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

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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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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