Magazine article The New Yorker

REPORTING FOR DUTY; DEPT. OF IMPERSONATION Series: 3/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

REPORTING FOR DUTY; DEPT. OF IMPERSONATION Series: 3/5

Article excerpt

Every election year, Jim Morris hits the trail as a Presidential hopeful--or two, or three. Morris, a rangy forty-seven-year-old from Massachusetts, is arguably the country's leading political impressionist. He came to notice during the 1980 campaign, with his twinkly-eyed Ronald Reagan, and later provided the voices of all the political characters on the "Saturday Night Live" cartoon "The X-Presidents." One morning recently, Morris was sitting on a couch in a friend's Manhattan apartment, preparing his John Kerry impression for "Politics as Usual," a show he's bringing to New York this fall. On a coffee table lay a collage of photographs of Kerry in a variety of attitudes: the finger-waving sage, the beach-walking poet, the Harley-straddling dude. A tape of Kerry speeches was playing on a nearby television, and Morris watched closely as a young, shaggy-haired Kerry chatted with Dick Cavett about Vietnam. "He's so Kennedy-conscious there, so affected and lockjawed," Morris said. "His 'past' and 'asked' sound totally different now."

Morris had also made an audio loop of such signature Kerry phrases as "I say to you," "I'll tell ya, folks," and "We believe," and he'd tweaked the sound on his computer, often slowing the words down, until they resembled whale songs. Somehow, this helps. Morris buried his head in his hands, then spread his fingers cautiously and bellowed, "Whee believe . . . whee believe. . . ." The "whee" was appropriately hoarse and solemn, as if a grieving adult were accompanying a child down a slide. "Kerry is like Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men,' " Morris said. "He's too big; he can't handle words without crushing them."

Morris went and stood before a full-length mirror. "He's got this wonderful, goofy smile, but I can't get it unless I get into the character, and I'm not there yet. John Edwards is easy, because he's so emphatic, but Kerry is hard: he's so nuanced." He stiffened his shoulders and dropped his jaw low, then lower still. "He looks like Uncle Sam," he said, staring at himself. "Uncle Sam, on stilts, at the county fair."

Morris often catches Presidents in their own acts of mimicry. "What I pride myself on is becoming a character's id, making available all the discarded and covered-up stuff from his past, and that's why I dislike doing Bush," he said. …

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