Except for what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears, the whole world is mediated. What we know comes to us filtered, reshaped, edited, redacted, translated, gussied up or dumbed down, spun, sampled, selected, dressed in a tuxedo or wearing a red nose.
As happens every four years, we are once again confronted with a cast of characters asking to be elected president of the United States. Some seem serious, some dubious, some hilarious. As good citizens (to give us all the benefit of the doubt), it's our duty to try to make some sense of them, as senseless as they can seem.
Whole industries of interpretation exist to help us do this; some have agendas, some believe they do not. But every lens distorts the image, except for some really cutting-edge high-tech ones that are the exception that proves the metaphor.
Distortion, oddly, can also be a way to the truth, and comedy — which on the face of it is all distortion — is one of the most common ways we come to understand the world and to bear it. There's a reason that every late-night weeknight brings a host of topical monologues, from a host of talk-show hosts, and on Saturday night there is "Saturday Night Live," and on Sunday there is John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight."
One great tool in this kit or weapon in this arsenal is the celebrity impersonation. They can involve makeup and costumes or just catching the sound and the body language, a way of holding the shoulders, or furrowing a brow. With mere celebrities, impersonations often take a potted "what if?" attack: "If Jack Nicholson were captain of the Olympic hockey team, I think it might go something like this." Political figures, who might affect our lives, are something else again: We live with them, and their works and how they're interpreted by impressionists can bind with the original to create a kind of new political reality.
And so Will Ferrell's George W. Bush melds with the genuine item to create a third plausible person; we might forget where one ends and the other begins. His Bush seems simultaneously sure of things and continually taken by surprise; he played him on "SNL" only from 1999 to 2003 — Darrell Hammond, Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis followed him in the part — but Ferrell wasn't done with him.
In 2009, Ferrell mounted a Broadway show, "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush"; it was accompanied by a 12-minute promotional piece still floating online in which Ferrell as suit-and-tie Bush interviews Ferrell as cowboy-hat Bush about their time in office, favorite sorts of wood ("I like just a simple wood like pine; a burnished pine.... Other times I like oak, an oak plank") and what animal cowboy Bush would be could he be an animal ("a turkey vulture — they're underrated because they're actually quite smart; they hunt in packs"). It is both impossible and weirdly credible.
This might seem to be limiting. But by showing you things about a politician a politician would never (wittingly) show you, impersonations can expand our sense of them — it doesn't matter if the facts are fudged or completely from space as long as the writing is good and the performance feels true. Even by making public figures more ridiculous, such comedy can make them more human and more familiar and therefore more forgivable.
And there's something magical about mimicry, like ventriloquism or sock puppetry; it's delightful in the same way as pulling cards out of thin air. To bring another person to life, to talk their talk, to walk their walk — it's a kind of voodoo portraiture, with the body as the medium. Even when caustic or critical, it often engenders good feelings.
Often the impression can take on a life of its own. Cary Grant never said, "Judy, Judy, Judy," nor Cagney, "You dirty rat, you killed my brother." When you say, "You are correct, sir," in a grandiloquent stentorian tone, you are doing an impression of Phil Hartman doing an impression of Ed McMahon; surely there are many who know the simulation who have never seen the original. Sarah Palin never said, "I can see Russia from my house." That was Tina Fey, dressed as Sarah Palin, saying lines in a sketch on "Saturday Night Live."
Larry David, who has now played Bernie Sanders twice on "SNL," is this year's Fey, brought back to the show (where he had unsuccessfully been a staff writer) to fulfill what seems like a genetic destiny. In each case, the resemblance (visual in Fey's case, vocal in David's) was widely noted before the performance was staged; it's impersonation by popular demand. When they finally went live, it felt gleefully fulfilling.
"SNL," which came into being on the eve of an election year, is the great purveyor of celebrity impersonations; it has the advantages of topicality on one hand and of tradition on the other, and when a presidential election cycles around it's expected that it will field a stand-in for every major candidate. There is a sense of expectation each time in seeing who'll get which part. (With extreme personalities Donald Trump and, in his opposite way, Ben Carson as GOP front-runners, the current cycle has been a gift to mimics.)
They were not scrupulous in their approach at first: Dan Aykroyd played Jimmy Carter in a gray wig but kept his mustache; Chevy Chase didn't play Ford at all but rather inhabited a running gag based on Ford's having once slipped on a wet gangway while descending from Air Force One in the rain — a pratfall waiting to happen, surrealistically confused — but otherwise looking and sounding like Chase.
Indeed, many of that show's best-remembered sketches are built around impersonations: "Nixon's Final Days," with Aykroyd as the president and John Belushi; "Ask President Carter," in which Aykroyd's Carter talks a caller down off LSD; "Mastermind," with Hartman as Reagan, revealing himself in private to be a take-charge, Eliot Ness sort; Hartman again as Bill Clinton, jogging into a McDonald's to steal diners' food while talking policy; a Clinton Halloween party, with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, Hammond as Bill Clinton and then-candidate Barack Obama as himself.
Hammond's Bill Clinton — signified by an upturned thumb (or two) and a bitten lower lip — was a bad boy continually caught with his hand in the cookie jar, unwilling to confess, unable to sit still. "Mad TV" vet Frank Caliendo, a master mimic who might dress up for a part but doesn't need to, caught his mind-clouding seductive side in a stand-up routine: "He could stand in front of you right now, look you directly in the eyes and say [becoming Clinton], 'I. Am. Not. Here.'"
Hillary Clinton has a history with "SNL" that reaches back into the early 1990s; generations of comedians have played her, including Janeane Garofalo, the late Jan Hooks and Ana Gasteyer. Poehler didn't do the voice but rather assumed a kind of dignity interrupted at times by a maniacal laugh. (The laugh seems to be a common feature of all "SNL" Hillarys.) If Kate McKinnon seems the most fully realized, it may be in part that she's had the benefit of so many Clintons: First lady, a wronged woman, a senator, the secretary of State and, once again, candidate for the presidency; her Clinton is mostly tough and not, as in some earlier interpretations, mostly desperate. Recently she played Clinton opposite Clinton herself, playing a bartender.
As to the current president — memorably incarnated by "SNL's" Jay Pharoah (who already has a creepily deadpan Carson going), "Key & Peele's" Jordan Peele and Dion Flynn on "The Tonight Show" (opposite Jimmy Fallon's Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump) — physically he gives the impressionists an easy ride, with his stops and starts, his fetishistic usage "folks," his big ears. But there is so little drama in his person and his home life that the lack of drama has become the subject itself. And so you get Keegan-Michael Key as the "anger translator" for Peele's Obama, taking his measured statements and jacking them up into trash talk. Or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson guesting on "SNL," becoming the Hulk-ish incarnation of Obama's anger — The Rock Obama, "much like Barack Obama, only larger and more violent."
Changing the humor from the third person to the first — from the talk-show monologuist's "Today the president [did something]; that's like [humorous simile]" to the actor's cracked re-creation of the event, the creation of a life — makes a lot of difference. Performance requires understanding, putting on a different skin; it binds human to human. As David Frye, who was to Richard Nixon as Vaughn Meader was to John Kennedy — stand-up comics identified with a single presidential impersonation — told Esquire in 1970, "I figure that everybody is trying to sell something, has some angle, and I figure out what the person's angle is, and set my mind the way his is set, and right away I'm automatically thinking that way.... I do Nixon not by copying his real actions but by feeling his attitude."
This humanization is also evident in the work of longtime Nixon mimic Harry Shearer, best known for "The Simpsons," "Spinal Tap" and as part of the Christopher Guest stock company but the host since 1983 of "Le Show," first on public radio and now as a podcast, which has featured occasional playlets on the lives of the presidents: "Hellcats of the White House" in the Reagan years; "Clintonsomething"; "41 Calls 43," featuring George H.W. and George W. Bush; and the ongoing "Nixon in Heaven" (all Shearer). The sketches may be inspired by current events, but they're couched in a wealth of domestic and personal detail that at their best makes them more convincing than the news.
Even with the most reported on, the most photographed and filmed and interviewed public figures, we can feel we are missing something, some elemental truth — among politicians, amplified by the hopeful, career-long creation of an electable persona. That's part of what makes biopics so appealing: They promise to fill in the gaps, to make what's remote recognizable and real. Though they may stretch a point, or all the points, comic impersonators do the same, with a twist. It's funny because it might be true.