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Those who leave a lasting impression

Mocking the famous through imitation and exaggeration does more than make us laugh.

December 26, 2007|Miles Beller | Special to The Times

Q: Name three famous Impressionists.

A: Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Frank Caliendo.

OK, one of these names does not belong. The first two are renowned art stars who artfully smeared pigment onto stretched canvas while the third is a contemporary comic who artfully smears the stars by stretching his body into a canvas of caricature.

Indeed, as embodied by the likes of Caliendo, who has appeared on MADtv and most recently as headliner of "Frank TV" -- a TBS series that fared well in its first five episodes, then went dark in mid-December because of the writers strike -- celebrity parody is alive and well and subversively mocking those adrift in the Sargasso Sea of pop notoriety.

And as is true of "Saturday Night Live" and "MADtv," what Caliendo and confreres do owes a debt to that holy grail of contemporary TV sketch comedy, "Second City Television." For "SCTV" pioneered exquisitely staged routines that fricasseed the famous by plunging them into absurd circumstance -- Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley as sleazy drunks at a bar, Yassir Arafat as a guest on the Merv Griffin show. And so in this tradition Caliendo has rendered John Madden as a buffoonish bloviator unhinged to reality, Bill Clinton as an oily ex-president with a lascivious agenda, William Shatner as a scenery-chomping ham compulsively overacting, Jack Nicholson as a slightly deranged old lech, and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as loopy, self-referential versions of themselves.

Smartly seizing a gesture here and cagily copping a mannerism there, the impressionist zeros in on the traits of superstar actors, national politicians and those merely known for being known. With the upturn of an eyebrow or the well-timed twitch of a lower lip, the celebrity mimic captures his or her prey's essence; reassembling and then amplifying movement and vocal intonation into crafty caricature.

Witnessing such sly comic interpretations of the famous reminds us just how satisfying celebrity spoofing can be. In fact, mocking the eminent and ridiculing the mighty has enjoyed a long and lively history.

Many a Borscht Belt kibitzer parlayed imitations of Jack Kennedy, Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart into tidy careers. And in the smoky lounges and after-hour haunts of Las Vegas, more than a few stand-up funnymen would saunter onstage to ape James Cagney's cocky cadence or Elvis's syrupy sincerity, bringing it all home with a swaggering John Wayne.

Even today, in more than a few spots on and off the strip, celebrity impersonation thrives. One current Vegas attraction features impressionists resurrecting the Rat Pack; giving life and voice to such swingers as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. In the hit show "Jersey Boys," a restaging of the history and music of the harmonizing Four Seasons, celebrity imitation rousingly resonates.

Perhaps the popularity of mimicry mining the 1960s and 1970s should come as no surprise, since these decades now appear as a sort of golden age of celebrity impersonation. This was the heyday of Rich Little and Frank Gorshin, George Kirby and Charlie Callas, Marilyn Michaels and Fred Travalena, David Frye and Edie Adams. And, in fact, during the impression-rich presidency of Richard "I am not a crook!" Nixon, ABC aired a short-lived variety series featuring many of these impersonators collected in a comedy troupe called The Kopycats. Nixon even satirized himself when he appeared on the breakthrough network comedy "Laugh-in," popping on-screen to demand in the ultimate and most authentic Nixonian deadpan, "Sock it to me."

Moreover, considering the proliferation of celebrity parodies streaming on the Internet, a new impressionist renaissance might be in the offing. YouTube abounds with herky-jerky vids by amateurs and professionals dissing everyone from Barack Obama to Osama Bin Laden.

One arch offering, "How to be an Impressionist," transmits a postmodern vamp on the celebrity impersonator's craft. Here, after advising the would-be mimic to first check if she or he has a mouth (a mouth being essential equipment in this line of work), the video counsels not to " . . . attempt an impression in the dark."

But not everyone has been historically sold on the value of assuming another's aspects. No less an authority on how to behave than Ralph Waldo Emerson harrumphed that "Imitation is suicide." Consequently, what's so funny about watching a celebrity impersonator masquerade as contemporary luminary? Honestly, why do get such a kick out of seeing someone who is moderately famous pretending to be someone who is monstrously famous? Could the glee wrung from belittling this narcissistic screen star or that gasbag politician gratify a basic human instinct to kick pedestals out from under the obnoxiously rich and portentously famous?

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