SNL’s Masters of Mimicry

I’ve always felt that SNL is at its best when it has one or two top-notch mimics. That’s especially true during presidential election years, when millions of people tune in to get a weekly dose of political satire. Even beyond political sketches,  the show’s best casts tend to include at least one great impressionist. These are my favorites, through the years.


Aykroyd was the gold standard for SNL mimics during the show’s early years. He had a way of channeling the inner intensity of subjects, from Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter. What made it even more impressive was that he did those impersonations while keeping his mustache! For my money, the best Aykroyd impression was TV host Tom Snyder.


Murphy was a much different sort of mimic. He didn’t try to sound like a recording of his subjects. He picked out a couple of mannerisms and a hairstyle, then added his own bit of attitude. It made his Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Buckwheat incredibly memorable.


Here was a guy who lost himself inside his characters. I think fans forget how great Piscopo was, as Frank Sinatra and David Letterman. He combined voice skills with makeup and acting – all to wonderful effect. He should have stayed on the show a few more years before going solo.


To me, Hartman was a genius. All of his characters, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Ed McMahon, were infused with a comic insanity. Yet he kept them firmly in place, because his acting chops were so solid. And his crazy version of Ross Perot running mate James Stockdale in 1992 still makes me laugh.


A good case can be made that Carvey was the best mimic SNL has ever had. George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Stewart, Ross Perot, Regis Philbin, Johnny Carson. Carvey absolutely nailed those impressions, and you could tell he loved every minute of them. He was like a heat-seeking missile of mimicry. If the audience reacted to a particular gesture or word, Carvey would refine it and build on it. Perfection.


Ferrell reminded me of Eddie Murphy, in the sense that his impressions were great without necessarily sounding like the person. His George W. Bush, Harry Caray and James Lifton capitalized on very insightful study by Ferrell. He got at the inconsistencies and oddities of each subject, then took it to the extreme.


For quite a while, Hammond was the show’s go-to impressionist. He could do Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Donald Trump – and of course Bill Clinton. The line, “I. Am. Bulletproof,” is as good a description of Clinton’s last two years in office as any I’ve heard. Same with Al Gore and “Lockbox.”


Amy Poehler was so talented that her mimicry skills were sort of secondary. But remember how funny she was as Nancy Grace? Or Hillary Clinton? To me, one of her best moments was when she did a pitch-perfect Christopher Walken, in front of Christopher Walken.


I consider Hader a stealth-mimic. For some reason, he goes in for obscure characters who take you by surprise. He does a fantastic Alan Alda, Al Pacino and James Carville. Hader is a craftsman with those impressions, copying the voices with care and giving them demonic grins. His Keith Morrison from “Dateline NBC” is a masterpiece.


Wiig was smart to downplay her mimicry on SNL, since her stock characters were so strong. Still, she was amazing when she did Kathie Lee Gifford, Suze Ormond, Megan Mullally and Tanning Mom.


Jay Pharoah has a ton of talent, but I’m waiting for him to fulfill that potential. He does a devastating Denzel Washington and Will Smith, and his Barack Obama is coming along. If he can bolster his acting ability, he’ll be an SNL mainstay.

I guess a few more great mimics on the show is too much to ask. Wouldn’t be prudent.