Those who do impressions of other people are generally entertainers who enliven drab daily events or cosy social gatherings. They imitate people, and the famous or the notorious are generally grist to their mill.
Most of these people have reasonable talent, and have never learnt their skills on doing impressions at any art school.
However, doing impressions in a professional capacity is the stuff of consummate entertainers, mostly stand up comedians, and Sri Lanka’s best exponent of the genre is Wilson Gunaratne.
Wilson is invited these days to do impressions of former presidents and does a reasonable job imitating JR Jayewardene who apparently invited him home to Breamer at Ward Place one day when he was at the height of his power, at the invitation of Nigel Kerner (who is incidentally a part time impresario in the show biz industry, who achieved some sort of international fame.)
JR apparently was intrigued that most of the impressions that Wilson did of him were of ‘speeches he never made.’ I can never remember making that speech, JR remarked to Wilson, apparently not realizing that the whole point was parody and not cheap voice imitation.
JR being the master of dissembling – not for nothing he was called the Old Fox – on the other hand wanted to take the Mickey out of the comedian probably, and made him look a little foolish by pretending not to ‘get it’…
The problem with Wilson’s impressions mostly however, is that he is not as sustained as an impressionist ought to be when performing in public.
His impressions lapse suddenly into sotto voce and Wilson seems to speak as Wilson, in-between his impressions of the famous or the infamous.
This is not something that should disqualify him as our most well known stand-up comedian with the ability to mimic famous voices, but it is a tangential bit of criticism, especially after having heard those such as Kevin Spacey do impressions of public personalities such as Bill Clinton for instance.
Spacey does not drop the ball, and his impressions are an exact sustained imitation. He had this gig with a talk show host where they draw lots together and pick the names of famous people.
They also pick random subjects, also drawing lots, and so Kevin Spacey is compelled to do impressions of Bill Clinton impromptu, talking of ghost-busters, or of the late Johnny Carson talking of doing his shoelaces.
This stuff cannot be rehearsed, or so at least the audience gets that impression, but Spacey does not seem to break a sweat though he has the tough job of rambling on pretending to be famous people saying impossible things.
Spacey also does a good Jack Nicholson when Jack Nicholson is present, and this is videotaped for posterity with the latter looking quite amused – which is fortunate for Spacey, considering what Nicholson can do when he is, shall we say, a wee bit choleric.
Wilson’s impressions are best when he is doing gestures with voice, and he gets across GL Peiris for instance mostly because he manages to get those hand jabs and the posture right.
There are some folk who incidentally do no voice at all – and there are good impressions of people mimicking actresses crying on screen, without any voice at all.
This is a country that takes itself very seriously, and this writer once found himself inadvertently doing an impression of a VVIP, right in front of him.
It was not planned, but the voice came out in the way that the VVIP speaks, mostly because, shall we say, this writer wanted to leave a good impression.
As far as strategies go it backfired; so when you see any tapes of people doing impressions, mentally tag on the warning message – do not try these things at home, especially at the homes of the subjects…
But to let the reader in on a secret, the best impressions that can be done for laughs are impressions of people doing impressions of others.
Those who imitate others do not think that they are themselves the best grist to the mill, because they go out of the way, well, to create an impression,
so they may exaggerate facial expressions, nervous ticks or other characteristics, to such an extent, that the ‘caricature’ becomes something that is worthy of imitation in its own right.
I’ve seen actresses doing impressions of Celine Dione for instance, where the voice impression is the least of the attraction in the gig, because Celine Dione is a bit of a champion in the histrionics department.
When Celine Dione sings it is as if Cecile be de Mille is in the opening scene of one of his epic flicks; the earth shakes, and there is gnashing of teeth.
Why are people fond of impressions of public figures and celebrities? The obvious answer is that people love punctured pomposities, but there seems to be more to it than that.
People vicariously are deeply attracted to some of public figures, and when that is not the case, they love to hate them. An imitation is one way of getting up close and personal with famous folk without risking being carried away, fawning or doing something silly.
Some people are so good at it, they can even do impressions of themselves doing impressions of others.
It is a difficult job and somebody’s got to do it. Wilson Gunaratne will have to think of renewing his act now that GL is at home, essentially, and the new Cabinet speaks in one voice.
Heh heh, I was being facetious. Wilson hasn’t seen his best days yet, I’m sure.