Thoughts on Impersonations

4 04 2010

Impersonations are a strange phenomenon when you get right down to it. On the one hand, a skilled impersonator essentially boils down a famous person to a caricature and uses that caricature for personal gain. It can be seen as the theft and mockery of a person’s mannerisms and persona.

On the other hand, stealing a person’s persona is implicitly communicating that their persona is worth stealing. That’s pretty validating. Also, being caricatured in this way often assures a kind of iconic cultural status. How much of your mental image of George Bush Sr.’s idiosyncrasies comes from watching Dana Carvey on SNL?

Same story with Robin Leach.

And when you do a Peter Lorre impression…

It’s probably closer to Mel Blanc…

With a touch of John Kricfalusi than the real thing.

And for people of my generation, I think the broader, more insane version of Richard Nixon from Futurama is probably closer to our mental image of Nixon than the real, uptight, scheming thing.


It seems, in my opinion, that these broad, iconic versions of public personalities have a sticking power that the real things lack. And, in my experience, they can serve to broaden the horizons of the audience. I mean, how funny is the Futurama clip if you don’t know anything about the famous “Checkers Speech?” And I really only just got the significance of the scene at the Lincoln Memorial in Oliver Stone’s Nixon a couple of days ago.

But what really spurred this post was the discovery of an Australian personality named Mark “Chopper” Read. My first exposure to him was via an impersonation by Heath Franklin on Ronnie John’s Half Hour.
(Warning: Foul Language)

When I found this clip the other day, it immediately became my favorite thing ever. So I did a little bit of serious research, and discovered that the real Chopper Read was quite a character. He’s a funny, charismatic, self-professed murderer who made a habit of robbing drug dealers using gruesome methods. During his 18 years in prison, (at one point cutting off his ears so he could be sent to the mental ward), he learned to read and write. Now, he’s a published author, celebrity, and Australia’s most famous criminal.

So I watched some more Chopper clips from Ronnie John’s.


And, I ended up watching the awesomely entertaining 2000 movie Chopper starring Eric Bana. And reading about the guy’s life on his website. In a matter of about two days, I had gone from knowing absolutely nothing about Chopper Read, to pretty much absorbing the whole guy’s life. And it was all because I happened upon an impersonation of Chopper, extolling the merits of hardening the fuck up. So, in a way, these impersonations work as a schema for understanding a person. They make a person easier to remember because they distill them down to their iconic facets, and they serve as a friendly entry point to the real person’s real life.

And, after reading up on his life and watching the movie, I loved Heath Franklin’s Chopper even more. I got the jokes about Neville Bartos. I understood why Franklin waggles his hand and says “Hello!” in such a exaggerated way. So it feeds off itself. The more I know, the more I enjoy it and the more I enjoy it, the more I figure out. Kids in high school should have to study old SNL skits about Nixon, Ford, Carter, Regan, Bush, and Clinton and discuss why they’re funny.

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