For his new novel The Poser—about a young man with an uncanny knack for imitating others—Jacob Rubin spent a lot of time thinking about what makes impressions work. Pegged to the release of his novel this month, Rubin will be doing a weekly series for Brow Beat on the art of the celebrity send-up. Read the rest of Slate’s Impressions series here.
My all-time favorite impression is Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush. To appreciate what makes the above clip so good, it might help to recall the flesh-and-blood H.W. Here he is peevishly debating Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992:
This is the H.W. I remember from childhood: a wooden man quick to scold. (See the weirdly chastising way Bush answers the question about debt and empathy at the start of the clip.) Bookended by the looming, world-historical charisma of Reagan and Clinton, Bush so often seemed flustered, irritated, a man who felt himself losing a popularity contest. And yet Carvey made from this irksome stock a vital, mischievous presence. How?
Carvey divulges his secret in the below clip from a 1992 White House appearance. “The way to do the president is to start out with Mr. Rogers”—he says, slipping into a nasal rendition of “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”—and then (casting his eyes to the horizon) “ you add a little John Wayne.”
This is exactly right. In Bush, the tight-lipped WASP forever curbs the libidinous warmonger. In fact, Carvey dramatizes this conflict so well that we begin to nearly sympathize with the man. The president’s frustration, in the mimic’s hands, softens, turns comical.
In that 1991 SNL cold open, Carvey-as-Bush warns “Mr. Hussein“ (Mr. Rogers’ politesse) of a possible “full-scale orgy of death there in the desert sand” (Wayne’s swagger). Bush “probably won’t [invade],” Carvey tells us, “but then again, I might”: an apocalyptic threat (Wayne) falling on a weak conditional (Rogers).* Carvey then raises his hand in a “stop” gesture, a touchstone of the impression. His hand, crucially, is used to halt himself, not the audience, his manner like a dam, nearly, but not quite, bursting with belligerent glee.
Even Carvey-Bush’s giggle signals not sadistic gloating but its pantomime. It’s the rare, small, cathartic belch for a man who won’t allow himself release. The threats, horrifying, are neutered by his own harmlessness, as in the end of the skit when Carvey-Bush is shaken by the appearance of Quayle in night-vision goggles. We sense throughout the frustration of a man temperamentally incapable of realizing his fantasies. This is the key to the impression: It helps us imagine the perspective of the imitated rather than calcify him in ways already seen.
Less vibrant impressions tend to second the common view. Take, for instance, Frank Caliendo’s George W. (If you don’t know Caliendo’s work, I would start with his Charles Barkley, which helped the world uncover Barkley as a figure worthy of imitation at all.) In his recent job as impressionist-in-residence at ESPN, Caliendo has demonstrated a freakish mastery of nearly every person on staff. His signature impression, though—if he can be said to have one among the multitude—is his Dubya. Here is Caliendo as the former president on Letterman:
It’s all there: the punctuating smirk, the furrowed brow, but, most of all, the voice. And yet his Dubya, for me, is not his best stuff. Despite its accuracy, the impression amplifies qualities that are, in Bush, crudely agreed upon. His Bush is cocky and dumb. Hence, the Turkey-like head-bobbing 52 seconds in, or the Catskills-grade joke about the slot machine (“Every time he opens his mouth he knows he’s gambling just a little bit”). Caliendo mostly confirms a received view of the man.
A different tenor, however, inflects the joke at 1:05. Here Caliendo notices—and duplicates—the stunned-relief-blooming-into-tenuous-self-satisfaction that Dubya expresses after finding himself at the end of a sentence. While the joke still dines on Bush’s stupidity, it swivels our perspective. For a moment we are made to see things through Bush’s eyes. It is not just about how he looks, but how he might feel. Watching it, we can easily envision scenes from the president’s childhood: say, his volunteering the rare right answer in class and the puffing, rich-kid pride that might result.
My favorite George W. Bush, Will Ferrell’s, demonstrates this kind of empathy in spades. While not nearly as accurate as Caliendo’s, Ferrell’s pulls out of the president a more unlikely quality: His Bush is an innocent, which is not quite a fool. His toughness seems put-on, harmless, and well-meaning. The man is empty of guile or sexual agenda.
A repeated set-up in these old Ferrell SNL bits is to have Bush’s own curiosity, lack of focus, or native pull toward recreation ruin the filming of a promo. Here he is, reassuring the American public about the state of the economy:
And attempting to deny global warming:
His inner boy keeps breaking free of propriety’s straightjacket. All he wants to do is play Frisbee with Condy or not be vaguely spooked by the horses behind him. We see Bush afresh, almost lovably.
The best impressions, for this reason, almost always fail as satire. The intended skewering is set off by the very humanizing attention that makes the impression great. (Perhaps the most glaring exception is Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, but this used so much of Ms. Palin’s own language, it seemed more a feat of genetic splicing than comic imitation.) Even a cruder imitation, like Caliendo’s, fails to degrade Bush’s authority—if anything, it extends his brand. By inuring us to the man’s presence, it subtly reinforces his authority.
The great ones, however, seem unavoidably, even secretly, appreciative. They are acts of communion. It is not surprising that Carvey, a self-described introvert-extrovert, might plausibly dramatize Bush’s half-failed stifling of manic desire. Nor that a manchild aficionado like Ferrell might locate the kid in Dubya. This perhaps is the central, ineffable quality of a great impression: It does not seem like a studied replication so much as an emotional communion—as if each, performer and subject, were diverse expressions of the same gene.
Correction, March 18, 2015: This post originally stated that Dana Carvey had quoted Saddam Hussein as hypothetically saying “probably won’t [invade].” He was hypothetically quoting George H.W. Bush.