Some things disappear all at once. Others fade away unnoticed until one day you suddenly realize it’s gone. In the world of comedy, this is pretty much what has happened to impressionists.
When I was growing up and there were three television networks (the local educational channel was not yet part of PBS) people were exposed to the same characters. There was Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, George Burns, Dean Martin, and others. An impressionist like Frank Gorshin or David Frye could use a well-known person’s voice to create a tremendously funny situation. Think of Ed Sullivan introducing the Protestant Reformation and you have a pretty good idea.
But today, with 500 or so channels on cable, there’s no common reference point. A comedian could do a totally accurate impersonation of most television hosts and the majority of us would have no idea as to whom he was referring. Maybe Ozzy Osbourne, but what’s the point?
Until a few years ago, at least there was Billy Mays – the pitchman for miscellaneous and sundry products (As Seen on TV), but now he’s just one more operator standing by at that toll free number in the sky.
Parodying Kennedy made a celebrity of Vaughan Meader. Richard Nixon was a staple of comedy in the sixties and seventies. Parodying Barack Obama today would probably be seen as insensitive, although I’m not sure how you could make it funny. Bill Clinton had potential, but he’s just so twentieth century…
So what are we left with? People may hear parodies of Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields and know who’s being impersonated without ever seeing any work by the original. That’s just plain sad.
All I can say is that it’s no wonder given such an environment that otherwise normal people actually pay money to watch Adam Sandler.