Dana Carvey changed the game when it comes to comedy via celebrity impersonations. Did you know that? I’m not sure I truly did until I reflected on his new Netflix stand-up special, coming out today as it does on the weekend before the 2016 elections, and how differently we treat the art now than we did before Carvey emerged on Saturday Night Live three decades ago.
Carvey, now 61, hasn’t slowed down as much as he has found his second wind as a comedian and impersonator. After taking a slight career sabbatical to help raise his children – his two sons, Tom and Dex, are now aspiring stand-up comedians – Carvey is back, presenting a TV competition series earlier in 2016 on USA, First Impressions, and now a Netflix special, Single White Male, 60 (in which his sons actually performed as his unseen opening acts).
Carvey wastes no time getting to the first of his many vocal impressions, telling the audience at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston that he wants to discuss the Trump phenomenon. They boo. “People angry already. What?!?” he remarks, feigning surprise. “I do him a little effeminate. I don’t know why. I just do him, a little soft, a little bit o’ lotion, little bit of chapstick. I just do.”
Carvey boils Trump, and later other politicians, into physical mannerisms and verbal tics. Trump, for instance, has “patented moves” in Carvey’s mind, such as “the seal” – waving his arms back and forth at waist level while making barking noises – or “the index shuffle,” repeatedly saying “OK” as his index finger waves. “He’s like a Batman villain, if you think about it.” Former President George W. Bush, by comparison, was “a drunk marionette.”
He goes in on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and even Adolf Hitler, not shirking away from any voice he might be able to get his comedy cords around successfully. His version of Hitler imagines him when he’s not on newsreels shouting vociferously, instead dropping into a softer, more seductive tone with his Nazi underlings. “An impression can be anything in my mind,” he says.