There’s something intriguing about a person who can just drop their own persona for a beat to put on a voice or mannerism that belongs to another, and do it convincingly. It’s eerie, and in the context of most stand-up comedy bits and variety shows, it’s hilarious too.
Yes, imitation can be the most sincere form of flattery, but when done right it can be the best, most effective form of satire. In honor of those who deftly deconstruct the personalities of our favorite (or least favorite) public figures only to magnify (and mock) their flaws or eccentricities via an impression for our amusement, here are the 10 best celebrity impressions on television. Read on to relive some of your favorite moments in impressionist comedy.
10. Bill Hader as James Carville
It’s an impression that can make you simultaneously belly-laugh and think Ugh, I cannot unsee that! There’s just something about that bobble-headed, wild-eyed snicker paired with the creepiest anecdotes that takes Hader’s impression of the Ragin’ Cajun to another level. And on that level reigns the King of the Snakes. (Yes, it is every bit as creepy as it sounds.)
9. Will Ferrell as George W. Bush
All of the hallmarks of a great George W. Bush impression are featured in Ferrell’s version. There’s the confused squint. The use of made-up or simply mispronounced words. The use of self-congratulatory facial expressions at inappropriate times. The only thing that could make Ferrell’s take on Bush even better is if there was a way to incorporate Jon Stewart’s trademark Dubya snicker.
8. Dave Chappelle as Prince
One of the best things about this impression (besides the outfit and his heavily mascara-ed eyes) was comedian Dave Chappelle’s commitment to the entire bit. And this wasn’t just any character he dreamed up for one of his sketches. Chappelle couldn’t even rely on his naturally funny sounding nasal voice to get laughs either. Everything about Chappelle had to change in order to portray an iconic musician not exactly known for his sense of humor, but instead the opposite, a serious demeanor and a flair for theatrics and drama. Chappelle’s voice dropped low to a smooth baritone and his eyes were constantly wide open, often unblinking when facing the camera with a serious look etched on his face. But it seems Chappelle’s impression of Prince has been approved by the musician himself, as the artwork on Prince’s newest single features Chappelle as Prince, exactly as he looked during the Chappelle’s Show sketch.
And let’s face it, you’ll never be able to get that image of Chappelle/Prince bouncing up and down on that basketball out of your head. Never.
7. Kristen Wiig as Katharine Hepburn
In SNL’s Vincent Price sketch former cast member Bill Hader is supposed to be the featured actor, but fellow cast member Kristen Wiig steals the show with her fiercely independent, athletic yet slightly crazed impression of actress Katharine Hepburn. Wiig’s Hepburn voice is a fast-paced, deep voiced purr, and her emphasis on Hepburn’s love for all things fitness related is a particularly abundant source of comedy in the sketch as is her insistence on doing every thing, even transporting a tree across the country, all by herself.
6. Frank Caliendo as John Madden
Former MADtv cast member and comedian Frank Caliendo is known for his skills as an impressionist. And while it seems he can imitate just about any celebrity, Caliendo is best known for his impression of former NFL coach and commentator John Madden. The voice impression itself, that Caliendo is able to achieve is uncanny, but it’s the bursts of rage Caliendo adds to his impression of the NFL legend that makes it really pop.
Also, our favorite part of the impression is when Caliendo/Madden breaks out the telestrator and starts drawing out whatever situation he finds himself in. In the sketch below, on-screen arrows and circles abound when an exasperated Madden, frustrated that the filming of his popcorn commercial has gone horribly wrong, finally gives up and decides to conduct the whole commercial via telestrator.
5. David Alan Grier as Maya Angelou
This was a complete ode to a candy bar. Not a particularly fancy candy bar. Just a Butterfinger. But with Grier’s strong grasp of Angelou’s speech patterns and style of writing, you’d have thought that the “crispety crunchity peanut-buttery” bar was some sort of divine masterpiece of confection. And you have to admit, Grier had Angelou’s smile down perfectly.
4. Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton
Hammond’s impression of Clinton is the reason why, when you picture our nation’s 42nd president, your brain automatically zooms in on Clinton’s lower lip. Hammond’s version of Clinton is much more obvious in his ploys for attention and approval, even as he magnifies a mannerism as small as Clinton’s lower lip bite. Hammond takes the persona of Clinton’s charismatic Southern gentleman, shatters it and shows us a funnier yet darker, seedier side of the former president. In Hammond’s interpretation of Clinton, the politician’s famous charisma often boils down to excessive pandering to every whim his constituency tosses at him and an adolescent playboy mentality.
3. Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush
It wouldn’t be right to have Ferrell’s Dubya impression on the list without giving its literal father its propers. Wouldn’t be prudent.
(In addition to the video below, you can watch Ferrell and Carvey play off of each other in this sketch, which features George H.W. Bush and his son together on a hunting trip. )
2. Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan
The true test of whether or not an impression is really successful is if a comedian can get it past a one-note portrayal. It’s one thing to nail down a person’s funny mannerisms and speech patterns, but it’s quite a feat if you can take those same personality aspects, run them through the gamut of human emotions and along the continuum of good and evil and still through it all, keep those iconic mannerisms intact. And the late Phil Hartman was able to do just that. Reagan’s grandfatherly voice and tight-lipped facial expressions remained on Hartman’s face and in his voice throughout entire sketches, no matter how gentle the president had to be around children and Jimmy Stewart or how confrontational and hard-nosed with his own lackeys.
An impression of Reagan, albeit one that shows him as an evil mastermind, never seemed as real as Hartman’s was of The Gipper.
1. Kevin Spacey (Actor’s Studio Interview)
“He has the gift.”
And in an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, actor Kevin Spacey makes good use of that gift by performing a series of nine impressions of other famous actors within 7 minutes at Lipton’s request. This segment is number one on our list because it was the only televised bit in which multiple people were successfully imitated: Spacey was able to convincingly imitate nine people, without the aid of props or makeup and seemingly with little preparation beforehand. Of the actors Spacey developed impressions for, the funniest by far had to have been his Katharine Hepburn, his Christopher Walken and his Al Pacino. Lipton was right, Spacey does have the gift.