There was a time, not too long ago, when you could have a career impersonating celebrities. You could make your way, pay your mortgage, live a life — by not being just as talented as those you impersonated, but by being more talented than they — because you had to be at least as good as the star you were impersonating to faithfully match their power! In the 1960’s and 1970’s you would often see impressionists on mainstream, broadcast television. Frank Gorshin — of Riddler Batman fame — was so much more than a comic book character. Gorshin had the ear for sounding like other famous people. Rich Little was another staple entertainer of my childhood — doing impressions of stars of yesterday, who are all now long faded, or dead — but Rich’s talent was so great that he became just as famous as those he sounded alike.
Celebrities of the day who were ripe for impersonation were Elvis Presley, Anthony Newley, Ed Sullivan, Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller, Judy Garland and any big name movie star.
Here’s some of that famous Frank Gorshin impressions magic:
This is how Rich Little earned his way — his political impressions are great to this day:
Another actor, who also did killer impressions, was John Byner. John was underrated as an impressionist, but he was just as good as Frank Gorshin, and Rich Little. Watch and see:
Marilyn Michaels was another tremendous talent. Not only did she sound like Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland — she sang just like them! Can you imagine a bigger talent than being able to match the singing talents of the greatest voices of all time?
Some tend to wipe off the residue of Marilyn’s impressions as foolish, or gaudy, but if you watch her, know her, you can witness the immense power of her voice, and acting ability! If you want star power magnified by a magnitude, Marilyn Michaels is a rocket to the moon!
Jim Bailey was another great monument of talent. He recently died, but he left behind a great legacy of female impersonation, and one of the most beautiful voices — male or female — to ever grace a stage performance.
Jim made his fame doing impressions of Phyllis Diller, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand. He didn’t just sing like them, he became them in total. His makeup routine, and costume changes, were magnificent, and sublime.
Would Frank Gorshin, Jim Bailey, Rich Little, Marilyn Michaels and John Byner be able to work today if they were just starting out on an impressions career?
Few people today would understand the cultural references they are imitating, mocking, and paying tribute to — and we have also changed as an entertainment society in our cultural memes.
You do an impression of someone to take their mannerisms, deficits, talents and quirks to the next level; and how would that be possible today?
Can you do an impression of Lady Gaga? No, she’s already a mockery of herself, and her own image.
Kanye West is unmockable — in that nobody could dare to imitate who, and what he is — because he is already unbelievable in himself. Kanye is forever his own, failed, impression.
Kim Kardashian? Well, she really has no talent that would even begin to serve as fodder for an impression.
What about Beyonce? What is unique about her performance, or singing style, that would warrant an impression? Sure, you can be Ariana Grande and “sing like” Beyonce, but that isn’t an impression.
Impressions are sustainable, funny, fun, and spectacular, and they add something extra — a residual self-awareness that is missing from the primary sanction — but the basis of that impression, the “primary person of origin” has to be unique enough to be worthy of being impressionable!
We live in a loud, and cockeyed, world where Saturday Night Live struggles to do an impression of a President, and his staff, because nothing is funnier, or more disgusting, than the truth of what is now our everyday life. Can you send up a President with an impression if the originating outrage is already the defining unreality in the Uncanny Valley?
We have lost something in this transactional form of entertainment. There is no room for expansion of the fame via impression. We no longer have the ability to laugh at what we love, or relive what we’ve become, because we are too brittle, too loud, too out there — and too untalented, and too untamed, to be able to regulate, and sustain, a public mocking of who we claim to be — and there is a great sadness in not being able to laugh at ourselves, and to identify our faults, in the stars of others.