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Finding Laughter In Loss: A Comedian's Take On Impersonating Celebrities Who've Died

This story originally aired on 9/15/2014 

For Gilda Radner, it hinged on a slight speech disorder. “I’m Baba Wawa.” For Eddie Murphy it began when he was a child and would imitate what he saw on the screen: Buckwheat.

For Josh Ruben, it all starts with a breath.

Josh Ruben is a comedian, actor, and director for College Humor Originals. He is most known for his impressions. Among them, Robert De Niro, Alan Rickman, Anne Ramsey, Christoph Waltz, Isabella Rosselini, and Jesse from Breaking Bad.

Josh Ruben SNL audition from Dutch West on Vimeo.

But among the characters featured most prominently in his act, his sketch videos, and on his reel are two well-known voices: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. Josh has been doing impressions of both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams for years…well before he embarked on a career in comedy.

Josh Ruben: As a fourteen or fifteen year old kid I would watch The World According to Garp over and over again. So, I just would kind of find myself talking a little quicker, like this, and he would be talking and his jaw would move a little to the left a little bit to the right. I watched so much of his stuff and admired him so much that I found myself talking like him.  

You know, I was a bit of an unpopular kid in junior and I would go to a certain number of impressions to get people laughing or to get attention. So, those impressions are sort of an extension of me.  

Which leads all leads to a pretty tricky question… what happens to a good impress ion, when the person being impersonated dies?

Ruben: I feel a little stunted. I had something I was going to audition for that I canceled yesterday because they were asking me to do certain characters, and the most fun ones to do were Robin and Phil.

And even though I never liked it when someone would say: “Hey, meet Susan. Do your Robin Williams, you do a really good Robin Williams.” You just kinda roll your eyes, but it’s kind of a sad thing for that to be inappropriate now. It does kind of feel stunting to me, because I loved to do him. But I’ll admit, I’ve kind of been talking like Robin in private.

Maureen McMurray: So you’ve trotted these impressions out  privately, have you brought any out publically since the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams?

Ruben: When I did Pete Holmes’ podcast--Pete’s a buddy of mine and a comedian, and we were both huge Philip Seymour Hoffman fans--one of the first things we did when we saw each other was just go [as PSH] “I’m dead.”  That’s just how two comedians are dealing with the tragic death of this incredible person was, we got to make a joke about it, because we’re covering up how sad we really are. And Robin to me is just untouchable. I choke up trying to do him, even as a joke.      

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…and maybe it’s true.

Just two days after Robin Williams’ passing, Jimmy Fallon tearfully honored him on the tonight show, and found himself falling into an impression.

Chevy Chase’s brutal impression of President Gerald Ford centered on him bumbling and falling around. Yet, in 2007, days after President Ford died, Chevy Chase wrote a heartwarming op-ed, detailing for the New York Times, his friendship with the man he ridiculed.

Charlie Murphy made his career on Dave Chappelle’s show – when his outrageous Rick James stories were turned into skits. But when Rick James died, Charlie was a pallbearer at the funeral.

The list goes on and on.

So, yes…imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but for the impersonator who truly loves his target… it can also be really painful.

Ruben: Even when I find myself talking to myself, as an impressionist does to develop their repertoire. You know, you come upon old friends and some of them are living and some of them are dead. What’s just crazy about it is that they were both heroes of mine. It’s like, well Jesus, there they all go. 

Listen to the audio version of this story.

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