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SNL’s Masters of Mimicry

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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.

DAN AYKROYD

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.

EDDIE MURPHY

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.

JOE PISCOPO

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.

PHIL HARTMAN

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.

DANA CARVEY

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.

WILL FERRELL

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.

DARRELL HAMMOND

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

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.

BILL HADER

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.

KRISTEN WIIG

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

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.

Movies About Bad Movies

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In honor of “Argo,” the soon-to-be-released film about a military operation posing as a movie crew during the Iranian hostage crisis, we at The Jimbo List offer a selection of movies about bad movies. Really. See for yourself.

TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

Truly one of the most ambitious comedies of recent years, “Tropic Thunder” stars Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black as actors in a Hollywood war flick who end up in an actual combat situation. It manages to skewer every part of the film industry, from egotistical actors to opportunistic directors and lunatic explosives consultants.

BOWFINGER (1999)

This Steve Martin-Eddie Murphy comedy is more entertaining than it has any right to be. The plot – about a low-rent director trying to make a film called “Chubby Rain” on a shoestring – is full of the usual gags about movies. Yet it kind of works. Martin conveys a real sense of passion for his utterly horrid production, and that’s the heart of the story.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

Embedded in the story of the wonderful “Singin’ in the Rain,” you have the trials and tribulations of silent film folks learning how to make talking pictures. Jean Hagen is a riot trying to tame her New York accent, while dealing with newfangled microphones. Let’s just say it’s a long road from “The Dueling Cavalier” to “The Dancing Cavalier.”

BE KIND REWIND (2008)

“Be Kind Rewind” has a beautifully odd premise. Clerks at a video store decide to shoot their own versions of every movie in the place – because they accidentally erased all the tapes. Jack Black (shown here as Robocop), Mos Def and Danny Glover do the honors.

AFTER THE FOX (1966)

I have a real soft spot for this comedy starring one of my favorites, Peter Sellers. He’s a criminal known as the Fox, who tries to smuggle stolen gold into Europe by pretending to be a movie director helming a new flick called “The Gold of Cairo.” Sellers is at his insane best. Also quite funny is Victor Mature, playing a vain Hollywood actor.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006)

Sadly, I can’t fully recommend “For Your Consideration,” which I consider the only dud in the Christopher Guest roster of semi-improvised films. This one is about a trio of actors who believe they’re on the verge of critical acclaim for their current production, “Home For Purim.” I normally love Guest and his stable of regulars (Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey), but this one fell flat.

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008)

Yes friends, it’s a good, old-fashioned romantic comedy about two people (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who decide to make a pornographic film. Certainly, this won’t be everyone’s idea of a good plot for a movie. But if you connect with Rogen’s brand of humor, which means filthy dialogue but full of heart, you’ll like it.

ED WOOD (1994)

We end with an ode to arguably the worst film in cinema history. Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau, is a comic gem. It takes a loving look at the career of Ed Wood, who directed the insanely awful “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Burton finds the creative joy that can accompany even bad art, and Landau’s portrayal of an aging Bela Lugosi is amazing.

So, are there any masterpieces I’m leaving out? Add them to The List!