Although it can’t be verified, there is a better than even chance that, shortly after George Washington was elected first President of the United States in 1789, someone did an impression of him. It’s just human nature. The wooden teeth, the powdered wig, the cherry tree and the ax, the right hand tucked inside the shirt, it was all fair game for some audacious jester of the day.
Naturally, records of such performances are sketchy at best, because “Saturday Night Live,” Comedy Central and YouTube didn’t come along until much, much later. Yet clearly, throughout history, whenever an individual stepped into the presidential arena, he or she could be reasonably sure that somewhere another individual was copying them for comic effect. Comedian Vaughn Meader made an entire career in the early 1960s out of his startling impression of President John F. Kennedy — a career that ended at the same moment that JFK was assassinated.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” often encounters faux Lincolns in stovepipe hats and beards along the book promotion trail. But in Lincoln’s day, she pointed out, written accounts substituted for today’s Tina Fey and Frank Caliendo.
“Certainly in the print media there were accounts of how candidates walked, how they talked, their mannerisms,” said Goodwin, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “No Ordinary Time,” a book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and has also written books about Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys. “The opposition papers would make note of Lincoln’s bad grammar, how he used to tell dirty stories. But there wasn’t the mimicking the way they do it now, how they have the look down.
Power. That’s one of the lures for someone to seek the presidency in the first place. And oddly, sometimes the presidential impersonator can have a unique and unintended type of power.
Fey’s recent turn as Sarah Palin is all the rage in impersonation circles. Although technically the performance is not a copy of someone who is president, or even who might become president — John McCain would have to win the election, he would have to become incapacitated, blah blah blah — Fey’s Palin is so eerily close to the real thing that it might actually stick in the minds of voters, for better or worse.
“Tina Fey is now so connected with Sarah Palin that it creates a melding in people’s minds,” Goodwin explained, “and now there is more of a sense of Tina than there is of Sarah.”
As a result, he said, Fey was able to successfully accomplish political commentary rather than simply elicit chuckles. “Certainly in the last several years, ‘Saturday Night Live’ offered funny impersonations, but they didn’t do much to help shape the impression of the president. They didn’t do much serious political satire like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” he said.
What Fey’s Palin also did, he said, was create interest leading up to the now infamous Katie Couric interview, which enabled voters to scrutinize the Republican vice presidential candidate more closely.
“It made sure everybody in the country watched that interview,” Thompson said. “It was on the ‘CBS Evening News, the lowest-rated news show. ‘SNL’ became the delivery system for that CBS interview.
“It was important for people to see that interview. It was a train wreck. Here was someone aspiring to high office who was having trouble completing sentences and answering questions.”
“Saturday Night Live” has a long and storied history of lampooning the chief executive. Chevy Chase stumbled and tumbled as Gerald Ford. Dan Aykroyd was gloriously over the top as a droopy-faced Richard Nixon. Dana Carvey was deliriously goofy as George H.W. Bush. Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond each created brilliant versions of Bill Clinton. Suffice to say Will Ferrell played George W. Bush as homespun rather than erudite.
Sometimes an impression can create such a ... well, an impression, that the actual legacy of a president can be affected.
“They can certainly reframe the way we see a president,” Thompson said. “One of the best examples is Dana Carvey when he did the first George Bush’s ‘Thousand points of light.’ He so nailed that impersonation and played that phrase so beautifully that George H.W. Bush had to give up using it because every time he did it would remind people of Carvey.”
Caliendo, who is the star of the TBS comedy series “Frank TV,” and who has done impressions of celebrities as varied as John Madden to Dr. Phil to Al Pacino, has made his uncanny impressions of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton centerpieces of his performances. While he tries to maintain a middle-of-the-road approach by capturing the essence of the president while avoiding taking partisan shots either way, he’s often surprised by the feedback he receives.
“I have had people come up to me after I’ve done a George W. Bush impression who obviously don’t like him and say, ‘Wow, you really got him. Way to go.’ And I’ve had others after the same performance say, ‘You must really like him,’ ” Caliendo said. “People see what they want to see with it.”
While Caliendo represents the young turks of the craft, Rich Little is the king of the old guard. He’s been doing impressions since the 1970s, and once performed in a play called “The Presidents,” which was all commander-in-chief impressions, all the time. He explained that the work of impressionists today is a lot more uninhibited because of the times, unlike when he was coming up in the business.
“Impersonators can put things into people’s minds. It’s called satire,” he said. “But you can go a lot further today than what I did in the ’70s. I was censored all the time on the (Johnny) Carson show. ‘Can’t say this. Can’t say that.’ Today you can say anything.”
And like any form of comedy, sometimes people get it, and sometimes they don’t.
Caliendo found out he had an unexpected fan one day after a show. “A couple of weeks ago I was doing a show in Sacramento at a Chamber of Commerce meeting and Karl Rove had been one of the speakers,” Caliendo said. “I was thinking about going up to him, but I didn’t want to bother him. What was I going to say to Karl Rove?
“So I left and I’m starting to drive out of the parking lot when guess who comes running up alongside the car and bangs on the windshield? It was Karl Rove saying, ‘Hey Frank, the President is a big fan. If you’re ever in D.C., he wants you to stop by and visit.”
Of course, not everybody is blessed with a sense of humor.
“Nixon was the one I was most associated with in the ’70s,” Little said. “I met him one time at San Clemente. He threw a party for a bunch of show business people. Debbie Reynolds asked me to imitate him in front of him and a bunch of other people. It was very embarrassing. I didn’t really know what to say, because the lines I used at nightclubs were a little too strong.
“So I went into it and said, ‘First of all, I have enjoyed this little soiree, make no mistake.’ While I was doing it, Nixon had no idea what the heck I was doing. He turned to Pat and said, ‘Why is this man speaking in that voice?’ He turned and walked away. Everybody was standing around trying to gag themselves to keep from laughing.
“And every time I tell this story, I always use the same kicker: I must have done Nixon well because when I left the party Pat came with me.”
Whether a presidential impression creates raucous laughter or blank stares, the ones that are most effective are the ones that linger in the minds of Americans for months, years, even decades.
“I think in this modern age it’s more likely that an impersonator will have a sort of memorable impact on people not just through a visual sense but from an emotional sense of that person,” Goodwin explained.
“When you see someone make the language and accent more stark than it really is and being funnier than it really is, it brings a vitality and a full release that they do get emblazoned on people’s minds.”