Impressionist (entertainment)

This article is about the comedic performing art. For the art movement of the 19th century, see Impressionism.

An impressionist or a mimic is a performer whose act consists of imitating the voice and mannerisms of others. The word usually refers to a professional comedian/entertainer who specializes in such performances and has developed a wide repertoire of impressions, including adding to them, often to keep pace with current events. Impressionist performances are a classic casino entertainment genre.

Someone who imitates one particular person without claiming a wide range, such as a lookalike, is instead called an impersonator. In very broad contexts, "impersonator" may be substituted for "impressionist" where the distinction between the two is less important than avoiding confusion with the use of "impressionist" in painting and music.

Usually the most "impressive" aspect of the performance is the vocal fidelity to the target  usually a politician or a famous person. Props may also be employed, such as glasses or hats, but these are now considered somewhat old-fashioned and cumbersome: the voice is expected to carry the act.

Because animated cartoons often lampoon famous people (sometimes obliquely), a facility for impressions is one of the marks of a successful voice actor. Many cartoon characters are intended to be recognized by the audience as evoking a specific celebrity, even when not explicitly named. With such indirect references, the entertainment value does not lie so much in the technical achievement of exactly reproducing the voice so much as in merely making it recognizable; the joke lies in the reference to a celebrity, not in its rendition.

In Britain

During the 1970s British television was awash with impressions of Frank Spencer, a character from the hugely popular British sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. This may have been because Frank had such distinctive mannerisms and dress sense which gave performers a number of visual shortcuts to cover for failings in their abilities. For about a decade no British impressionist's act was complete without Frank.

From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s Mike Yarwood dominated the impressionist scene, with his own TV shows regularly attracting more than 10 million viewers. Impressionists were very popular on the televised talent shows of the 1970s; Lenny Henry is a notable example of an act that developed from this.

In the 1990s there was a certain absence of impressionists on television, with the demise of Spitting Image and Rory Bremner mainly concentrating on political figures (notably John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and also members of the Royal Family). Then in 1999 came Alistair McGowan's Big Impression with Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona, and in 2002 Dead Ringers. Both these shows featured impressions of celebrities and television personalities, as well as sporting figures on the former and politicians on the latter.

The Icons in London, which ran at The Venue in Leicester Square from 4 January to 28 February 2007 and starred the notable American-born, English-reared impressionist Greg London, is the first original musical to have dealt with impressions in depth. The book was by Greg London, West End theatre director David Taylor and London playwright Paul Miller. In 2009 a new BBC One impressions show, The Impressions Show with Culshaw and Stephenson, was a big hit, starring Jon Culshaw and Debra Stephenson donning Britain's most famous faces. A third series of the programme started in October 2011.

In North America

From the 1970s, Rich Little (Canadian expatriate working in America) has been the pre-eminent impressionist, mimicking politicians and celebrities. Performers in the Saturday Night Live cast have regularly performed impressions of politicians and celebrities. SNL alum and current host of NBC's The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon, rose to fame with stand-up comedy acts featuring him doing impressions of many celebrities in varying scenarios such as auditioning for a Troll doll commercial. Fellow SNL alumni Darrell Hammond, Bill Hader, and Jay Pharoah have been cited as 'master impressionists', each having performed impressions of over 80 different celebrities on the show.

Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey is also known for his uncanny impressions of other movie stars, and during his appearance on Inside The Actor's Studio, demonstrated nine of these upon request, including Katharine Hepburn, Al Pacino, Johnny Carson, Christopher Walken, and Jack Lemmon. Another outstanding impressionist was Frank Gorshin. Frank Caliendo has recently come to fame for his impressions as well.

Impressionists are a major part of animation; many film and television cartoons (especially adaptations of franchises) used impressions of famous celebrities of the era. Voice actors who are or were known for their celebrity impressions include Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, Don Messick, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille and Rob Paulsen.

Some impressionists have more specialized acts in the art. For example, Canadian comedian André-Philippe Gagnon, Canadian singer Véronic Dicaire and American Greg London impersonate singing voices. Legends In Concert produces musical impressionist shows known as tribute artist productions.

In India

Nerella Venumadhav imitates world politicians, film artists, singers, poets, scenes from Shakespeare's plays, popular movies including musical notes. He imitates the nativity, general characters and natural and mechanical sounds. India has a colorful and impressive history of people who have made mimicry their profession and have become successful actors in the film industry with their skills of impression alone. For e.g. actor Jayaram, Sivakarthikeyan.

In Hong Kong, China and Taiwan

The entertainment industries in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan are famous for impersonations by singers. Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau are often considered the Elvis and Michael Jackson of many professional and amateur singers as role models for impersonating their voices. However, even well established singers like Adam Cheng is considered one of the first-generation impersonators. Notable singers/impersonators/comedians include Johnson Lee, Wong Cho Lam, Show Luo, Eason Chan, and JJ Lin and many more. In Taiwan, many comedians can impersonate more than 5 to 10 people at the same time, and there even are competitions for them.

See also

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