The Next Best Thing: Who is the Greatest Celebrity Impersonator?

A couple weeks ago, a woman on the street stopped me to say, “Has anyone ever told you that from a distance you look exactly like Orlando Bloom?” I imagine from a far enough distance, one could also say I look like Matt Lauer or Gilbert Gottfried, maybe even Jane Fonda.

Some of the aspiring stars on ABC’s The Next Best Thing: Who is the Greatest Celebrity Impersonator? must have been standing pretty far away from their mirrors when they decided they looked like particular celebrities. The summer series aims to find those individuals who resemble famous people in three areas: looks, voice, and demeanor. Just singing like Cher isn’t enough. You’ve got to look and act like her as well.

Precious few come close to meeting the show’s criteria. In fact, a multitude of wannabes had no business showing up for auditions. The first two episodes featured the open calls, and hordes of delusional people showed up. There were numerous impersonations of the usual suspects — Anna Nicole Smith, Elvis, Britney Spears, and Michael Jackson — most frighteningly bad. Other contestants mimicked a broad range of more or less contemporary celebrities, like Donald Trump and Johnny-Depp-as-Captain-Jack-Sparrow. (The fact that Captain Jack is a celebrity unto himself raises questions concerning definitions of celebrity, questions quite beyond this series’ capacity to answer.)

Following the American Idol model, the panel of judges dismisses these bad performers with putdowns and punch-lines. While I normally find such ridicule reprehensible, most of these remarks are not terribly harsh. In fact, when Gold starts sounding cruel, Ross calls him out: “What’s wrong with you today?” Still, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for some of the recipients of the criticism. If you’re a black woman, you shouldn’t try to do an imitation of Marilyn Monroe, and if you weigh 180 pounds, you don’t look like Britney.

Each episode of auditions picked between six and eight contestants to advance to the final competition. Front-runners so far include a Lucille Ball, Howard Stern, and Roseanne Barr. One gentleman advanced for his amusing impersonation of President Bush. His voice and mannerisms were excellent, but it took two hours of make-up and prosthetic applications to get the look down. A couple of dismissed contestants who didn’t go through this process must have been kicking themselves: with enough latex applied, they too might have gone forward. Indeed, most of the winners in this early round offered marginal impersonations at best, and we were left to wonder about the judges’ assessments. All three voted for a man who claimed to be imitating country star Tim McGraw, though he was far too heavy to be convincing, and his singing in no way resembled McGraw’s.

The show’s most troubling aspect is the very nature of the contest. The contestants are one-trick ponies. What else can they do when the show gets to later stages? Why would we want to see the same impersonations again? Unlike Idol, the contestants aren’t required to display versatility across genres and styles. The woman who impersonated Roseanne, for instance, was great. But we’ve seen her once… what more could she possibly do to impress us?

Therefore, it’s hard to imagine how the series will play out over time. The ideal set-up would be have finalists perform again on the same show, have the audience vote on the best, announce the winner, and be done with it. There’s no need to drag this out over weeks of eliminations.

As it stands, the only reason to tune in again is to see the judges act out. But since all are noted stand-up performers, why not just watch one of their TV specials instead?

RATING 4 / 10