If you are beyond the age of 35-years-old, you more than likely recall a time when impressionists – not the 19th Century art movement characterized by open composition, but rather those copy-catting famous peoples’ voices – was a big deal. Saturday Night Live always had a cast member who was great at impersonations. There isn’t a stand-up comedian alive who hasn’t tried their hand at imitating Bill Clinton, the George Bushes, Obama and Trump. But a stand-up comedian whose main gig has been impersonating other people’s voices on stage as the preeminent element of their live shows and daily bread making – that’s been a minute.
Then there is Matt Friend, whose stand-up comedy tour brings him to The Stand in New York City (March 27), Punch Line Philadelphia (March 28), Magooby’s Joke House Maryland (March 29), Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage Series (March 30) and the Off Cabot Comedy and Events Center in Beverly, MA (March 31-April 1). Friend is a Tik Tok/Snapchat famous impressionist and stand-up comedian whose icy precision when it comes to celebrity voices has brought him to the attention of The Simpsons and other network programs.
Friend spoke to A.D. Amorosi about getting to the heart of other peoples’ voices.
A.D. Amorosi: I believe I am a bit older than you. My generation had the benefit of seeing impersonators on television all the time, and hearing their albums constantly (which is kind-of odd relying on the faith of an album for one to impersonate a voice). Where and how did you get your impersonation kicks as a kid – if indeed that is when the bug hit you?
Matt Friend: I was four years old when I discovered Austin Powers for the first time. When my mom and dad allowed me to watch this movie, the comedy bug hit! I began speaking like all the characters from that movie… Goldmember, Fat Bastard, Dr. Evil… I also grew up with YouTube and began devouring clips of Rich Little, Johnny Carson, Don Rickles.
A.D. Amorosi: Was there a first voice that you heard that rang a true note in your ear…. That made you curious to reproduce? And do you have perfect pitch?
Matt Friend: It was Mike Myers as Austin Powers for me! Hank Azaria’s Sir Lancelot in Spamalot, and Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy characters.
A.D. Amorosi: Were your family members and friends as a kid cool with your talent? I remember my folks thinking it was cute and the people in my school/neighborhood thinking it was annoying (my parents were probably annoyed too, but too nice to say so) because they had no clue as to who James Mason or Peter Lorre were.
Matt Friend: I’ve always been the class clown… personality so consistent. I’m lucky to have incredibly supportive family and friends. My mom and dad are the ones who SHOWED me all these hilarious movies and turned me onto Frank Sinatra. My sister recently called me a “Glorified Parrot.” I think my close friends and family are extremely amused when people discover my comedy and laugh, because they’ve seen it all for the past 20 years.
A.D. Amorosi: What was the first few voices that you had DOWN COLD? And how did you know that you had succeeded?
Matt Friend: Honestly, it was impressions of my family. My grandfather Don, my Uncle Bobby, my fourth-grade teacher Ms. Wex. Then I would go onto celebrities and cartoons. Family Guy and SNL sketches. I knew it worked because I would call up my grandmother as my grandfather and fool her.
A.D. Amorosi: What was/is the first thing you look/listen for in a voice – and facial tic, and body movement – in which to build a great impersonation?
Matt Friend: I often look at who people are talking about. Who is the political figure that is gaining popularity? Who is the actor having viral moments or in a TV show everyone is talking about? In terms of building an impression– it’s a very obsessive thing. I am constantly doing it. I devour late-night interviews, read a lot, and listen to tons of tape. Then I talk and it develops… a little like practicing an instrument. Though I don’t think of it as practice, feels more like my personality.
A.D. Amorosi: Doing the impersonation is one thing. Making it funny beyond a ‘character’ catch phrase, quite another. Can you discuss the building up of the jokes/punchlines around each voice you develop?
Matt Friend: Such an important observation. When I first went on stage it was just voices. I’d do some impressions and get laughs because there was some raw talent. But now it is completely different. There is regular standup, stories, crowd work, etc. The writing is just as important to me as the quality of the voices/ the impressions. In terms of building, it’s about getting on stage as much as possible. I also developed lots of stories centered about my over 250+ impressions, some of which are centered around me actually meeting these celebrities!
A.D. Amorosi: Can you tell me about walking onto Matt Groening’s Simpsons “set” and being told to do a “baby Jeff Goldblum” voice, and how you even work backwards?
Matt Friend: It was a dream come true! I recorded at Hank Azaria’s apartment. It was so surreal watching him record his voices so masterfully and then stepping up to the microphone myself. I was thrilled that my character was Goldblum, because he loved my impression of him. I went on stage with Jeff in Manhattan around the same time as I recorded… Timing is everything! I ended up having a watch party when the episode aired with my close friends and family. My incredible sister Nina made a Simpsons themed cake and cookies for me.
A.D. Amorosi: I speak with comedians all the time who are still annoyed that any level of political comedy is greeted with strife and audience groaning. What then is it like to appropriate the voices of a Trump and a DeSantis or a Biden? And do you slip your own political beliefs in, as David Frye used to do with his Nixons and LBJs?
Matt Friend: DeSantis is so fascinating to do because he’s pretty new to the general public. People are still learning who he is– and I now am early on with this impression. With Trump I think audiences are surprised at the vocal accuracy of my impression. Biden is a bit more challenging to nail for some reason. Regarding my own beliefs – yes, they slip in. When you watch my full set, I definitely have commentary included.
A.D. Amorosi: Did you sense that Austin Butler wanted to punch you in the face when you began impersonating him at the Golden Globes red carpet while interviewing him?
Matt Friend: Absolutely not. The complete opposite of this question. He was incredibly kind. If you watch the video to the end, you see he compliments my work– said he loved my videos with Jeff Goldblum and Rami Malek. Austin is a total class act– I can’t wait to see what he does next. Plus, he played along so well in that video!
A.D. Amorosi: I will make certain to rewatch the Austin Butler bit. How has social media – Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram – changed the game for you and your impressions, and how you can develop an act, let alone develop a following?
Matt Friend: FIRST OFF: SNAPCHAT is becoming my favorite platform. It is an INCREDIBLE way to connect with fans that is unlike any other platform. Where on Instagram you are expected to be polished and perfect, showcasing your final result, Snapchat offers you a chance to be real. To connect with fans, friends, etc. I LOVE IT. Social media has completely changed the game for me. I graduated college in 2020 from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. The primary reason I wanted to attend NYU was because of the vibrant entertainment industry that lived within the NYU/ New York ecosystem. More specifically, I knew that NYU was a city school, and in the city were comedy clubs. Being in New York during college allowed me to get a head-start on my comedy career. After starting out at an open mic at Greenwich Village Comedy Club near Washington Square Park with 4 drunks who suddenly woke up after hearing my Obama and Paul Giamatti impression, I began performing on an almost nightly basis at clubs throughout New York City such as Gotham Comedy Club and Carolines on Broadway. I was starting to make real progress at these clubs. One of the producers for Kenan Thompson’s talent competition: Kenan Thompson’s Ultimate Comedy Experience discovered me while I was performing at Gotham. That turned out to be one of the most important events in my career. So flash forward to my second semester senior year. I’m performing up until the very end when clubs started to close due to COVID. I head back home, in my case to Chicago. It’s been a few days without performing. I’m sitting on the couch, staring at the TV. And I’m thinking… Something needs to be done. When you were younger you would create videos in this very spot. So, like virtually every single industry in this pandemic, from restaurants to sports to teaching, I thought to myself: how can I pivot? That is precisely when I had the idea to begin a mini late-night styled talk show from my home called “Quarantime.” I made over 50 episodes with my close friend from NYU… a show that begins with a traditional Tonight Show style monologue and includes sketches ranging from cooking with my mother to Donald Trump reading an essay I wrote in second grade that sounds like it could’ve been one of his speeches. And now to interviews with Bravo celebrities and legendary employees at Saturday Night Live. Creating a show like that was a terrific outlet for me to write consistently and showcase my impressions and original characters/ ideas. The primary way I have pivoted as a comedian has been through the creation of bite-sized content on social media. TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, have all been absolutely extraordinary. The opportunities social media has created for me are extremely exciting. Early in the pandemic I received a message from the executive producer of the today show. Turned out her son found me on social media and then passed me along to his mom. A month later I made my national television debut and had a six-minute spot with Hoda and Jenna on NBC where I was surprised by a visit from the comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. During my Today Show appearance, Hoda asked me the question: “How do you do comedy in Quarantine, like what are you up to?” My instant reply was “Well I post videos and magically I’m on television.” While it was said in a joking manner, this is largely true.
A.D. Amorosi: What has been the hardest impersonation to develop and why do you believe it has taken so long? What do you think is the one impersonation that got away – the one voice/demeanor that you just couldn’t nail?
Matt Friend: Howard Stern has taken time. He has such a particular rhythm and his voice is so recognizable to millions. It evolved but I now have it down! And thankfully Howard himself enjoys it too.
A.D. Amorosi: What should audiences know about you and your act going in, for better or worse?
Matt Friend: Expect a LOT of energy! There will be a lot of topical commentary, stories of my many meetings with celebrities including Howard Stern, Jeff Goldblum, Rami Malek, John Oliver, Sebastian Maniscalco, and Austin Butler. I am early on in my career and touring and am so pumped up for these shows this week.