Northside SF  

Rich Little: The man of a thousand voices
By Ed Attanasio

Impressionist Rich Little
appears in the panel
discussion Comedy Talks:
Conversations with the
Legends of Comedy
on Aug. 8 at the
USF Presentation
photo: courtesy of Rich Little
On Aug. 8, impressionist Rich Little will be one of the panelists featured at Comedy Talks: Conversations with the Legends of Comedy, a series of discussions that brings the classic late-night talk show format to the live stage. Robert Strong hosts the panel, which includes a Q-and-A session that lets the audience in on the conversation about comedy, the comedians’ careers, personal life, and more.

Northside San Francisco
talked to Little about his many years onstage, some of the highlights and lowlights, and asked him about his current project, a one-man show in which he plays Jimmy Stewart.

What advice would you offer to young comedians or comic actors?
There’re different types of standup comedy. What I do is basically tell jokes. Many of the comics today tell anecdotes and real-life stories, and I always tell jokes with a very distinct setup followed by a punch line. It’s a different type of comedy. I put a lot of jokes in my act – not one-liners or stories. Everyone has a different approach of how they do comedy. Back in the early days, guys like Milton Berle, Henny Youngman and Bob Hope told jokes. And then you had people like Shelly Berman and Bob Newhart who told a lot of stories about things that had happened to them. I’m probably of the old school, but what I’ve been doing for many years is taking an impression and then having a joke in there as well. That way, I’m getting a reaction for the impression, and then I get another reaction from the joke. The best thing I can tell a young comic is get on stage as much as you can, because there’s no substitute for getting up there and doing it. Try not to perform in front of your family too much because they’re nothing like a live audience. They won’t heckle you.

Henny Youngman told me once that there’s a big difference between getting up on stage and saying random things or developing an act and working it – do you agree?
Yes, I am very constructive with my material. I have developed some bits around my voices, and these have become some of my standards over the years. For instance, I do a series of jokes based on what stars would sound [like] as an animal or within a game show featuring many of my voices. I think of an idea on how can I present these characters in a different setting, and that’s where I find my hook with some foundation. … I’m very conscious of what I’m doing with these voices, instead of just knocking them out. 

When did you think, “Wow, I can make a living in this business”?
The first time I got paid. I was doing shows in my hometown in Canada, doing shows at Knights of Columbus and Shriner’s conventions. Back then I was just a kid who does a few voices, and that’s what I liked to do. In the early days, it wasn’t much more than a hobby. I never thought it was going to be a full-time thing, but one day the phone rang, and someone told me they’d pay me 50 dollars to perform. Well, I was in shock. I almost told them I would settle for 15 dollars! I said to myself, “I can actually get paid for this?” Not much, but it was a start. I never thought of myself as a comedian during those early years. I thought of myself as a guy who did a few impressions. 

When did you first realize you could make an insane amount of money?
When I got on the Judy Garland Show. For a kid in his 20s, that was huge. After I got that TV exposure, I started getting bigger gigs, and that’s when things changed for me. I’m most proud of that period in my life. Some of the work I did with Judy Garland is considered my best.

What were your best and worst gigs?
I would say that some of my appearances on the Dean Martin [Celebrity] Roasts were great fun. My performance at the Reagan inauguration was also a high point. My worst experience was at the 2007 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Everyone talked during my entire performance and the reviewers weren’t kind. 

You have always worked clean?
Well, not 100 percent. It depends on what you call clean. A lot of times, you can leave it in your imagination without really saying the words; it’s debatable if that’s working blue or not. I may do some suggestive material, but I’ve never worked blue. I never swear. People like naughty material, but it has to be written cleverly. Nowadays some of these comics are more graphic than ever. Somewhere along the line it became popular to be shocking.

What are you working on currently?
I’ve developed a one-man show playing Jimmy Stewart. I’m touring the country with that, and I want to take it to big theaters and then eventually on Broadway. It’s not just Jimmy Stewart, but 23 different characters as well. We think it appeals to anyone, even if they’re not familiar with Stewart. We’d love to bring the show to San Francisco at some point.

Comedy Talks: Conversations with the Legends of Comedy: USF Presentation Theater, 2350 Turk (near Masonic), 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1: George Segal, Paul Mazursky and Ronnie Schell; August 8: Rich Little, Carol Channing and Steve Rossi; August 15: Robert Morse, Shelley Berman and Will Durst. Tickets $35–$75 at 415-829-8000 or Friends of Northside S.F. receive a $10 discount on any price level ticket if purchased before Aug. 8 (enter “Northside” in the discount code field on the website). For more information about all three shows, call 415-829-8000 or visit

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