Most celebrity impersonations are to comedy audiences what in-flight meals are to airline passengers, bland and predictable, yet almost satiating in their familiarity. What you’re consuming isn’t outstanding, but it’s known and, therefore tolerable — even a little bit good.
Robert DeNiro does make that scrunched up pensive face, and Vince Vaughn does talk really fast, and, oh, those eyebrow movements — that’s classic Nicholson.
When initially presented with a talented mimic, it’s hard not to be entertained. It’s true. But eventually that moment of recognition that draws us to well-executed impressions loses its allure. The celebrities imitated are the ones with the most cartoonish voices, cadences, and physical ticks, all of which become grating when amplified by comics who want to make sure everyone watching knows exactly who it’s supposed to be.
So, can impersonations ever slog through banality and rise up into the realm of brilliant showmanship? Absolutely. If the celebrity being mimicked is rarely impersonated, and the material is highly original. Take, for example, CollegeHumor's hit series, Very Mary-Kate.
Written, created by, and starring New York comedian/writer/actress Elaine Carroll, the Very Mary-Kate series gives us an egomaniacal, irresponsible, dim-witted incarnation of Mary-Kate Olson, and it’s an absolute home run. Inspired to take to the web after her impression was well received in a Saturday Night Live audition, Carroll says it’s fun to do Mary-Kate precisely because so little is known about her besides the fact that she went to NYU and has a body guard. Mary-Kate’s mystique gives Carroll license to run wild with her act, to be creative instead of repetitive.
Now in its second season, Very Mary-Kate's archive boasts dozens of ninety-second-long episodes, each of which features Carroll’s take on the former child star going about her daily alcohol-soaked routine.
If you can put your love of Full House aside for an hour or so, then give Very Mary-Kate a shot. Here are three reasons to get in the game:
1. Joke heightening
2. Situational versatility
3. Character foils
Comedy is prone to lagging, because joke setups are hard. The key is a perfect marriage of shtick and situation. When this happens, making sure the audience knows what’s funny is an afterthought, because they’re already laughing. Consider, a seemingly lobotomized Mary-Kate in a beret giving an ill-informed presentation on the potato famine wherein she keeps mistaking corn stalks for potatoes. That concept’s funny before it delivers a single joke, and that, my friends, is how one squeezes fifteen or twenty laughs from a video that’s a mere minute and a half long.
If Carroll were imitating Jack Nicholson in a confessional, it would play as tired, a last ditch effort to suckle the calcified impression tit for one final bit of sour milk. Mary-Kate works well in so many different situations because she’s a relatively alien character whose actions and responses we, as viewers, have trouble anticipating. The series is good because it’s still surprising.
With videos so short, Carroll could probably rely on Mary-Kate-centric material, but adding a funny foil in a supporting role is extra special, especially when that part is played by actor/director/comedian Josh Ruben who nails a seldom-impersonated Philip Seymour Hoffman.
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