From 2 Blowhards:
At lunch with a couple of arts buddies, we found ourselves trying to come up with fairly-recent performance forms that you don’t see (or see much) anymore. We came up with three that were very popular during our kid-hoods but that are all but invisible today:
* Ventriloquists–they were once a standard feature on variety shows.
* Impersonators–hard to remember, but people who did impressions of celebrities were once very popular: “Here’s … Jack Paar! [applause] And here’s … Dwight Eisenhower! [applause]” Remember buying LP’s by impersonators? Who was that guy who did the whole Kennedy family, for instance?
* Comedy teams–Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, the Ritz Brothers, etc.
This caught my eye not only because I recently wrote about The Ed Sullivan Show, a veritable time capsule of such old-fashioned comedy, but because I happened to see Kevin Pollak, a standup comedian turned actor (he’s in A Few Good Men, among many other films) who’s doing standup again, at the Improv in Washington, D.C. not long ago. Pollak does impersonations (he’s modestly famous for his William Shatner), and he did a bunch of them at the Improv to brilliant effect. Not surprisingly, his Jack Nicholson is wildly funny, but it was his Robert De Niro that all but stopped the show–partly, I think, because he doesn’t say anything when he’s doing it. Usually, the best impersonations are three-layer cakes in which you duplicate the voice, simulate the face, and caricature the personality. Instead, Pollak just stood there and looked like De Niro (whom he doesn’t look a bit like), and my mouth fell open with amazement and delight.
I’m old enough, by the way, to remember the greatest of all impersonators, David Frye, who did Richard Nixon with such weird exactitude that it made you positively uncomfortable. And I should mention that one of my friends, a classical composer, does impersonations of other classical composers–a highly specialized niche, to be sure, but they’re really funny. (His Ned Rorem is almost too good to be true.)
(For the record, it was Vaughn Meader who did the Kennedys, and the album was called The First Family. And I like ventriloquists, too.)