It has been said by many in the entertainment industry that comedy is more difficult to write than any other genre. A gifted writer can think of scary things, suspenseful things, or dramatic things. But to write comedy, and do it well, takes a more certain precision. One hears of the words 'comic timing.' Comic timing is knowing how to deliver a joke, in a way that gets laughs, and to follow up with the next joke at just that right moment, when the laughter from the audience in response to the first line starts to die down, and to keep the laughs rolling. It's about knowing 'the beats.' A great comedy or a great comic can leave an audience literally weeping tears of laughter, and can leave ones' ribs actually sore from laughing for so long and so hard. Thus, the phrase 'side splitting' laughter came about.
If being a live performer takes bravery—and it does, then to be a live stand up comic takes near fearlessness. Can you imagine, going out there on a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of strangers each night, bearing your heart and soul, and hoping for laughter? If you get no laughs, you have failed—do or die, and every one knows it in one instant. Such is the pressure of a stand up comic, and such is the life that one such comedian—Jim Meskimen has taken on. And, Jim Meskimen is not only a winner at it, he is one of the best in the world. He is a side splitter, a tear jerker, a hilarious, laugh a mile a minute master of the stage and of the craft of comedy.
Within the genre of comedy, is a sub-genre called parody. Parody is the portrayal of another person, place or thing that already exists, in a funny way, making jest out of it. Impressions is a part of parody, in which one mimics closely the actual sounds, looks, attitudes, vocal inflections, tones, attitudes, and attributes of a celebrity, for the purpose of parody—to laugh about them. Impressionists range on the scale from terrible—due to their lack of similarity to the actual star, to brilliant—due to their near identicality of the person being emulated. There are only but a few impressionists in the world that really stand out as great—that have their impressions down with sheer mastery. Jim Meskimen is one of those few. And yet, it is not just his voice that becomes his subject—it often times his entire face—his body, virtually his soul—at that moment. To see Jim Meskimen live— when you do—will be one of those highlights of your life, a time that you will laugh, and you may—like a fan of the great stars he masterfully impersonates—want more and more of. 'Amazing! He sounds just like him!' You will say to yourself. And not with but a few voices, but more than you will even know—across multiple generations. I had the pleasure to talk with this master of the voice—this acting legend myself, and get a view into who is this man behind the curtain of the voices of the stars. As to be expected, I was duly impressed, and I trust that you will be too.
An Exclusive Interview With Jim Meskimen
By Bruce Edwin
Bruce Edwin: Hi Jim. So, you have more credits than I care to make time to count. You've been in a lot. (O.K. so I counted, he has credits for being in the award winning films 'Frost / Nixon,' 'There will Be Blood,' the hit show 'Malcom in the Middle,' TV's 'Batman' and around two hundred more films, TV shows, and even video games).
Jim Meskimen: Well yeah thanks, it's been almost thirty years now, I'm a pro actor, and these days I do a lot of impressions, like yesterday I did Morgan Freeman (talks in Morgan's voice spot on) for 'The Tonight Show,' for some silly little sketch that they wrote, and I did it right from home. And a lot of my business is that, and other recordings, audio books also, and you know, occasional TV guest spots, stuff like that, but my live show, my 'JimPressions Show' is what I am really pushing now because I love to be in front of a live audience.
Bruce Edwin: That's really cool. Do you get nervous going on stage now or did you ever used to starting out?
GIRD YOUR LOINS
Jim Meskimen: When I first started out when I was in college, and I first started doing plays, and then all through my early sort of training before I really sort of grew enough confidence, it was painful for me to be in front of audiences, or even in front of a class, and that was mainly because I had the misfortune to have had some instructors and directors that were quite cruel, and so after a while, you learn that it's not a safe place, and you've got to gird your loins (1*) for battle every time you do a freakin' scene or something, which is really counter productive obviously, and it breeds a certain kind of defensive performing, or even performers that try to act like their teachers or directors so they won't emerge from the experience unscathed.
But in my case I had the fortune of studying improv in New York with a very intelligent and supportive curriculum and you know I got out of that—of being scared all the time, and then I started being in front of audiences on a regular basis week after a week, and then month and months, and then years and years, and then you know once you've been in front of a few hundred people on a regular basis, you kind of understand the limitations and the parameters of it and it starts to not really bug you too much. I actually get more nervous when I have lines that I have to remember, because then there is a qualitative right and wrong (laughs) whereas if it's improv or my own material which I can of course play loose with.
Bruce Edwin: That's interesting. Was there a trick or special thing you did on stage to get over that when you were resolving that problem?
LOOK THEM OVER
Jim Meskimen: Once you're on stage and already experiencing stage fright you know, on whatever level, there is no trick other than to pretend that you are not afraid, and that's a good thing to learn how to do anyway, you know, that's a good thing in life to suddenly go, 'you know what? I am afraid, but nobody needs to know.' And then what I always tell people, particularly people starting out or, you know hitting the barrier that you described, I like to let them know, 'you know what, it actually wears off, you won't have it forever, but you need to get in front of audiences a lot, and that's how it wears off, you just need to do it a lot.'
You don't need to be in front of hostile people, you just need to be on stage, or in front of a group—any kind of group—you know, I'd say go to a movie theater, go to the front of the theater and just look at people, you know, just in front of group, you may not be doing anything, and indeed probably you shouldn't, so, think of some reasons to point out the exit's or something. (2*) You know, I think those guys that work at the Arclight that announce things before the movies' show, I'll bet once they finally take the stage or their in plays, they'll be like 'eh, no problem at all!'
Bruce Edwin: For readers that don't live in L.A., there is a great theater here called The Arclight. When I first moved here, I was surprised that they did that, the ushers walk out in front of the audience and give a brief introduction about the film and some trivia, and tell people to turn off their cell phone and be quiet...
Jim Meskimen: Yeah I love that, I love that! I love any kind of human interaction. One thing I mention in my show 'JimPressions' a lot is that the voice, the human voice and all the different flavors of it is a bit of an endangered mechanism because we are more and more relying on mechanized voices or. 'Here, just go, just stand here, and don't expect any one to talk to you, you know just put your credit card in here and shut up about it!' You know, it's a little cold, but like when you call a business, Agnes answers, and she answers your questions, it's like, 'Oh, what a miracle! The sky is full of rainbows!' It's so different from the kind of phone trees that we get into now, with all these kinds of endless loops of—Oh my God, I called—I don't know, some business the other day—I think it was 'Bank of America' or something, you know, like they sound so ready to help you, but they lead you around (...) and after a while you know, you realize, I've been on this line for twenty minutes and I have the same problem that I had (before)...
Bruce Edwin: Oh I know, I've dealt with a certain company—I won't name names—but I've dealt with that similar scenario, and I've had to spend nearly an hour or more on the line dealing with them to try get the problem dealt with...
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, and at the end you don't (get the problem dealt with), or you get clicked off or something...
Bruce Edwin: Right.
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, you know, I take great comfort in the human voice and also the different sort of emotions and characters that get carried along.
Bruce Edwin: That's really great, now I want to address your acting training for a minute, you said you trained in improv...
GETTING A VIEW POINT
Jim Meskimen: yeah, that's the bulk of my training now, I'm training now at a place called 'The Acting Center,' which is a school that my wife co-founded and that was sort of continued on and elaborated on and expanded on the basic philosophies of a place I studied in New York, which is a non critical, non evaluative school. (...) Actually it's quite a great value, because you drill things, you know you drill emotions, you drill characteristics, you drill other ways of being another person, which is all acting is.
Acting is knowingly taking on another person's viewpoint and being that person comfortably on stage—or uncomfortably, and in a convincing way to get across some sort of message, or play a part or whatever, you know, the various applications. So a student basically needs to gain confidence by practicing and by performing, and you know, schools that I know of, that I've had any thing to do with, generally make the mistake of having a teacher that tells the student what's right or what's wrong, or what's good or what's bad about what they're doing.
And it's so woven in to our culture now to have that, you know everything from 'American Idol,' and any where a person goes to acting school now these days pretty much, you know, it's all structured around the effect of a person going, 'well, I didn't like the way Phillip came in the door, because for me Phillip was really stressed about the creditor,' and that seems rational, and it seems reasonable, but it's actually detrimental to the training of the student. It doesn't harm him in particular, but it just begins to pull the control away from him so that he feels like 'well, I see, there are things that I don't know, that other people know better than I, and if I can just memorize all those things that other people know that I don't know, and I'll be fine, and I'll just cling to those, and follow those,' and that begins to pull his own judgements and his own taste about his own work away from him. It's a subtle point, but you don't get a great actor coming out of that, you get an actor who completed (mimicking) a teacher or completed (mimicking) a particular director and maybe doesn't really know himself what he thinks.
And so, I've done it both ways, I've studied at the 'Stella Adler School' for a while in New York, which was just blood curdling, you know, you really had to depend one hundred percent on a teacher who—not only in a working point of view—in my opinion, but also you know, really doesn't want you to win! So, it's very difficult, and I know a lot of schools that have a similar sort of thing where it's like, you know—there is a favorite, and everything he or she does is right, and then there is every body else, and they can still come to us, but they basically are doomed! (laughs)
Bruce Edwin: (laughs) Wow. Do you also teach at this school as well?
BIFF THE PIRATE
Jim Meskimen: No, I don't teach there, I am a student there, I go there and I do drills, and I perform there, my one man show is being put up there, and I am a great supporter of it, because I see the work coming out, and I see the sanity level of the actors coming out it, with certainty, and the confidence, and that what I know from my own experience, is like about the most valuable thing, because it's an art, you know, it's an 'art!' It's not like drilling teeth, it is something that a person goes down his own path on—there's no right or wrong to it, so someone standing at the front of class saying, 'Biff! Your pirate was dreadful!' is not a place in a school. Now, you get to a set, it's different. You get to a job, or you get to playing on stage maybe, and you have a director—that's totally different. At that point, the guy says, 'Biff, your pirate is too you know, too effeminate.' O.K.! That's the right time, because the director has the vision, and he's working with you, but not in the 'training' of actors, that's the distinction.
Bruce Edwin: Hmm, that's an interesting theory. Now would you say that what you adhere to this as an actor with this training, is this completely alternate to say what one would know of as the Method form of acting, or Stanislavski, or is this similar to either of those, or totally different?
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, my understanding is, it's quite different, because—I've heard a quote from Stanislavksi where he said, do not use this on American actors...
Bruce Edwin: Pardon me?
Jim Meskimen: (he said) do not use this method, do train American actors in this method, because they are very open, they don't need it. Our culture is so different!
Bruce Edwin: Wow, I never heard that, that's good to know...
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, it's interesting.
Bruce Edwin: Yes, so I guess this would be more aligned with perhaps method or a totally new approach?
MONTY & VIVIAN
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, it's not new, it actually existed in New York back a while ago, it was known loosely as 'The New York School of Acting,' and it's got a lot to do with doing stuff, and trying stuff out, and making up one's own mind about it in the training, you know? And because like, some of the greatest actors that we know of, basically didn't have formal training. They did a lot of plays, people threw them in films, and you know what it's like on a film, or maybe you've heard any way, it's like, there's not time for rehearsal, there's no time for sitting around and going like, 'well, what do you think about (...)' There's no time for that, maybe a little, but generally it's like, we're losing light, and we have to get this scene, so let's go! There's your number one (...) and you do that enough times, just out of necessity, you begin to develop a viewpoint about it, (...) and either you're right or your wrong, and then you watch the film, and that's an education in itself, just to work that way. Now usually at that point you have a director that will go, 'Monty, you went right in front of Vivian and we can't see her expression,' OK good! That's not a kind of deprecation of his talent or character(...)
Bruce Edwin: That makes sense, I've dealt with a number of actors myself as a manager, and one thing that—if I read this correctly, or if this was correct information—is that you've overcome a number of obstacles, not only what we've just discussed, but also the issue of 'substance abuse.' And if I read correctly, you blogged about that...
DOWN THE RAT HOLE
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, you know I obviously don't talk about it too much (...) but I'm an artist, I'm a visual artist, a painter, and illustrator. I've been a professional painter and illustrator as well as voice over actor, and I write, I have a lot of disciplines...so the great trap of most artists and a lot of people in general is drugs and or alcohol, and when I was a young man and trying to cope, the big question in my mind, the big confusion I should say— I crawled down that rat hole for a little while, and extricated myself, you know it was not unlike those horrific stories—which (laughs) are unfortunately all to common, but it was enough for me to risk my life on more than one occasion and to have spun my wheels, and wasted months and months, so you know, going nowhere, and I regret that, but, I learned a lot from it, I understand the whole scene, and its not a rat hole that I would ever get to the edge of any more.
I don't take any kind of drugs, and I don't even take prescription drugs if I can possibly help it, you know, I deal with things in other ways. But my father had been an alcoholic, and I grew up in L.A. in the 80's, (...) and the 70's, and so there was a hell of a lot of drugs around here! That was (most) all the kids' solution. And you know, particularly when you're a teenager, there's that awful pain of like wanting to be free, and wanting to be an adult, yet not being prepared, and then there's the whole dating thing, and it was very introverting and painful.
And I know that our culture pushes covertly or overtly the solution of—for example—beer, it's like 'O.K., no problem! Alcohol! Are you dating—girls? Yeah, beautiful women? Sure! Alcohol! That's the key!' (laughs) We kind of look the other way you know, but—that's the message. And you know what, it has a certain amount of workability. You're a nervous, jilted kid, and boy, you have a couple of beers and you'll go up to (anybody), which has a really wretched downside—which we're familiar with from watching the 'Jackass' movies...
Bruce Edwin: (laughs) Right, I know, when I was doing the club scene heavily in Chicago for example, and I decided, O.K., this is enough, I'm not drinking any more, but I still wanted to go to the clubs, and I'd order just an orange juice or a soft drink, and many of them, they'd look at me like, 'What? Are you crazy?'
Jim Meskimen: (laughs-sarcastic) 'You have it wrong man!'
Bruce Edwin: Yeah. So what would be your advice to artists or to younger people in the industry, or just in general that are looking for acceptance or that kind of quick fix or rush if you will—instead of booze or drugs?
Tequila Shoooters vs. The Octopus
Jim Meskimen: Well, it's so easy to say, 'well, just don't go down that path,' that's what you want to just sort of short cut it and say, 'Hey, don't make that mistake, don't make the mistake I made,' but you know, a person gets lonely, a person gets desperate, and they go, 'Ah, what the hell? The pills are in my hand, the guy just handed me a joint, the bottles right there, uh (...) I don't remember this (interview)! (...) But I can say that for an artist, it's sort of like, put your focus elsewhere, in other words give yourself challenges, different kinds of challenges, and people love challenges! Some people, getting drunk and driving a borrowed car down the road is a challenge. It certainly is. It's not a challenge that benefits any body though. But if you give yourself challenges like, you know what? I'm going to write—I've got a weekend here, and I'm going to write a show for myself, or—I'm going to write a show for this actor that I admire, or I'm going to write a song, or I'm going to finish this painting, or I'm gonna' do a graphic novel, and at least do the storyboards and lay it out for a graphic novel—this weekend! Well then you're less likely—when your buddy comes by and goes, (party voice) 'We're doing tequila shooters!'—And you're less likely to go—'I'm in.' And you're like, 'No! I've just got this panel with the octopus that's going great here, I'm gonna finish that!'
So if you set yourself more challenges all the time, that's what I do all the time—I'm on a plane, and I think, well I can sit here and watch a movie, or I can sleep, or I can write a 'bit' that I'm going to perform somewhere, you know, that's what I just did, I came back from Niagara Falls last week and I was on a plane and my wife was watching a movie and I thought, I'll write a Morgan Freeman Haiku.......
Bruce Edwin: (laughs) I saw that!
Jim Meskimen: and then when I got home, I had it written and I typed it up after I scribbled it on the plane, and then I came home and I thought well, I'll do it at 'The Acting Center' on Friday, and I'll stick it up on You Tube, and I got twenty thousand views!
Bruce Edwin: Cool, that's great, that's really good advice, I like that.
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, I think (what's) better to encourage people to not do something, (is) to encourage (them) to do something that will kind of take the place of other dangerous things.
Bruce Edwin: Definitely. Regarding a blurb I read the other day about voice over artists, I believe it was in the Los Angeles Times a while back that ran this story on voice over artists...
Jim Meskimen: Yeah, I read that...
Bruce Edwin: O.K., good...
Jim Meskimen: ...About how celebrities are more and more taking the jobs away from other voice over artists?
Bruce Edwin: Yeah, exactly. What are your thoughts on that, that the big stars—that people as yourself, and others are taking away the jobs from the lesser known voice talents?
To be continued in the next issue of The Hollywood Sentinel, with streaming audio.
* (The loins, or 'lumbus,' are the sides between the lower ribs and pelvis, and the lower part of the back. The term 'gird one's loins' was used in the Roman Era meaning to pull up and tie one's lower garments between one's legs to increase one's mobility in battle. In the modern age, it has become an idiom meaning to prepare oneself for the worst).
** (This interview was conducted before the Colorado movie theater shooting occurred)
Works consulted: Jim Meskimen official site (link below), Wikipedia, IMDB.
Visit the Official Jim Meskimen Website at: www.appliedsilliness.com
This story, images and contents are © 2012, The Hollywood Sentinel and Bruce Edwin, all world rights reserved. No part of this story or images may be reproduced in whole or in part without express prior written permission from the publisher at The Hollywood Sentinel.