There’s a long tradition in comedy of parodying politicians with their own words, accents and mannerisms. Vaughn Meader made a brief career out of satirizing the Kennedys back in the ’60s and David Frye created the quintessential Nixon. Impressionist Jim Morris talks about the art form.
SARAH PALIN: Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and on our other side, the land boundary that we have — TINA FEY AS SARAH PALIN: Alaska and Russia are only separated by a narrow maritime border. You've got Alaska here, and this right here is water, and then that’s — up there’s Russia. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Sarah Palin, followed by Tina Fey doing her celebrated impression of Palin on Saturday Night Live. There’s a long tradition in comedy of parodying politicians with their own words, accents and mannerisms. I remember when I was seven, in 1962, listening to Vaughn Meader’s parody of the Kennedys on his album, The First Family. WOMAN: Sir?
VAUGHN MEADER AS PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Yes? WOMAN: When will we send a man to the moon? VAUGHN MEADER AS PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Whenever Senator Goldwater wants to go. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the decades since, comedians have lampooned every president from Johnson to Bush Two. Jim Morris is still famous for his eerily precise take on Ronald Reagan. Jim, welcome to the show. JIM MORRIS: Well, hi. How are you? BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Good. Let's talk about Vaughn Meader. His album, The First Family, was huge in its day. It won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1963. VAUGHN MEADER AS PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Now, let me say I don't see why a person of the Jewish faith can't be President of the United States. I know as a Catholic I could never vote for him, but other than that [LAUGHTER] JIM MORRIS: For the impressionist, for the working impressionist, it’s certainly an inspiration and it’s a starting point, and it’s part of my folk history. Of course, it was a physical impression as well. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then another impressionist came along, obviously more versatile than Meader. Probably the quintessential impression of Richard Nixon was David Frye’s. I remember his head sunken into the chest, arms raised in double peace signs. [LAUGHTER] This was very, very broad, and yet it said something about the guy. JIM MORRIS: You know, it takes a really good impressionist to crack the code and to figure out how to do someone. And for me, he was the gold standard. DAVID FRYE AS PRESIDENT NIXON: Take a letter. Dear Dick, I think you’re doing a magnificent job. [LAUGHTER] Your public appearances are quite exciting. You are what I would call an activist president. Now, read that back — and give it some feeling. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Frye’s impression, and all the other impressionists that he influenced, created a kind of Ur Nixon that became, I think, in time, mixed in our minds with the actual Nixon. JIM MORRIS: Well, in the public’s minds, if you can capture the imagination of the listener and get them to suspend their disbelief, then they go with you. And when they think of that person, they're going to hear your rendition of them in their head.
Chevy Chase, when he did his Gerald Ford impression, I would assume that people couldn't look at the President without thinking of him bumping his head. CHEVY CHASE AS PRESIDENT FORD: My fellow Americans [LAUGHTER] my first announcement is one I think you've all been waiting for. [BUMPING SOUND] Oh! No problem! [LAUGHTER] Oh! Okay. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ford was said to be rather athletic, and yet when Ford died a couple of years ago, many TV news shows played those skits in their commemorations. I mean, it wasn't a great impression, but it [LAUGHS] was the pop cultural memory we all shared. JIM MORRIS: That's right, that's right. The Impressionist does have the ability to strike a chord in the same way that an editorial cartoonist might by accentuating big ears or heavy eyebrows or jowls. It becomes part of our association with that person. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the goal? Is the goal just to create a memorable character, a funny character? Are you trying to have an influence on the sort of national dialog, on our perceptions of our leaders? Or is it basically JIM MORRIS: [LAUGHS] Oh, Jesus! [BROOKE LAUGHS] You've been reading my mail. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, [LAUGHS] basically that’s how I describe what I do. When I was a kid, I was supposed to respect authority, and through mockery and getting people to laugh, I was able to cut them down to size a little bit. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did you go about crafting your Ronald Reagan? JIM MORRIS: [RONALD REAGAN’S VOICE] Well, there was a lot of research involved. Of course, he had – [IN HIS OWN VOICE] — he had quite a life already, well documented. He was a folk figure in America, done a lot of movies, television shows, so for me it was a matter of immersing myself in this man’s life. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you do an impression of a sitting president, making them laugh is number one, but do you think it serves another purpose? JIM MORRIS: Well, as an audience member you feel a moment of superiority over the subject. The playing field is leveled, because what you do is you pop that bubble of pomposity that the politician has. And that is very empowering, it’s very cathartic.
And what I do at the end of my show is I open it up to questions for the president, the sitting president, whoever he may be. The beauty of it is when people forget that I'm just Jim Morris playing a president and they get angry, and they say, but Mr. President, you said — and then everybody shares a laugh.
I'm able to take people behind closed doors. That’s the power of this art form. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thank you very, very much. JIM MORRIS: [IN PRESIDENT CLINTON’S VOICE] Well, I appreciate it. God bless you. And just remember that even though Hillary did not get the nomination, I am going to work tirelessly for — what — what was his name again?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Impressionist Jim Morris.