I spotted them as I crossed Sunset. They were lined up against KTLA Studios’ outer wall on Bronson, mingling and enjoying the warm spring morning. There was Gwen Stefani, Jerry Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Jim Carrey and Michael Jackson, among many others. Even by the normal Hollywood standards, this gathering was notable and surreal, and I felt honored to be included in such elite company.
These were not the real, actual celebrities surrounding me on the sidewalk, but rather something a bit more fascinating and bizarre: celebrity impersonators — many of them professional — auditioning for a new ABC reality/contest show called The Next Best Thing, which aims to do for celebrity impersonators what Last Comic Standing does for comedians, what American Idol does for singers and what The Apprentice does for people who want to work 80 hours a week in an office. And on this day, I was one of them. I was a celebrity impersonator.
See, I began hearing of my resemblance to Adam Sandler way back when he first hit as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. Years later, I realized I could do a decent vocal impersonation and loosely cop some of Sandler’s idiosyncratic gestures and facial expressions. Around that time, a comedy-show producer I knew in L.A. was putting together a night of performers impersonating famous comedians, and she recruited me. I wrote a Sandler parody tune titled “The Ramadan Song,” got my guitarist friend to teach me three or four chords and then rocked the M Bar crowd with such snappy lyrics as “Get out your old Koran . . . it’s time to celebrate Ramadan. The head of the Afghanistan Taliban . . . celebrates Ramadan.” There were also mentions of such Muslim celebrities as Mike Tyson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cat Stevens and Everlast from House of Pain.
When I heard about The Next Best Thing auditions in L.A., I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. In this age of reality TV gone wild, any measure of mass exposure could only help my other pursuits — writing, acting and live comedy.
Due to copyright issues, we impersonators had to write our own original material in the vein of our celebrity, so I sat down and wrote a Sandleresque song. If he could kill with a song about a semi-important Jewish holiday, I reasoned I could parody that by writing about a semi-important patriotic holiday: Presidents Day.
Waiting outside for several hours up against the TV-studio wall, I was fascinated and impressed by the dedication, professionalism and downright verisimilitude of many of the impersonators around me. The Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Christopher Walken, Austin Powers and Jim Carrey-as-Ace-Ventura were all visually spot-on, down to their often elaborate, expensive costumes.
The Paul McCartney did not bear very much facial resemblance to the famous ex-Beatle, but he did maintain jokey banter in a Liverpudlian accent, all the while holding a severed mannequin leg. Two busty older gals sporting big hair and pink dresses called themselves the Double Ds — twin Dolly Partons.
Sometimes the grand failures were equally entertaining. The Michael Jacksons ranged from a white guy to a person I’m pretty sure was a woman, which, on second thought, made them perfect candidates. There were at least a half dozen platinum-blond bombshells, and it was nearly impossible to determine whether they were impersonating Marilyn Monroe or Anna Nicole Smith or a pregnant Gwen Stefani.
A bit later, in a tent inside the studio lot that was set up as a waiting area for the talent, I bonded with fellow impersonators, including a seasoned, middle-aged guy with a comforting been-around-the-block vibe about life and the biz who was appearing as Donald Trump. There was also a young, wide-eyed kid from Seattle who had essentially no previous entertainment experience doing Jack Black.
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And then, finally, came my time for glory. I walked through a curtain and onto a large stage where judges Elon Gold, Jeffrey Ross and Lisa Ann Walter sat behind tables in front of me. In character, I introduced my song and tore into: “Warren G. Harding/Was good at farting/And he got caught up in a scandal/He was large and commanding/Like the guy from Knotts Landing/And he had sex with younger women like Tony Randall . . .”
. . . before they cut me off.
Several weeks later, I watched the first episode of the show as it aired and was immediately struck by the aggressive editing. They portrayed my audition — along with many, many others’— in almost the worst possible light. It looked as if I’d been promptly “gonged” off the show, when in fact I’d made it to the semifinals.
But I wasn’t terribly distraught. Vicious, manipulative editing in reality shows is as commonplace as steroids in pro sports or dangerous preservatives in your food. I also learned a good life lesson: It’s important to be yourself. But if you can’t be yourself, you can always be someone else.