This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … your celebrity impressions.
Here’s how to tell if you’re one of those cringe-inducing amateur impressionists who people run from at work, family gatherings or any other social function. If, as soon as you saw the words “celebrity impressions” above, you broke into Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?” routine from Taxi Driver, then yes, I am, indeed, talking to you. Well, not so much talking as pleading. I beg you, we all beg you, to cease and desist with your nonstop imitations. They aren’t funny, they’re not original and, worst of all, they’re just not very good.
Here’s how to gauge just how tiresome your imitations are. The next time you break into one of your standards, perhaps Forrest Gump opining on a box of chock-lits or loudly petitioning Lt. Dan, read the reactions of your captive audience. I’ll bet you (or rather, I’ll make you an offer that you can’t refuse) you’re going to get one of the following three reactions:
1) You’ll get a forced, fast chuckle. This should not be mistaken for genuine laughter. This is what is known as uncomfortable laughter. They are uncomfortable because they want to tell you that you have just blurted out the worst imitation they’ve ever heard. But they have tact and a keen awareness of how to act in social situations. You, by forcing others to endure your bad John Travolta, have neither.
2) Or, you might see a quick wince, followed by a quick recovery smile. This is worse than the fake laugh. This means they are embarrassed for you.
3) Or, worst of all, you’ll get silence. This means that your listener is not even going to humor you with a little laughter or even a smile. They hate you and would at that point like to continue with whatever conversation you were having before you ran it into a ditch with your ersatz Pet Detective stylings.
There is only one reaction people can have that indicate that you are actually talented and can do a spot-on imitation of someone famous. If your listener looks truly stunned when you are finished, then you are a talent. You know you’ve got someone down pat if your listeners don’t laugh. They don’t even smile. Instead, they stand open-mouthed, looking at you in a way they’ve never looked at you before. But you know you’ve never seen this expression, because if you had, you’d be making money as a mimic in the entertainment industry instead of being the person everyone runs from as you make your way through the office cubicles.
The possibility does exist that you can do one incredibly accurate imitation. If so, kudos. But this can be worse than doing 12 bad imitations. At least with those wannabe Rich Littles who ricochet from Rocky to Don Corleone to Bill Clinton to Larry King, we, the people who laugh behind their backs after they’ve gone, have multiple reasons to mock them. But the one-trick pony imitators are even more fun to rip on. As you approach a group of co-workers or friends, they’ll be making quick wagers on the over-under in terms of minutes it will take before you pull out that Tony Montana voice you do so well but so very, very often.
If you are a person who does a lot of imitations and is confident that none of this applies to you, here’s another way to test just how good you are. How many times have you been paid actual cash money for doing an imitation? Exactly. This makes you an amateur, and none of us like to watch or listen to amateur anythings for too long. When is the last time you watched a Little League baseball game in which one of the participants wasn’t a relative or close friend? How often do you go the little community theater to see the local amateur thespians pull off another excruciating version of Death of a Salesman? Would you really put your child’s pathetically inaccurate art class picture of an ocean sunset on the fridge if she weren’t your own kid? Leave performance art to the professionals. Leave the John Madden impressions to the professionals. You don’t see Frank Caliendo coming to your office to do that accounts payable work you’re so adept at.
Please, all of you, spare us all your bad impressions. We like that you’re a fun guy and we appreciate the effort, but you’re wearing us out. Stash the Rocky talk. Retire the Al Pacino bit. Your Slingblade is absolutely terrible. I’m sorry to be so blunt. I’m just trying to help you. If you refuse to curb your impulse to do imitations, then I guess you can’t handle the truth! (And trust me, you sound nothing like Jack Nicholson.)
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.