October 26th, 2021


Star Impressions

Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published March 29, 2016

There's an obscure cable network that broadcasts old television shows for old viewers like me who just can't stomach much of the "new stuff" that passes for entertainment on TV these days.

So preferring old-time civility to ongoing assaults of vulgarity, multi-tattooed actors, and left-of-center political messaging, my wife and I often check out this station.

Recently we've discovered that they've been showing complete old Tonight Shows starring Johnny Carson. Some go back to the seventies, most are from the eighties.

The station runs one entire show each night, beginning to end, so you get the Carson monologues followed by the repartee with Ed McMahon, and then of course the guests segments. As great humor, the monologues don't hold up all that well, but as a fascinating historical document of what was going on in America thirty and forty years ago they're wonderful.

But the real gems of these shows are the guests; talented performers, interesting personalities, and funny comics that could entertain an audience without taking the low road. The other night actor, comedian, and impressionist John Byner was on as a guest. Byner had one of the funniest impressionist acts going, capturing perfectly the essence of many of show business' biggest stars, such as John Wayne, George Jessel, Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, and even President Lyndon Johnson.

At his height Byner was in demand all over the country, playing clubs, casinos, colleges, as well as just about every variety show on TV. On this particular night John Byner was sitting with Carson, chatting about a wide range of things, including the fact that he had just done some voice work for Disney's "The Black Cauldron."

Then at one point in the interview (this was a show from the mid-eighties) Carson asked Byner if he was still doing his impressionist act. Byner looked at Johnny and said, "No, my act has died. Literally. Everyone I used to impersonate is now dead."

I thought about that and it made me sad. He was right, of course, most of the celebrities he did so well were gone and the fact is, impressions of dead people just aren't very funny.

Then I thought about some of the other big impressionists of that time, people like Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, and George Kirby. These comedians had successful acts because there were lots of stars alive and working then who had well-defined personalities that cried out to be mimicked. Kick Douglas, Jack Benny, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, George Burns, Ed Sullivan, John Wayne, Johnny Mathis, Dean Martin, even Johnny Carson himself, had vocal qualities and physical mannerisms that a good impressionist could hang an act on.

There were women comics who used to do great impressions of female singers such as Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland and actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis. But today's stars, both female and male, just don't seem to have such defining characteristics as the old-timers, which would explain why we don't see as many impersonators as we once did.

Oh sure, the performers on Saturday Night Live still do some impersonations, but they are mostly of politicians like Trump, Obama, Bush, and Sarah Palin. Ever seen an impersonation of actors Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, or Leonardo DiCaprio? And no one can do impressions of today's singers because they are already so exaggerated that it is impossible to satirize them. How can you do Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or Justin Bieber or Pittbull? You can't caricature a caricature. These people are already cartoons.

One other observation on this. When we do see a young comic doing an impression of someone today, it seems to be done in a mocking fashion. It's like the kid in class who makes fun of the teacher behind his back because he really doesn't like him. There's no good-humored joy to it, the impression feels mean-spirited. I could be wrong, but that's what comes across to me.

John Byner's act wasn't snarky or mocking, just damn funny and spot on. He was one of the best impressionists around. I'm sorry his act passed away.

Boy, do we need it now.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. He's also a Southern California-based freelance writer.