For Impressionist Jim Meskimen, The Voice Is 'A Sample Of Who We Are'

Jun 2, 2012
Originally published on June 2, 2012 11:50 pm

Jim Meskimen is the only person I've ever heard open an interview with NPR's Scott Simon in the voice of NPR's Robert Siegel.

In fairness, he's the one most likely to do so, since he is a noted impressionist. He acknowledges "you don't see people doing their Robert Siegel in nightclubs much," though he's noted what he calls Siegel's "bemused kind of delivery."

Maybe you've seen the YouTube video in which Meskimen performs a speech from Richard III in voices including those of Ricky Gervais, William Shatner, Garrison Keillor, Morgan Freeman, and many more.

But how, Simon asks him, does he come up with so many voices? "I guess it's kind of like a musician who sits and strums a guitar and tries to do licks that he's heard Pete Townshend do," Meskimen says, adding, "It's a hobby that's been very fruitful for me."

Doing those voices sometimes requires adaptability. "They come and go, and also voices change. Jack Nicholson sounded totally different in the early part of his career than he does right now," he adds, shifting midsentence from Nicholson's lighter, more agile voice from the One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest era to the grumblier one you'll hear out of him these days.

But even if you don't take an interest in actors, you may have heard Jim Meskimen. Back in 2004, he did all the voices on the "This Land" video from online humor site JibJab. (Contains strong language.)

Meskimen says he was surprised to find that after the exposure he got from "This Land," people became more interested in him as an actor. He has a long list of acting credits, including a lot of voice work, but also, for instance, Parks And Recreation, where he plays Pawnee emcee-about-town Martin Housely. So the impressions help career-wise, even when he's not doing them: "I use it mostly as a way to separate myself from the other tens of thousands of terrific actors out here in L.A."

One of the people who helped set Meskimen on this path was his mother, Marion Ross, who played Marion Cunningham for many years on Happy Days and has a lengthy acting resume of her own. He says she used to point people out and point their voices out to him. And his father was a musician, which helped as well. "Musicality has a lot to do with voice acting and impressions," he says.

While impressions might seem like mockery, Meskimen says they're actually just the opposite. He tells Simon that one of the things that helps him choose to do an impression is a certain fondess for a person. "I find that I like them so much that I wouldn't mind trying them on." And trying them on often gives him a chance to really present an essence of a person. "The voice is a symbol," he says. "It's a sample of who we are."

That sampling is, at least in the form in which Meskimen does it, not quite as popular as it was in the days of some of the impressionists he admired, like Rich Little and Fred Travalena. He says that while the art form still exists, it looks quite different: "It's sort of been absorbed by Saturday Night Live and other sketch comedy things."

As for Meskimen, he still likes the idea of doing it without props and costumes and wigs, evoking the person without the trappings of a full sketch, the way he does in his live show, and he'll tell you so himself.

At least we think it's him.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Some of the world's greatest actors have played Shakespeare's Richard III, but all of them and then some?

JIM MESKIMEN: (as Richard Burton) Me thought that I had broken from the tower and was embarked to cross to Burgundy...

(as Jimmy Stewart) ...and, in my company, my brother Gloucester. Who from my cabin tempted me to walk upon the hatches...

(as George W. Bush) ...thence we looked toward England and conjured up a thousand heavy times during the wars of York and Lancaster that had befallen us.

SIMON: A speech from Richard III delivered by a repertory of identifiable voices has become an Internet sensation. The man behind those voices, Jim Meskimen, has been called the greatest impressionist of these times. He also appears in films, commercials and TV shows. And Jim Meskimen will appear tonight at the Acting Center in Hollywood. He joins us from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MESKIMEN: Thank you, Scott. And may I say this is my impression of Robert Siegel. Feels like as I'm here in the NPR studios it's only appropriate to take on that sort of bemused kind of delivery that Robert Siegel's so good at.


SIMON: I don't think I know that voice. Robert Siegel? Ah, well, all right.

MESKIMEN: Yeah, you don't see people doing their Robert Siegel in nightclubs much.

SIMON: Right. Well, in a decent world you would. I wish I could ask - think of a more clever way to say this, but how do you do all those voices?

MESKIMEN: You know, it's something that - I guess it's kind of like a musician who sits and strums the guitar and tries to play licks that he's heard Pete Townshend do or something, you know. And you just kind of get curious. And I've done it all my life. And I started making a living at it, so I, you know, I just continued to noodle with it. And it's a hobby that has been very fruitful for me.

SIMON: Do you have any idea how many voices you do?

MESKIMEN: I don't. I always say that I, you know, it's too much record keeping. But, you know, they come and go. And also voices change.

(as Jack Nicholson) Jack Nicholson sounded completely different in his early part of his career than he does right now, the great Jack Nicholson.

You know, I've noticed though that when I do celebrity voices, like when I did the JibJab cartoon "This Land," I did all the voices for that. This land is your land, this land is my land. I'm a Texas tiger. You're a liberal wiener. That's a long time ago. But when I did that, people started paying attention to me as an actor more for some reason. So, you know, I use it mostly as a way to separate myself out from the tens of thousands of other terrific actors out here in L.A.

SIMON: You grew up in a show business household. A lot of people will recognize the name of your mother, Marion Ross.

MESKIMEN: Marion Ross. The great Marion Ross of "Happy Days" and "Brooklyn Bridge" fame, who's - she's 83 years old. She's onstage right now in Toronto doing "Lost in Yonkers." She's an extremely youthful and inspirational person.

SIMON: Well, good. God bless. Do you think it's possible you grew up sensitive to voices in a certain way?

MESKIMEN: I did. Absolutely. And my mom used to point out voices to me. She'd say listen to this person. And she would imitate people as well. And so I kind of got clued into that frequency. And my dad was a musician and loved music and comedy and stuff. And so we would, you know, on the weekends - this is back in the days, you know, in the '60s. On the weekends, we'd sit around and listen to records. I can't even imagine doing such a thing today.


MESKIMEN: We would listen to Monty Python and John Prine and Bob Dylan. And then he would play guitar and we would sing. So - and musicality has a lot to do with voice acting, I think, and impressions too.

SIMON: Well, explain that to us.

MESKIMEN: Well, you know, like...

(as Robert Siegel) ...I did with Robert Siegel just a moment ago, there's a certain rhythm and a timbre, a way of delivering things...

Which is different from my own voice or from somebody else's.

(as Robin Williams) Like Robin Williams, for example, goes into hyperdrive, you know, but that's just the way he is. It's sort of clipped and fast.

So there's a musicality to that in that it contains, you know, observations about pitch and rhythm.

(as Morgan Freeman) And Morgan Freeman is another person who has a very musical voice. You know, it kind of goes along slowly and then makes an interesting observation and then backs down.

SIMON: Bring on the penguins. When you were a youngster, did you imitate your teachers, for example?

MESKIMEN: I did. I still remember, there was a guy named Mr. Larson, the P.E. teacher, and he would always say, OK, gentlemen, line up, please. Line up. Very particular kind of way of saying that. And, of course, you know, you had to be cagey about it and not do it anywhere within earshot. But I was definitely one of those guys that imitated - who would call up friends and pretend to be someone else. I'm still that guy.

SIMON: What makes you decide to do someone, if I can put it that way?

MESKIMEN: It's mostly based on affinity, Scott. I find that I like them so much that I wouldn't mind trying them on.

(as Colin Firth) Like Colin Firth. I've admired him for many years, watching him on those, you know, terrific sort of Merchant Ivory films. And there's something marvelously tentative about him. And then when he became, you know, such a huge mainstream star with "The King's Speech" I thought, well, why not, you know, bring it back and just stutter more.


SIMON: I should know this. Do you do any women?

MESKIMEN: (as Arianna) I do Arianna Huffington. That's just about the only one I can do just off the top of my head. But I've listened to her so often on "Left, Right & Center," I feel like I can, you know, almost dictate what her viewpoint would be.

SIMON: Well, and thank you for mentioning it. I believe it's a KCRW program.

MESKIMEN: Yes, of course. That's your affiliate out here, yes.

SIMON: And about four other stations in the area...

MESKIMEN: You guys get in our heads, you know. Like Garrison Keiller is another one who just sort of occupies so much of our mind and so we feel like we know what he's going to say in any given second.


SIMON: Oh my word. Ah, goodness gracious.

MESKIMEN: The voice, I think, is so interesting and fun. And for me it's a fun thing to noodle with, the instrument of the voice. But I realize too, it's got deeper implications because, you know, the voice is a symbol, it's a sample of who we are. It's a personality and it has its own sort of value. You know, you hear a voice and like you've been laughing - it sort of evokes that person and that personality and that viewpoint.

SIMON: I got a peek at some dates you have coming up this summer - or actually in the fall. And I noticed you've got a couple of nights where you play Mexico City.

MESKIMEN: Yes. I was invited to come to Mexico City for this huge conference called La Ciudad de las Ideas. And I speak a little Spanish. I don't think I speak quite enough to do my act in Spanish. (Spanish spoken).

SIMON: Am I wrong - do impressionists seem to be dwindling in numbers in show business?

MESKIMEN: Well, they seem to be absorbed. You know, my show, "The Jimpression Show," is a kind of a throwback to the '70s. Guys like the great Rich Little, the great Fred Travalena and Frank Gorshin that were, you know, ubiquitous on television back in the days when people said ubiquitous and everyone knew what they meant. But, you know, in the '60s, you'd see on Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson an impressionist and he would do, you know, his set. And there is that and it does exist, but it's sort of been absorbed by "Saturday Night Live" and other kind of sketch comedy things. But I think there's something marvelous for audiences about seeing a person without props, without makeup and prosthetics, without a wig, just evoking and becoming that person. It's a marvelous little magic trick. And I think there'll always be a place for it. And, you know, the audiences and people I've talked to said, God, we don't have this anymore. This is cool. So, that's why I really brought it back. I wear a bad '70s suit, you know, white shoes, white belt. Man, I look stylish.

SIMON: Jim Meskimen, the man of more than a thousand voices speaking with us from the studios of NPR West. He appears tonight at the Acting Center in Hollywood. Give us one last goodbye, thanks, Jim.

MESKIMEN: (as John Wayne) Bye-bye, everybody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.