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EXCLUSIVE: The Art of the Impression With Maya Rudolph and Martin Short

by Stacy Lambe 9:15 AM PDT, June 21, 2016
Photo: ET

No strangers to impressions, both Maya Rudolph and Martin Short have been perfecting their craft since they each first appeared on Saturday Night Live -- though, the two were cast members at different times. Rudolph personified Whitney Houston and Donatella Versace from 2000 to 2007 and Short took on everyone from Jerry Lewis to Katharine Hepburn during his one season from 1984 to 1985.

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Now, on the NBC variety series, Maya & Marty, the two are taking on new personalities, such as Melania Trump and David Schwimmer. Easily their funniest bit of the season was when Rudolph and Short embodied Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld in a sketch that saw the Vogue editor in chief dishing on her favorite spot in the city, a corner bodega.

While hilariously spot on, Rudolph will be the first to tell you that her version of Wintour was hardly an impression. “They are just characters,” she tells ET.

To learn what goes into a good impression, ET asked Rudolph and Short to break down the art form: 

Martin Short: I always get a tape and start listening to it. I would find that -- all the way back when I used to do SCTV -- what I used to do is you have a script, let's say [Mikhail] Gorbachev. Then I would transcribe an interview with Gorbachev. Literally transcribe it and I would realize that everyone has a natural way of speaking that you can then apply in the script, like, "And I uhh." So, now you put the uhhs in there and then you loop it.

Maya Rudolph: God, you're really good at doing your homework.

MS: Oh, I'm very good at my homework. It's just the execution part I stumble.

MR: Half of my impressions are not impressions. Anna Wintour --

MS: But you captured completely her attitude.

MR: I watched The September Issue when it came out. I've been a fashion follower my whole life. So, you don't have to tell me who Anna Wintour is. I know who she is, but I never thought of playing her. I think in her case, it was one of those things where Jeremy Beiler, the writer of the piece, said, "I'm writing this Anna Wintour." I said, "Great," and I just did it. I didn't think about it because I could hear her voice in my head. If it had been someone else -- the first time my friend Emily wrote Oprah when I was on SNL, I said, "I don't know how to do that." At the time, I asked Darrell Hammond to give me advice and the advice was pretty similar to what you were talking about, in the idea of transcribing the umms and the uhhs. He said, "She speaks down." But I never followed that. I feel like, that aside, all my impressions are just characters. I'm just talking funny.

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MS: Sometimes you just broad-base it. I do this benefit with Darrell -- I do this Toys "R" Us benefit every year, where I was playing Hillary [Clinton]. We're doing a future debate. I didn't sound like Hillary, but the essence -- I was screaming and it was always flat As, "I am a-mazed," as oppose to "amazed" -- and just little things like that. You don't look like her, you don't sound like her, but the audience laughs because they get the premise.

MR: I think the visual is really important, but it's funny. In my case again, I don't know why, but I've always just had this feeling that I can look like anybody. If you look at me now, I don't really look like anybody I play, but I've got something in my brain telling me, "Oh, I can do that." I just feel like I can and I feel like whatever that conviction is just somehow translates. For whatever reason, a wig will really change my whole thing. I don't look anything like Anna Wintour at all, but a costume and a wig really help with that.

MS: But you know you get the attitude. I think it is a lot about you, you just kind of get a look. I had to do David Schwimmer in the show. I can't do David Schwimmer. David Schwimmer is 6 foot 4. But I would just furl [my brow] and say, "Juice." The audience laughs because they know it's not accurate, but they get the premise of it. They're in on the joke.

MR: I think that for me, from what you're saying about the Schwimmer one, they're all different for me. But sometimes they're just in my head.

MS: You can almost visualize them and sometimes you get the attitude and then sometimes that's enough.

Photo: NBC

MR: I notice when I'm telling a story about someone and then I'm saying, "And then they said," then I just impersonate their voice. But I never thought of myself as an impersonator. And I remember when I started SNL I didn't have any impersonations that I did. I think I did Gwen Stefani. But I didn't come with a treasure trove of impersonations. Those are really important things to have on a show like that, especially because there are a lot of political pieces and popular culture. It took me awhile to realize I'm just a really good mimic. I'm just a human parrot. Sometimes, the parrot in me doesn't sound at all like the person.

I don't really know what Melania Trump “sounds” like at all. I know who she is and I've heard her speak but I'm not impersonating her at all. I just got a visual vibe that gave me a funny character. So, we just went from there and I just made her talk funny because it was fun. The more we came up with fun words for her to say, the more it was just a character we created. I didn't watch videos of her. I didn't do any research. That was just "inspired by," really. I think Oprah became a character that we used to do. Whitney Houston was definitely a character. I rarely impersonate. I think the times I've been asked to impersonate, [Barack] Obama is a perfect example. I was asked to do Obama when he came on SNL years ago, in front of Obama, when he was still running.

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MS: How daunting was that?

MR: Nothing daunting about that at all, just standing in front of him. He's up there. I'm wearing my little Scott Joplin wig and Brooks Brothers suit and my boobs are bound. I said, "What are you thinking?" And he said, "I don't wear a three-button suit." I was like, "I don't know what that means!" But I didn't know how to play him and no one had played him yet on the show until Fred Armisen played him. The same with Michelle Obama. I was given this assignment and I couldn't do it.

MS: Chevy Chase, as you recall, played Gerald Ford by just being Chevy Chase. No wig and the falling. Having a blank look in his face and falling. That became Chevy's Gerald Ford.

MR: Sometimes you just don't figure them out. The Obamas -- both Barack and Michelle -- I could not figure out. I didn't feel intimidated. I just didn't have a handle on it.

MS: Also, they don't work in the perception that they don't work because maybe the sketch wasn't funny.

MR: That’s a good point.

MS: If the sketch was funny, you would say, "What a great impersonation." There are sometimes you stumble on, you can just do that person.

Maya & Marty airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. Tonight's episode features special guests Ana Gasteyer, Ricky Gervais, Kevin Kline, Cecily Strong, and a special tribute to the victims of the Orlando shooting by Broadway's biggest stars. 

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