Dana Carvey and Freddie Prinze, Jr.
Making Good First Impressions
by Jay S. Jacobs
Everyone has one. An impression, that is. The ability to change your voice and mannerisms to portray another person – usually a celebrity – for a good-natured laugh. While impressions play a huge role in comedy television, it’s rather surprising that there has never been a reality show contest specializing in the very distinct art form.
That is, until now. The USA Network has put together First Impressions, a limited series in which impressionists compete with each other for fun and exposure, and hopefully stardom. They will take the stage at a comedy club, in front of a celebrity judge and host, celebrity guests, and a real live audience.
When going for the celebrity judge, USA went to one of the most acclaimed voice-men in the biz. Dana Carvey had been laying low in recent years, but his Saturday Night Live impersonations and characters were legendary – The Church Lady, George H.W. Bush, Hans and Franz, Johnny Carson, Garth (from Wayne’s World), George Michael, Casey Kasem, the owner of “Toonces the Driving Cat,” and many more.
For the show host, they pulled in Freddie Prinze, Jr. Though better known as a movie actor (She’s All That, Scooby-Doo!, I Know What You Did Last Summer), Prinze grew up in comedy clubs. His father was a young stand-up comedy legend in the 70s who became a TV star in the series Chico & the Man before his tragically young suicide. Like Carvey, Prinze Jr. has also been keeping a low profile as far as show business was concerned, but he decided he could not pass up this opportunity.
A few days before First Impressions made its premiere, we were one of a group of media outlets who got to speak with Carvey and Prinze about the show.
What about this show made it the right opportunity to come back to television?
Dana Carvey: First of all, it was unique because for a few years people have said, “They should do an impression as a competition show.” I said yes, okay but I didn’t think it could be like a six month long thing, like a singing show. Then USA and Jeff Gaspin and David Garfinkle – it was actually Art Garfunkel who approached me initially (laughs) – they came up with this idea. USA said, “Here, six on the air, half hour, shoot it over three days.” It seemed like a fun project to work on. I love watching people do impressions and we had some amazing talent. I got to be an audience a lot of the time too. Freddie?
Freddie Prinze Jr: (laughs) Dana you’re ridiculous. For me this came out of left field. I’m actively trying to be retired. When this came up it was like, hey you’re going to basically be in a comedy club with Dana Carvey hanging out with comedians and impressionists who are seeing who the funniest one is that night. As a little boy Budd Friedman used to parade me around The Improv. When I was eleven years old, past midnight. I would get to watch like all these old school comedians do their thing. I clearly have a soft spot for comedians. This was very much: hey, do you want to be 12-years-old again? That was an easy yes. That’s literally why I’m doing it.
Dana Carvey: (in a John Lennon accent) On behalf of Freddie and I, hope we pass the audition.
Dana, was there an impression that you ever had trouble mastering?
Dana Carvey: Yes, most of them. (laughs) I’d say George Bush Sr. was really difficult. I was assigned that when I was on Saturday Night Live. When everyone was like: Oh, man, what are we going to do with him? I was just going, hey, if you can’t do an impression, which we joke about on the show, you just say the name. “This is George Bush, Sr.” Basically that one took a year to make something interesting and funny. Obama was also especially difficult, because he has a deceptively deep voice, (imitates Obama) very much down here. (imitates George W. Bush) The ones that are kind of cut up, like W or Clinton, the ones that are kind of caught up in your throat are just easier to do. It took me a while to get Freddie Prinze Jr.
Freddie Prinze Jr: (pretending to be Dana Carvey imitating Freddie) But now my Freddie Prinze Jr. sounds amazing, I can just do him whenever I need to do him. It’s like Freddie’s not even here. (Back to being himself) That was amazing Dana, how did you just do that?
What are you looking for in the contestants? How did you select them?
Freddie Prinze Jr: I had nothing to do with the selection process.
Dana Carvey: Basically it was our first impression… There were six shows. We’re doing three each show, so there’s 18 contestants. There are thousands of different types of impressionists. From a ten-year-old in his room doing stuff on YouTube all here, there, and everywhere. So I think availability and what we had in LA – we just had a nice collage of different styles. We tried to mix it up. We got some really, really talented people.
As you were the mentor for the contestants, what skills did you find they needed coaching on the most?
Dana Carvey: There are different kinds of impressions. Freddie and I have talked about it. Some impressions are just so eerily accurate, and Freddie is the one that said he gets kind of frightened by them. I mean there are scary ones, like I’ve definitely gotten frightened by Frank Caliendo a couple of times doing Morgan Freeman. Is this sorcery? This should not exist in nature. My style is to abstract it a little bit, have fun with it, take it places with the detail. A lot of it is just confidence. It was sweet, because the people on our show were not internationally known. Some of them had different levels of experience. That would be the main thing, to enjoy it and just have fun with it and extrapolate it. Find little things and commit. Generally we were all jaw-dropped at times, just by some of the writing and also the impression itself. Freddie?
Freddie Prinze Jr: I’m sure they’ll cut to angles where you see me in the background with my mouth wide open or I’m on the floor laughing. I mean there’s some of these, I say kids because some of them were literally 19-years-old who came on the show and were so… I don’t like to throw the word phenom around, when you recognize greatness at an early age you go: That kid’s got it! That sounds corny, but you’ll see a couple of kids on the show where you’re like: Oh my God, that kid has got it and I can’t wait to see what happens next for him. Like Dana said, there are jaw-dropping moments. I genuinely got uncomfortable quite a few times, because it felt like the person was in the room, only it no longer looks like this. I had nothing to do with the coaching of them. All I got to do was sit back and enjoy it.
This show reminds me a lot of a show that I watched growing up called the Copy Cats on ABC. Do you remember that?
Dana Carvey: Oh God, yes, absolutely. I mean in the 60’s between Frank Gorshin and Rich Little and others, yes, I was glued to those guys. And I remember that show. That was taking like four or five well-known famous impressionists and having them do a variety show. Was it a half hour or an hour?
I think it was an hour. You always reminded me of Fred Travalena in many ways, I mean that as the highest possible compliment.
Dana Carvey: I knew Fred. I knew him, yes. I remember seeing Fred Travalena on television, yes, and Rich Little as far as just pure impressionists. Then a lot of what you would call generic voices, I probably got from Jonathan Winters like a lot of people, then later on Carlin and Pryor and Freddie’s dad. I saw them all. I love impressionists. I’m not really an elitist about it. I love magicians, too. I love a pure brilliant comedian, as well. I love watching someone do an impression, especially when I can’t do [it]. It does seem like a magic trick to me. It’s very entertaining. I don’t know, did I meander around enough there? Freddie?
Freddie Prinze Jr: I was negative five years old when that show was on and it was fucking great. (They both laugh.)
Dana Carvey: Negative five.
Freddie Prinze Jr: (imitates Johnny Carson) That joke was just for me. That was wild.
Dana Carvey: That was the heyday of variety, man. There were so many variety shows on the ’60s, all the way through most the ’70s and pretty much that was it. I mean prime time network variety. Now we have the competition shows like The Voice and stuff, those are kind of the new variety I think. I don’t know, it’s all in my book.
Freddie Prinze Jr: That’s new school variety.
Dana Carvey: Yes, new school.
Dana, were there any impressions that you’re most looking forward to fans seeing featured on the show?
Dana Carvey: I feel like if you’re asking me right now who everyone’s doing and it’s just very interesting is Trump. I have been working on a Hillary. I couldn’t really do a Hillary, but now I do her, because her voice got kind of hoarse so I was able to just find an angle on Hillary. My angle is she has an ear piece and Bill’s behind the scene, (imitates Bill Clinton) “Big Dog to Little Hill. Big Dog to Little Hill. Come in, Little Hill. Little Hill, you’ve got to slow down, baby. You’ve got to slow down. You can’t empathize everywhere baby; you cannot come on peaches n cream, baby, peaches n cream.” That makes real sense and makes me happy. A lot of the younger impressionists, they’re doing Seth Rogen and Katt Williams. They’re doing Sofia Vergara. They’re doing people that aren’t from my age group, basically. Some good Mark Wahlbergs were in there. There’s the usual suspects, but then occasionally someone would do somebody that you don’t really expect. We had a guy do Sharon Osbourne and did it in a way that was sort of surreal. So I’ll leave that as a tease.
Freddie Prinze Jr: To piggy back on that, anytime one of the impressionists was literally able to switch sexes… and it happened quite a few times, we had girls doing Owen Wilson, we had guys doing Sharon Osbourne… and every time that happens it’s unbelievable, it’s magic.
Dana Carvey: I can only do men because of my oversize masculinity. So it’s hard for me to do women. (does the Church Lady) Well isn’t that special?
Did anyone try to impress you with their impressions of yours, like the Church Lady and Hans and Franz, stuff like that?
Dana Carvey: I think they did. Did they Freddie? I mean did somebody maybe…
Freddie Prinze Jr: Yes. Well there was some during that, but I think we have an episode where somebody finishes strong with a Church Lady that kind of threw you back. I think there was one like that.
Dana Carvey: Yes I think everyone’s an impressionist on some level. I really do. There are people with crazy gifts and then most of us do somebody whether it’s your uncle or school teacher.
Freddie Prinze Jr: Shoot, Dana, I grew up learning them from you.
Dana Carvey: Right and I did stuff from everyone I could. I don’t know if I’m doing Ma Frickert [a Jonathan Winters character] with Church Lady. I’m not sure where that rhythm came from. Maybe it was from five different influences. I remember once I said to Tommy Smothers, “I think there’s a little bit of your influence in Garth, even though that character was based on my brother.” But there’s that little hesitant nerd character. You never know where it’s all coming from, so it’s interesting. You steal from the best, take everything you can. Robin Williams was a huge influence on me, because he was from San Francisco. He was like the godfather of comedy. I tried to be him for five years until I figured out no one was as fast as him. I had a trunk with props and found my own style. But, yeah I was absolutely trying to be Robin. I told him that and he says “Oh, I got everything from Jonathan [Winters].” Those generic really classic… you’ve got to be able to do the stoner dude, or you may do any different array of accents those are just touchstones when you were coming up in the ’80’s you had to do those. Anyway, it’s all in my book. Freddie Prinze Jr. at Night is the name of my book.
Freddie Prinze Jr: You didn’t even discuss this with me, that’s amazing.
Dana Carvey: I know I just borrowed the title. It just made sense. It felt good.
Freddie Prinze Jr: It wrote itself.
Dana Carvey: It wrote itself.
Freddie you actually just touched on one of the things I was going to ask you but do you do impressions? And if so who is your best impression?
Freddie Prinze Jr: Shoot man. I’m kind of a dork. I like science fiction and was raised on Star Wars. So like 99% of my impressions are of the Star Wars universe. The other ones were literally just being raised on Dana Carvey. They’re diluted versions of his sick impressions. I have one Peter Falk, from Kevin Pollak, so there’s another diluted version of one. Like Dana said, he watched Robin. He loved Jonathan Winters. He even mentioned my father. My father did a mean Muhammad Ali. All mine are from that. I got to make a movie with Peter Falk before he passed away. To have heard that voice that Pollak did back in the day and then to hear him, the first thing I wanted to do for Peter, as I was such a stupid young actor, was like: “Let me do my Peter Falk impression.”
Which was nearly an identical experience to the one my grandmother had when she met Peter Falk in the 70s with my dad. My dad literally said, “Now ma, don’t call him Columbo. He really doesn’t like that.” She goes, “Oh Freddie, don’t worry. I’m not going to call him nothing. Everything is going to be fine. I’ll stay calm.” As soon as my dad brought her to meet Peter Falk she literally goes, “Columbo, I love you.” My dad goes, “Ma, what did I tell you?” She looks at him. She goes, “I can’t take a chance with his last name with my…” – I can’t say the word she said – “with my bleeping accent.” So that’s why she called him Columbo. But everybody steals their voices from somewhere. Like my old lady voice is my grandma Maria. No matter what voice I try to do, I can’t do an American old woman. It’s always going to sound like a New York Puerto Rican. That’s just the way that it goes. (laughs)
Dana you came up in the clubs and now you’re doing this show out of a club. How have things changed over the years in the clubs? What is it like now to be teaching rather than learning?
Dana Carvey: Everyone’s life is surreal. It’s just a passage of time. My sons are both doing standup. They’re beginners and the club system is just very different now. They’re looking for someone with some social media followers. But then they try and they get a following and they want to put them in the club as headlines. That usually takes a long time – 10,000 hours. If you can do it in three years – like Freddie’s dad was pretty stout really fast. I mean like within a year I think, right Freddie? Or two years. He was…
Freddie Prinze Jr.: It was super fast. At 20.
Dana Carvey: Yes. So there are things like that. But most of us, it takes ten years of hard work. Just stating the obvious the nature of television, with the live streaming, and all the channels, there’s a lot of shows that can exist now. It’s a golden age and it’s just fun that USA wanted to do this little show. We’re not trying to be The Voice or American Idol, even though there’s a competitive element. It’s kind of a celebration, really. It’s a fun little party. If it evolves, you could want it to be like a nightclub, in the sense of Hugh Hefner or something. We tried to make it as casual as we could and not dress it up too much. There’s nothing not fun about it really. (laughs) I got to hang out with my friends, too. Steve Carell and [Jon] Lovitz and stuff.
This show is going to be the first time a lot of these people get discovered. Do you have any advice for them for what’s coming next as they launch their careers in show business?
Dana Carvey: Freddie?
Freddie Prinze Jr: You have seniority; you get to answer that one.
Dana Carvey: Geez, there’s so much there. Well don’t let the wealth effect get a hold of you. Just work on being better. In show business, if you go into it with the goal to be rich and famous… I don’t know, I think that’s kind of a trap. Maybe for some people that’s fun. I would just say try to get better. Try to work on your thing. Don’t take it too seriously, or take the work seriously, because it goes up and down.
Freddie Prinze Jr: Yes. I think that’s the most important one, what Dana just said. Don’t take yourself seriously, take the job seriously. I would say don’t be afraid to fail. Dana worked on this for years, I was lucky enough to have hosted Saturday Night Live once. And if you care too much you’re just going to suck bad. You have to have this willingness to fall flat on your face. When you do have that willingness to fall down, you never do. When you’re trying to watch your footing is when you slip and fall on your ass. So be fearless. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t take yourself seriously, but take your profession hyper-seriously. That’s what I would say. I like piggy backing on Dana.
Dana Carvey: When I was doing a variety show [The Dana Carvey Show] in ’96 or ’97 with Louis CK and [Steve] Carell and [Stephen] Colbert, we had Tony Randall on. He must have been in his 80s then. He looked incredible. I go what’s your secret? He was just like a little kid. He was like, “Well we get to do this. We’re doing this. We get to play and we get paid to do it.” That’s always my touchstone. I was a waiter with my last job. I was a dishwasher, then a bus boy. We called ourselves table maintenance personnel managers, but that’s another story. I always thought: wow, if I make what I make as a waiter doing this…
I say stay humble and just try to be great. Try to be really, really good. Realize the business side and all that stuff is just this whole other track. It can get people crazy taking it too seriously. I met a lot of people that bicker for no real reason. You know, go to Rwanda for a month just to hang out and then come back. (Prinze laughs) Even Letterman when he retired said he realized there was a lot going on besides his own TV show. It’s a myopic, narcissistic business. (imitates Trump) Can I take over here? This is Donald Trump. Let me tell you something, this show is so fabulous. Other shows are disasters. They’re total disasters. Complete disasters. Did I say disaster? I love disasters. This show is so good, let me tell you something. (back to normal voice) Sorry I just threw that in for fun. We’re full of wisdom aren’t we Freddie? I can’t believe what we just said, damn. We’re so wise…
Freddie Prinze Jr: We are. I get called wise on a daily basis so I’m used to it. (They both laugh.)
Dana, we haven’t talked about the special guests that are going to be on. One in particular I wanted to talk about is your old friend Kevin Nealon, you guys go way back…
Dana Carvey: Yes, we were living in a house in Hollywood Hills. My wife and I lived above the garage with a hot plate. We were trying to save money to buy a home. She was speech writer for a friend of mine. Kevin was across the way. So, I knew Kevin before SNL. Then by freak long-story-short circumstances I got on the show. They needed one more cast member. Lorne, I think offhandedly said, “You know someone like Chevy, who’s 6 foot 4?” I said I know a tall funny guy. Kevin. They flew him out. He landed the show just standing in 8H doing some standup. Now, with the new world of show business, because of all the places to do stuff is mind boggling. So we’re bringing out a Hans and Franz cartoon that we’ve got a whole pilot written just to put on, wherever. Amazon, or Netflix, or YouTube.
Dana Carvey: It’s just a fun, interesting time to do little a la carte pieces of work. When I came through, the two gate keepers in my business in essence were Johnny Carson and Lorne Michaels. They were the two ways to get in. Now it’s this blown out a lot. It’s a great time.
In identifying what makes for a good impression there’s sounding like the person, there’s identifying the subtle mannerisms and working those in. Sometimes it seems like it’s dropping the person into a foreign situation. I was wondering: am I missing anything that’s in the ingredients of a great impression? Is any one of those more important than anything else?
Freddie Prinze Jr: Dana, I’ll let you answer the last part of that. But the beginning, I honestly think there’s one other thing – and I didn’t notice it until Dana had said it on the show in one of the episodes. A lot of times when this voice comes out, your face begins to take the form of the person you’re doing. There’s even a look that’s involved as well. Like when Dana does Trump, his face naturally begins to like mold like Clayface from the old Batman animated series. It just like transforms into this squished version of Donald Trump, man. That’s another part of it too. So much so that Dana even spoke about it in one of the episodes. Because one of the guy’s faces – or it was a girl doing Owen Wilson and her face literally became Owen Wilson’s face, it was the craziest thing.
Dana Carvey: Yes, it’s funny that you do hold your jaw and your mouth in a way that helps the sound. I never personally practice in front of a mirror, but I would see it later. You can’t do Trump without sort of making your mouth into that… whatever… it’s like a little trumpet. That’s why he’s called Trump!
Freddie Prinze Jr: There you go. I always thought it was the bitter beer face, but you’re right. It’s a trumpet face.
Dana Carvey: I don’t know. I guess we better get used to it. It’s going to be interesting. I don’t know if there’s anything we’re really missing. I would just say that sometimes you add stuff onto an impression; it just sort of feels right. It feels like it’s coming from them somehow. Even if they maybe never said that or even did that. In other words, [it’s] an instinctual thing. For me, I don’t know if it’s out of boredom or whatever. Eventually, I don’t really care. Like now I just have a Trump impression that I enjoy doing, so I’m not studying or looking at anyone else’s Trump trying to be theirs. I just do my own. Because as soon as I get it locked in to it, I just treat it like a character. It’s all Trump, all the time. And Bernie. I’ve got a good Bernie, too, but he’ll still be around, right? He’s not going down is he?
They’re all hanging around for a while, yes.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 12, 2016.
Photos © 2016. Courtesy of USA Network. All rights reserved.