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Dana Carvey on What Makes a Great Obama Impression

A conversation with the comedian, in town for a show with his former Saturday Night Live costar Dennis Miller.

Photograph of Carvey Courtesy of Kennedy Center.

Dana Carvey’s six seasons on Saturday Night Live, starting in 1986, spawned many memorable characters—Garth Algar of Wayne’s World, Hans of Hans and Franz, the Church Lady—and his knack for impressions made him adept at portraying figures from Woody Allen to George H.W. Bush. Carvey reunites with another SNL alum, Dennis Miller (who has himself been a target of Carvey’s impersonations) for a show at the Kennedy Center July 12. Here’s a conversation with Carvey.

What can you tell me about the show?

Dennis is very political, and I’m political in a different way, so we’re a good juxtaposition. He’s a brilliant wordsmith—as a writer, he’s just amazing—and I jump around like a monkey puppet. I’ve been working on a lot of new things. I’m excited about my standup right now. And my Obama is working.

What’s the key to your Obama impression?

It’s hard to find leverage on Obama comedically. He’s a little like Mr. Spock—he’s not jittery. The biggest key for me is that his pauses are a visual joke: His mouth kind of goes down, he closes his mouth, and his chin goes up. He’s very good at saying something and then he’ll look off and pause, and it’s almost aggressive in a way. It’s powerful. Not a lot of politicians do that. Mitt Romney couldn’t copy that—he was going too fast; he was jumpy. But Obama’s like [imitating Obama], “Not true!” And then he just sits. It’s a rhythm thing. Audiences are more comfortable now having fun with him and his presidency. After he got reelected, I felt the audience kind of relax into the tradition of satirizing whoever’s the most powerful guy in the country at any given time. It’s like making fun of the principal in high school—you just have to.

Why do you think SNL is such an enduring success?

There’s a lot of secret sauce to it. [Executive producer] Lorne Michaels has to let these brilliant people go—and it takes years, no matter how good you are, just to learn to do it—and then he replenishes. The fact that the show is still live in a world where everything is massaged and laugh-tracked is very cool. Also, it’s the reality-show part of it—having someone as a fish out of water, whether it’s a football player or a dramatic actress, do the impossible: host a live variety show having never done it before. So it’s got a lot of elements that make it very, very potent. Lorne is very in touch with what he’s managing—all those egos and all that production and all that pressure. He’s got it down to a science. I’d often think, “Well, I guess tonight will be the first night the show’s not gonna make it. We literally are going to cancel the show.” And you’d go on when it wasn’t ready, when it didn’t work, you didn’t know where the props were. “Just go—it’s starting.” And that is the great part of it.

Do you still watch SNL?

I don’t really stay up that late anymore. I see more of it since broadband came in than I ever did before. I barely watched it when I was on. I never got the VCR thing down in the ’90s, but I’d catch glimpses of Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. Now sketches are on the web forever.

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