ACCEPT IMITATIONS: A Beginner’s Guide to Performing Impressions, Chapter Four: VIEWPOINT

If a useful definition of acting is “Knowingly taking on another viewpoint”, then the subject of doing impressions is just another facet of acting, because more than anything else, your performance will live or die on this one point.

No one views the world from exactly the same position in space as anyone else, at the same time.  Even the famous Bunker brothers Chang & Eng, the so-called “Siamese Twins” who were co-joined at the chest, had to turn to one another and ask, “Is my tie on straight?”

The thing that makes Bogart, Johnny Carson, Barack Obama, or for that matter Bart Simpson unique and recognizable as voices has as much to do with how they view the world as the frequency of the sound waves they produce in our ears.

Indeed, some child performers or women, whose voices are much higher than those of most adult males, can do a great job of creating impressions of famous men even though their tone is completely inaccurate and would never be mistaken for the real thing.

They do this by sufficiently embodying the character and presenting it to us with whatever sonic ability they have.  You are aware they are a young person or a female, but mainly that they are also BEING the person imitated.

It’s still quite entertaining.

It might be wise to observe at this point that “Voice” has several meanings, and that one of them could be said to be, the expression of personality.  Part of that is how they sound, but that also includes WHAT they would say, based on their own unique viewpoint.

We sometimes hear about the “voice” of an author, for instance, whom we perhaps have never actually heard aloud, but whose opinion and style is nevertheless well known.

This is very valuable information: HOW the celebrity sees the world.

How do we find this out?  By study and observation.  These days that is rather easy to do by making use of the web and the limitless collection of recorded performances of actors and public figures.

Of course, direct and personal contact is the very best and most reliable method.  The best mimics of celebrities are, naturally, their former personal assistants, which is precisely why so many famous people require their assistants to have their tongues removed once they leave their employ, and rightly so.

What is done with the tongues of former personal assistants?  I have no idea.  But I make it a habit never to eat at any deli in Beverly Hills, or if I do, I order the tuna melt.

There is a secret about taking on the viewpoint of the character you are playing, and that is this: it’s much easier to do it that way than to simply “imitate”.  Being the character is a quick and direct way to present the person, and is the only way you can be assured of really achieving a convincing and effective portrayal.  This not only applies to celebrity impressions, but doing Shakespeare, Ibsen, Molnar, or a guest spot on “The Suite Life with Zach & Cody.”

Try this: walk around your home with the viewpoint of someone you would like to imitate.  DON’T say anything, just walk around and look at your surroundings from their point of view.

How would they regard your bedroom?  What might they think of your furniture?  What would draw their interest on your shelves?  Would they be bored or interested in your home and possessions?

This is actually the bedrock of your impressions; the sound vibrations they make when they talk are built on THIS fundamental element.

It’s also a lot of fun to do and nobody has to even know you are doing it.  You can do it in a crowded place, like a party or a concert, or at your job at the Pizza Hut.  Just practice looking at the world from the eyes of your subject.

Like I said earlier, it’s the most important element of the whole skill, so it’s worthwhile spending some time on and will help you develop the raw materiel of your act, when you decide to create one.

The other important point about becoming familiar with the point of view of your subject is that once you know it very well, you can depart from it for comic effect, simply by doing something intentionally that that person would never do or say.  That is, I believe, part of the strength of my now famous “Shakespeare in Celebrity Voices” video, which features 25 celebrities doing that speech from Richard III that most of them would never, EVER be heard reciting.

Especially not George W. Bush.  I mean, come on.

So, it cuts both ways.  The key is KNOWING the viewpoint so that you can do what you like with it, either by honoring it exactly as to intention, or departing from it entirely for laughs, or some other brilliant use that I haven’t stumbled on yet.

Advertisements

ACCEPT IMITATIONS: A Beginner’s Guide to Performing Impressions, Chapter Three: How to Practice

Unlike Ocarina players, most impressionists discover their own individual way to perfect their art and do not cleave to a certain, specific method.

Ocarina players are dogmatic and inflexible people who, like lemmings, are content only when they are treading on the exact same path as their robotic predecessors.

Jim Carrey, whose path to film superstardom began with his impressions of celebrities, famously practiced in front of a mirror for hours.

The great Rich Little, who was the most famous mimic in the 70’s and became the benchmark icon of the art form, used a portable tape recorder to help him learn the subtleties of the celebs he presented in his act.

I can speak with confidence, having done the least possible amount of research in this subject, that no two impressionists practice in entirely the same way, because, among other things, no two impressionists will be found to be exactly the same height.

In my own case, I am not possessed of a specific technique of practice, other than I do like to try and A) “hear” the voice in my head, and B) feel where in my head and face that voice might best reside, which is to say, be manufactured.

Then I try and produce that sound and listen to myself.  I usually can tell if it is going to be something that I can perform easily and consistently, which makes it reliable and of interest to me.  If it is something very hard to perform, and perhaps not a sound that I can feel confident I can pull off at any time, then I either avoid it completely or, accepting the challenge, I endeavor to master it.

Mastering a voice that is challenging can be done in many ways, but like a person mastering scales on the lute or the oboe, (but NOT the ocarina) one has to be willing to put some time and concentrated effort into it.  In other words, get ready to drill, drill, and drill so that when it comes to performing the voice on stage or on the Letterman show, you will not have to “take a moment to warm up and find it again”, which is the mark of an amateur.  When one has to 
“take a moment”, one must recognize that one is in fact taking that moment FROM someone, in this case, the audience, and that is bad manners, just as is the voice that tells us, “Please stay on the line, your call is important to us…”

Important to who?  A disembodied recording?  Gimme a break.

Like other forms of exercise, the main enemy to accomplishment is boredom, or embarrassment should anyone see us.  It’s far more embarrassing to be caught talking to oneself in another voice than it is to be caught running laps or lifting barbells.  So, one should pick the time and place very well, especially because of modern psychiatric commitment laws.

I tend to do a lot of my rehearsing in my car, on the way to somewhere else, where I can be assured of complete privacy.  (If you drive a cab or a limousine, you may want to find a different solution.)

Another good idea is to take a voice that you are working on, and pick up a copy of a book and read aloud in that voice for some minutes.  You will learn many things from this, among them what it feels like when the voice sounds, from your point of view, very like your subject.  Perhaps when you read aloud, you will sound like the celebrity only thirty percent of the time, maybe less.  If you keep at it, saying different sentences from the book, then you will isolate the aspects of the sound that, to you, sound most like the person, and be able to increase that percentage.

You can really learn a lot from this exercise.

In the car, I will often listen to the radio and, chiefly to practice certain accents or vocal qualities, repeat exactly what I am hearing come out of the speakers, but just a second or two later.  It’s interesting that one can do this, and then have the sensation that one is slowly closing the gap between the spoken words on the radio and one’s own speech, to a point where it is occurring virtually simultaneously.  At that point you should pull the car over and look at your driver’s license to remind yourself you of your actual identity.

Repeating what you hear, duplicating it as exactly as you can, is something that you want to develop as a skill; it is in fact the main skill of an impressionist.

An impressionist is performing the record of a perception, after all, of something he or she knows his public will be familiar with too, having their own recorded perception of that character.

If EVERYONE could perform an accurate duplication of anything they had ever heard or perceived, then there would be no market for impressionists at all.  So, we acknowledge that this skill, being rare or singular, is of some value in it’s scarcity and novelty.

Right this second, someone somewhere is developing a App that will allow anybody to sound like any famous person, and that will be the end of the world.

But so far, we are still safe…

Practice then, should somehow work its way into your daily routine.  However way that you gravitate toward practicing, that you feel comfortable with and which affords you familiarity and control of your “instrument”, in this case your face, tongue, lungs etc, is the right way for you.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you shouldn’t find a way to practice because someone might think you are out of your mind; rest assured that the very people who would jump to such an unlikely conclusion already feel that way about you, and nothing you do will talk them out of it, anyway.

You might at some point feel brave enough to start using a recording device to see what your impression sounds like from the audience point of view.  This will only really be of use to you if you have followed my earlier advice and desensitized your revulsion at the sound of your own voice.

By all means, record and compare.  You can even become very ambitious and rig up a way to play your voice, and then your subject’s voice back to back, so you can shift your attention from one to the other and make a very direct comparison.

But remember too that this is a technical point and at the end of the day is only as useful as any other bit of technique; the sound and it’s exactitude is NOT the main thing that helps to sell the impression.

What IS the main thing?  Well, in my opinion, the important thing is a little something called POINT OF VIEW.  Point of view is key to character.  And I think we had better take that up immediately in the next chapter.

ACCEPT IMITATIONS, a Beginner’s Guide to Performing Impressions, by Jim Meskimen, Chapter Two

KNOWING YOUR OWN VOICE

If you were a Las Vegas building contractor, and someone hired you to put up a huge hotel/casino in a specific location, and you accepted a lot of money upfront and got workers on the site with all the materials without ever bothering to find out if the building site was on a mountain, a desert or in a swamp. you would shortly find yourself immersed in slowly drying concrete as part of a highway overpass.

That is NOT the way to attract the opposite sex.

Which, we recall from all the anthropological data that we so wisely skipped in the introduction to this book, has everything to do with why grown men imitate things.

To review–HUNTERS.

So, we would be guilty of the same error if we began to imitate things, willy-nilly, or Milli Vanilli, without first getting very familiar with the lay of the land, I.E. our OWN voice.

How DO we sound?

You may recall that when you FIRST heard a recording of your own voice, the experience was an unpleasant one.  This, as far as I can tell, is universal.  Anyone who says they loved the sound of their own recorded voice the first time they heard it is lying and should not be allowed to drive you anywhere in an automobile.

The reason, I believe, that hearing one’s own voice, particularly for the first time, thru the apparatus of a recording machine is so shockingly disagreeable is because we never hear our voices that way; we hear a much fuller, much more expressive and tonally rich sound, through both the vibration of the air outside our bodies, and from the vibration of our bodies themselves.

The recording just peels off the thinnest sound waves off out of the air and totally ignores all the more robust, deeper waves that make you sound sexy and irresistible.

When I first heard my voice on my father’s old reel to reel mini-recorder (and I can pinpoint that upsetting memory to the day, hour and place) it was as if some awful sorcerer had set up a ghastly puppet to taunt me, a little boy, with vengeful malice, by imitating in a thin, weedy and insubstantial mockery my own, euphonious voice.

Years later, I took a tape player and pulled the same exact stunt on my own daughter.

Are all men devils?  Shut UP.

So, as performers, one thing we really need to work through is the awful reality of our own voice as it sounds to others.  And luckily, it’s not that hard to do.

You simply have to record yourself a lot and listen until you no longer break out in hives, or want to jump out a window.

How long will that take?  I don’t know.  Hours?  Days?  I just told you I DON”T KNOW.

But I do recommend you get on it right away.  It’s actually important.  That’s why it’s part of Chapter Two, not Chapter 66.

(By the way, there IS no Chapter 66.  This isn’t an eBook on How to Understand Women, this is Accept Imitations, the Guide to Doing Celebrity Impressions for Beginners.)

Now, If you have an iPhone or any kind of recorder that you can hold in your hand, make it your business as soon as possible to record yourself talking to others.  You don’t need to tell them you are doing it, just make sure you destroy the recordings before they fall into the wrong hands.

At first, you will be self conscious and, like a sixth grader who knows he is being watched by his babysitter as he pretends to do his homework, until she leaves the room and he can get back to World of Warcraft, you will not speak naturally.  Your voice will be “on its best behavior” and you will be “a phony sounding person” and a “weirdo” and your companions will say, “What the hell is the matter with you, you sound like a bad actor!  Are you recording us?  You better destroy those recordings before they fall into the wrong hands!”

And then you will have fewer friends, again VIOLATING all the social/psychological reasons for doing impressions that we wisely avoided addressing earlier.

Simply record yourself and then listen to the whole thing from start to finish.  You may NOT fast forward or Scrub forward or stop until it’s done.

At the end of that horrible experience, you will either feel older, younger, or about the same.  If you feel older or younger, start from the beginning and do it again.  If you feel about the same, then sober up and try it again.

Again, once you have heard the whole recording for a second time, judge your reaction.  Are you considering a vow of silence?  A career as an underground explosives expert?  A camp counsellor for the deaf?

If you answered any of the above, YES, then go back and listen to the whole thing again, and again and again until you no longer have a reaction of any kind and can be comfortably familiar with how you sound.

Like I say, this can take hours.  Or days.  Or possibly longer.

There is an ancient story that Native Americans tell about the owl, much revered in their culture.  His continual lament of “WHO?” they claim, comes from a time in the incredibly distant past when the very first owl heard his voice on a Sony answering machine, and demanded to know the true owner of that voice.  All these many centuries later, the owl, much revered by Native Americans, still demands to know “WHO?”

He clearly needs to record and listen to his own voice more, if he is ever going to become revered for his celebrity impressions by the Native Americans, as well as his keen eyes and appetite for rodents.

ACCEPT IMITATIONS, a Beginner’s Guide to Performing Impressions, by Jim Meskimen

The following is the Introduction and Chapter One of my new eBook about creating impressions.

I hope you enjoy it and share it with others who love to do impressions.

INTRODUCTION

How tempting it is to start this eBook out with the phrase, “Since the dawn of spoken communication between members of the our species, celebrity impressions have had an undeniable impact on human relations.”

I’m very proud of the fact I was nearly able to suppress the urge to write that.

But, having evoked that idea, it perhaps does have a little bit of relevance to the subject, if only that imitations of the sounds of other living creatures by mankind has long been a significant part of human existence, for example:

1)  Hunters mastering the calls of birds and other wild beasts.

Okay, that’s actually the only one that comes to mind.

But YOU are interested in it, and I am interested in it, so why don’t we just cut to the chase, forget the probably very noble but entirely irrelevant historical, sociological and psychological background section, and really dig in and ACCEPT IMITATIONS.

Chapter One

Who Do You Love?

Before we discuss the technical aspects of creating and performing impressions, it’s a good idea to have a look at why to do them in the first place.

Of course, YOU already know why: because you WANT to.

That is actually reason enough, and is the way ANYBODY begins.

There is something inherently amusing about creating an impression of another person.  It’s like a magic trick: how can somebody sound like a completely different person?  Isn’t that against the law?

It IS against the law.  But luckily, the law is hardly ever enforced, except in Yemen.

Intent is usually the deciding factor; are you imitating somebody so that another will believe you truly ARE them, and will then turn over valuable documents, sexual favors or some other difficult to obtain item or service?  Or are you just trying to make somebody laugh until milk comes out of their nose, provided they were drinking milk in the first place?

If I know YOU, (and I most likely don’t) you are hardly the sort of person that would use the art of mimicry, and the intensely valuable information in this eBook, for such an ignoble, illegal and dangerous purpose.  So let’s just put that possibility as far from our minds as possible, shall we?

An imitation can be many things, a comment on the target personality, an homage, a criticism, or an attempt at an accurate and convincing portrayal for some artistic purpose.

Actually, the only thing demanded of an impressionist is that the target be IDENTIFIABLE.  Technical precision is a means to an ends, and actually is not the most important, key factor in “selling” an impression.

What then is THE most important, key factor?  WHAT?

Well, how about you be a little patient, huh?  Would it kill you to let me go on a bit about this and build my argument?  Huh?

In comedy clubs, variety shows and on construction sites, one sometimes observes what might be considered poor entertainers evoking celebrities by no more clever or sophisticated trick than pulling their hair back and smiling broadly, or squinting their eyes and gritting their teeth.  This style of mimicry might best be labelled, “Caricature.”

We have all seen and been very patient with fellows who, in presenting their imitation of, for example, Arnold Schwartzenegger, hoarsely blurt out some line from one of his classic roles in a passionate, but inaccurate rendition, which in the end evokes not much about the actor’s actual sound, but DOES convey perfectly the concept, “I am now doing my imitation of an imitation of an imitation of Arnold.  I am proud to report that I have invested the least possible effort, care and investigation in creating this performance for you.  Please laugh uproariously and offer to buy me a beer.”

This is the same sort of fellow who, as a little boy, made the grass in his classroom paintings green, the sky blue and the sun yellow, right out of the tube.  He went on to marry a woman with enormous breasts, blonde hair, the waistline of a whippet and the mind of a bottle opener.

Compare the common paltry Schwarzenegger rendition, so prevalent today, with that of the great Arnold impersonator Josh Robert Thompson, who researched his subject exhaustively, practiced diligently, and, with his already similar pitch and vocal register, developed an impression that is world renowned.

I happen to know that Josh, (or JRT as he is referred to by his girlfriend and by people in the Internal Revenue Service) studied the personality, sound and viewpoint of Mr. Schwarzenegger by listening to the DVD commentary on Conan The Barbarian and other action films in his filmography, until he literally could inhabit the spirit and sound of the man.  That’s why he’s the best.

But why did he choose Arnold?  He was INTERESTED.

Why?

Who cares?  Why are you asking so many questions?  Don’t you think I know my job, that you have to badger me to tell you things?  Give me a break, will you?  This is an eBook, not a game of “Tell Me Before I Explode.”

Josh was interested, I believe in engaging in a little contest, a contest with other voice artists, the physical barriers of his own natural voice and with the perceptions and acceptance levels of other people.  You could say “contest: or you could say “game”; same thing.

He wanted to play the game of “Who can sound MOST like Arnold”, and he thought he could WIN.  I maintain that he did.

Well, obviously, once people start paying you money, tell you you are incredible, laugh at the things you want them to laugh at, gasp with amazement when you really pull out the stops and, best of all, if you FOOL them into thinking they are actually talking to the REAL Arnold, then you have WON.

At least for the time being.  At least, in that voice.

But it all starts with being interested, and choosing some character voice that you feel you COULD pull off, given your age, sex and the general pitch and quality of your naturally given equipment.

So, at this point you can ask yourself, “Which of my favorite celebrity voices do I think I have a chance at duplicating, given my own voice as it is?”

Go on, ask yourself.

And for God’s sake, pay ATTENTION to the ANSWER!  It’s rude not to listen to the other person, and it’s rude not to listen to YOURSELF when you are trying to answer your own question.  Don’t start off your career as an impressionist by being rude to your main partner in this endeavor!  Do you think Edgar Bergen was snippy and critical with Charlie McCarthy?  Heavens, no.  They were thick as thieves.

Who IS Edgar Bergen?  Jesus, who the hell are you, anyway?

It probably is the case, if I know you, (and again, I do NOT) that you already have the barest shadow of an impression in your nascent –which is to say undeveloped–repetoire, somebody that you attempt to perform on extremely rare occasions, such as when you are among close friends or while under hypnosis.

There is, perhaps, some memory of a voice from childhood entertainment that is banging around inside your head and which you wouldn’t mind being able to do for other person, say, a close friend or co-worker.

Is there?

As an example from my own life, (not that I’m putting this forth as something right or wrong, mind you, just as an example of something perfect) one of my first impressions was of the actor Bert Lahr, in his role as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.

After viewing that classic movie at age four, I knew two things, that if flying monkeys existed, I would have to obtain a shotgun, and that I LOVED the Cowardly Lion.

NOTO BENE: (Latin, I think, for, “pay attention, Benny!”) It is easier to imitate something that one wouldn’t mind BEING.  it is easier to BE that which one LIKES.

So, in my case, it became very easy for me to absorb and BE the Cowardly Lion, because he was so doggone cute and funny, and imitating him became a logical extension of my being able to BE him.

You’ve seen little kids do this.  It’s wonderful.  The only time it isn’t wonderful is when they are imitating something that YOU don’t like or want them to be, such as a ninja, or a zombie/ninja, or a vampire/ninja/zombie/alien.  Or a telemarketer.

Going back to the question asked earlier, “Which of my favorite celebrity voices do I think I have a chance at duplicating?” do include, therefore, any voice from childhood entertainment that might pop up.

But don’t do Bert Lahr; that’s MINE.

No, I’m just kidding, go ahead and do Bert Lahr.  If you want.

It’s rude, but go ahead.  Factually, I don’t care.

I really don’t.

I’m so OVER the whole thing, to be honest.  You… you just Do what you have to Do.

By the way, CAN you actually hear The Cowardly Lion in your mind?

You probably have a vast number of recordings in your mental iPod… can you kind of “hear” them?

If you can’t hear the Cowardly Lion, and can’t recall how it felt to kind of “Be” him when you were a little kid watching that amazing movie, then pick one you CAN hear in your mind’s “ear.”

And if you can’t do that, then you have another route, and that is to become a barber.

NO!  Not a barber!  No, NO!  What did you think I said?  Omigod– I would NEVER disparage barbers or practitioners of the barbering arts!
NO, what I was SAYING was that if you can’t hear the desired character in your head, you can still get ahold of a physical universe recording, by going on YouTube or a DVD.  THAT’S all I meant.  See, you were all upset over nothing!

By listening to the sound recording, you can study the sound and begin to become familiar with its characteristics, enabling you to make your own version of it with your own voice.

But the first step is, WHO do you WANT to imitate?

That will be a lot easier than attempting someone that you dislike, or can’t understand, or are only trying to do because someone told you if you didn’t do it they would key your car, or make you sit and watch the remake of The Poseidon Adventure.

Chapter Two of this eBook will be posted soon.  Thanks for reading and sharing.

Hit the road, Jim!

Well, my philosophy now certainly contains the concept that, if something is working, do more of THAT.

So, I am working on doing MORE performing, and mainly my impressions, since that is what is currently creating so much of a buzz.

We just finished a sold out series of shows in Hollywood, which was mainly new people coming off the YouTube video, unfamiliar faces that were soon smiling broadly, laughing and some with tears streaming down.

I love performing for people I’ve never seen before… seems like the right thing.

So now off we go to the U.K. to do a group of shows and workshops at an arts festival in East Grinstead, then shows in London and Birmingham… then a few days rest in Cornwall.

You can bet we will shoot a lot of Professor Knestor videos!  I wonder if we can find Oxmouth College…

After that, we head right into another big weekend at The Acting Center and more full houses of brand new audiences.  I’ll do a weekend a month there thru November.

In September I go to Clearwater, Florida to do a night of JIMPRESSIONS at the Capitol Theater for 475 people.  Very excited about bringing the show to Florida audiences!

And I have a new video in the works with more celebrity impressions… coming very soon, if I can finish before we get on the plane to England.

It may seem like a lot, but I feel like I’m just getting up to speed.

Thanks for all the kind words, the support, and helping me attain my dream by watching the Shakespeare video and clicking “Like” and “Subscribe”.  It all helps!

Speak to you soon!