Saturday, October 22, 2011


My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend, let's talk about impersonations. John Powers, in an essay on "Fresh Air," argues for an incongruity account for the humor of impressions. He contends:

Of course, mimicry is not the world's most exalted talent, but I would cheerfully spend a whole night watching Bryden and Coogan do their warring James Bonds. This isn't simply because I am myself the world's worst mimic — I once reduced my sister, Becky, to hysterics with my hapless Howard Cosell, perhaps the all-time easiest person to impersonate. It's because good mimicry is kissed with the uncanny. Whether it's Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin or Jimmy Fallon's Neil Young, we hear the right voice coming from the wrong body. And in the process, we're shown something new about the person being mimicked.
The idea that impressions are funny because we see the right voice come out of the wrong body, I believe, is completely wrong. What makes impressions funny is not an incongruity being revealed, like a joke that uncovers some unspoken truth of the mark, but rather a congruity, a similarity made absurd, in the same way that a caricature or political cartoon does. Impressions, like those of Rich Little or Frank Caliendo, are not recreations of the target -- as say an Elvis impersonator strives to do -- but rather a recreation of a culturally constructed icon, a simplified, flattened image of the person. The standard Bogart impression, for example, makes use of the phrase "Play it again, Sam," something Bogart himself never said -- but the cartoon icon we have of him, did.

Consider the example that Powers uses, a piece of The Trip, a BBC series following comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they go from great restaurant to restaurant:Brydon and Coogan are not arguing about Michael Caine, they are arguing about the icon of Michael Caine and what are essential properties of it. The standard impersonation, therefore, is to recreate the icon of a well-known individual.

But the more intricate version is the incongruent situation icon where we take the incon of a well-known figure and put it in a context that one would never expect to find the actual target in and use it to create absurdity or find unexpected congruences. A magnificent example has gone viral lately, the "Ira Glass Sex Tape." Masterful. It not only hits an icon of the target, but does so in a way that is exactly what it would sound like if...

Other favorite impersonations?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve