Part of what makes stand-up comedy so great is how the comedians can effortlessly be multiple people at once. When telling stories, they slip between several characters, making these situations come alive onstage, even though they're the only ones up there. But how do they do it?
Good stand-up comedians master imitations by paying attention to body language, tone, vocal patterns, and most of all, not hesitating to get into it. Even if an impression isn’t perfect, good comedians can still pull it off by committing to the act.
Easier said than done, right? Don't worry, we'll give you tips and tricks on how to learn all of these skills.
Practice Impressions and Record Yourself
Maybe your routine requires a Donald Trump or Obama impression. Maybe it requires you to sound like an old woman. Or a little kid. Whatever it is, you have to listen to your subject a lot. Find resources that give you time to study and practice speaking with your subject.
Take notes on how they say certain words. When people from England say "aluminum," they don't pronounce it how Americans do. Americans say "ah-loo-mi-nuhm" and British people say "al-yu-min-ium." To hear the difference, watch this video. Most people have certain words that they say in really unique ways, and if you can incorporate those into your routine, the crowd will notice and love it.
Listen to how they punctuate their sentences. Some people rush through sentences, scared, tumbling, and nervous, full of unbridled energy. Some people pause between each word, adding an "uh" or "um" every few seconds for good measure. Others start strong but get weaker as they go on. Some have a steady stream of calm diction. Listen to these different speech patterns and repeat them like a parrot to get their rhythm down.
Once you feel comfortable enough, stop practicing with an audio recording and start doing it on your own. Try saying things in their voice that they haven't said. And, most importantly, record yourself as you go. We know that no one likes listening to their own voice on a recording, but your voice sounds slightly different to yourself than it does to everyone else. If you want to hear how good your impression really is, you have to listen to it on playback.
Pay Attention to Word Choice
Not only do people sound different, but the way they say things can be really different. Just the way someone greets you can tell you what kind of person they are. Do they say "Hello," "Hey," "Hi," or "What's up?" Each one is the same in meaning, but they all have extremely different connotations.
The same thing is true with entire sentences. If you're planning on mimicking a specific person (maybe a celebrity, character, or politician) in a routine, you have should study their sentence structure and how they say things. You can't write lines for them in your routine until you know how they speak.
For example, look at movies like the 2012 Avengers movie, when Tony Stark picked up Hawk-Eye to carry him to the roof, he didn't say: "Prepare yourself." He said: "Better clench up, Legolas." This is casual, mocking, and entirely in-character. Thor might've said: "Prepare yourself," but Tony Stark probably wouldn't. When you do impressions of specific people, can you imagine them actually saying the lines you wrote for them? If not, maybe a little tweaking is necessary.
Learn Different Accents
Sometimes your routine isn't focused on imitating a specific politician/celebrity. Maybe you're just trying to mimic your neighbor from Korea. Or your brother's ex-girlfriend who always talked like women in old Bing Crosby movies. Whatever the case, it's good to know how to sound like you're from a different time and place. And having a plethora of accents in your back pocket can help you pull off improv on the spot.
Learning accents is difficult, but there are a lot of resources online that explain how certain regions speak. If you want to do thorough research, try to find YouTubers from different places, and listen to their videos to practice. If you want to learn to do an Australian accent, you can listen to Jazza's Art channel.
Pay attention to the change in vocabulary. Just because someone also speaks English doesn't mean you all use the same words. English and Australian people say "nappies" when the American equivalent is just "diapers."
Change Your Body Language
Changing the way you sound is only half the battle. Once you've mastered the ability to sound like someone else, now you have to act like them too. We're not saying to get plastic surgery. But you have to mimic their body language, right down to all the nervous ticks and eye movement.
If you can, try sitting down and watching your subject perform. See how they hold themselves. The way we stand and walk can change a lot from person to person. Is their head held high? Is their chest puffed out? Or do they almost cave in on themselves? Do they propel themselves forward with each step, or do they hesitate, testing the water every time they move?
You shouldn't stand like a little kid if you're trying to imitate a grandma character. Using the wrong body language has the potential to kill the joke, so practice with a mirror. You can even ask your family and friends to guess who you are based solely on your body language. It'll be a hard game, but it'll improve your imitation skills tenfold.
People have nervous ticks that they might not even realize they have. If you've ever watched Seinfeld, you'll notice how each person moves differently as they tell their jokes. Krammer is known for his spastic movements, and an impression of him wouldn't sell unless you did the crazed hand motions as well.
Don’t Be Afraid to be Obnoxious
Your impressions won't be perfect right away, so you have to just dive in. Your job isn't to be perfect; your job is to be funny. You can push your limits, being as obnoxious about it as possible. Impressions are like caricatures; as long as you emphasize the defining characteristics enough, the audience will get the joke.
Maybe the audience can tell that this is the first time you've done an onstage impression of Dr. Doofenshmirtz. But it doesn't matter. As long as you do your best and have fun with it, they'll laugh too.