.
Because of caricature, Nealon has also grown his friendship with another comedic performer turned visual artist: Jim Carrey.
“Less than a year ago, I ran into him at a party and we both started talking about our artwork. In 15 minutes, I connected with him more than the previous 38 years,” Nealon says, noting that Carrey has invited him over to his home studio and shared his belief that art and artists, more than actors and singers, can become immortalized.
Art, Nealon says, “does bring people together.”