A Top Impressionist, Melissa Villaseñor Is Finding Her Own Voice On 'SNL'

16 hours ago

In her stand-up comedy, Melissa Villaseñor often begins her shows with a warning.

"I hope you know what you're getting into," she tells an audience at this summer's Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. "This is my voice."

Villaseñor is very proud of what she describes as her Kermit the Frog voice, or sometimes a Mickey Mouse voice.

"I love it," she says on stage in Montreal. "It makes me laugh. It makes me happy. I like waking up in the morning and hearing it, and going, 'Oh yeah. It's gonna be a good day.'"

But Villaseñor's voice is unrecognizable when she inhabits the sounds and mannerisms of famous figures, whether it's the charming eccentricity of Bjork or the hearty laugh of Hillary Clinton. From Gwen Stefani to Pokémon's Ash Ketchum, Wanda Sykes to Steve Buscemi, her output of celebrity imitations is vast and varied.

Her talent for impressions helped to earn her a spot as a featured player on Saturday Night Live. And when SNL's new season premieres tonight, Sept. 29, this will be Villaseñor's first as a full cast member.

Villaseñor is Mexican-American. Her parents own a fencing company in Whittier, Calif., outside Los Angeles. It was her dad who turned her on to comedy: Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey.

When she was 12, Villaseñor remembers making her friends laugh by imitating singers such as Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Mandy Moore. ("All the pop divas," she says.) She performed in her high school talent show and attended The Laugh Factory's summer comedy camp in Los Angeles.

There's now a seemingly endless catalog of Villaseñor's impressions online: homemade videos, stand-up clips, her breakthrough performance on America's Got Talent, and a series from the Latino comedy studio Más Mejor called Daily Itineraries, where she imagines the personal schedules of various celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Silverman.

"She's just got really amazing range," says Ian Jones-Quartey, creator of the Cartoon Network series OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes. Villaseñor voices a number of characters for the show, including a bunny rabbit, a teenage strawberry and a football. "We can kind of just throw her at a situation and she can create something really hilarious."

Jones-Quartey first saw Villaseñor at a comedy club in LA a few years ago. Then he started watching her videos online. He calls her impression of Owen Wilson "legendary."

Villaseñor says she has affection for all of the celebrities she chooses to mimic.

"They really inspire me and I would say help me feel less alone and make me feel like they're my friend," she says in an interview. "Like, Owen Wilson — he's so soothing and silly and peaceful, and that makes me feel comfort."

After it was announced Villaseñor would be joining SNL, the triumph was somewhat diminished. Online commentators noticed she had deleted some old tweets they considered racist.

Other comedians have had their Twitter pasts scrutinized. Old jokes by Trevor Noah and Sarah Silverman, for example, were deemed offensive when they resurfaced years later.

Villaseñor says those old Tweets were her "trying to be edgy." But she doesn't regret deleting them.

"I'm flawed like everyone else, and yeah, I just wanted to make sure I was perfect," she says.

The online attacks left her "numb," so she got some advice from more seasoned SNL cast members.

"And they're just like, 'You got to get tough and get used to it,'" she says.

It's one lesson among many Villaseñor says she's learned since joining SNL. She says when writers like Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell have worked with her on sketches, they'll do impressions of her, froggy voice and all.

"Comedians, we just love picking on each other, and it just makes me feel at home," she says.

Melissa Villaseñor is trying to develop original characters for SNL. She says that's much harder than doing impressions — but that we might see one this season.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new season of "Saturday Night Live" debuts tonight. Stand-up comedian Melissa Villasenor will debut as a full cast member. She's been called an impression machine for impersonations of celebrities both real and imagined, including "Pokemon's" Ash Ketchum...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MY FAVORITE VOICES TO DO - MELISSA VILLASENOR")

MELISSA VILLASENOR: (Imitating Ash Ketchum) Hey, Pikachu, get back in the Poke Ball. Be careful, Pikachu.

SIMON: ...And Bjork.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "BJORK'S VLOG - MELISSA VILLASENOR")

VILLASENOR: (Imitating Bjork) I have a cat, and sometimes I like to follow her around and pretend that I am a cat, too.

SIMON: NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: This summer, Melissa Villasenor performed at Montreal's Just For Laughs festival. She greets her audience with a warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLASENOR: Thanks for being here. I hope you know what you're getting into. This is my voice.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Yes, that's her natural speaking voice. She thinks it sounds a little like Kermit the Frog, and she loves it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLASENOR: It makes me happy. I like waking up in the morning and hearing it and going, oh, yeah, it's going to be a good day.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Villasenor is Mexican-American. She's from Whittier, Calif. Her parents own a fencing company. It was her dad who turned her on to comedy - Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey. When she was 12, she started imitating pop singers to make her friends laugh. It worked. Here she is years later at LA's Laugh Factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLASENOR: I don't like how the singers sing on sports games. You know, they sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." They just want to show off their voice. You know, they're just (singing) oh, say can you see - oh, yeah.

It's like, stop it. You're annoying.

BLAIR: There's a seemingly endless amount of Villasenor's material online. She's got homemade videos, stand-up clips. There's her breakthrough performance on "America's Got Talent." She also does voices for animated characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OK K.O.! LET'S BE HEROES")

VILLASENOR: (As Mega Football Baby) Hey, Rad, wanna play me in Pop-A-Shot?

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: She's just got really amazing range.

BLAIR: Ian Jones-Quartey is the creator of the Cartoon Network show "OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes."

JONES-QUARTEY: We can kind of just throw her at a situation, and she can create something really hilarious.

BLAIR: Jones-Quartey first saw Villasenor a few years ago at a comedy club in LA. Then he started watching her videos online.

JONES-QUARTEY: Her Owen Wilson impression is legendary.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MY FAVORITE VOICES TO DO - MELISSA VILLASENOR")

VILLASENOR: (Imitating Owen Wilson) The other day, I was looking up at the sky, and it was so blue. And it was like, wow, hey, sky, you match my eyes. My eyes are blue, too.

BLAIR: Villasenor says she has affection for all of the celebrities she chooses to mimic.

VILLASENOR: They really inspire me and I would say help me feel less alone and make me feel like they're my friend. Like, Owen Wilson, he's so soothing and silly and peaceful, and that makes me feel comfort.

BLAIR: On "Saturday Night Live" last season, she co-wrote a sketch in which she played a cartoon voice actor. Kenan Thompson played the director.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KENAN THOMPSON: (As character) Then we have Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a bat.

VILLASENOR: (As character, imitating Julia Louis-Dreyfus) You know, I'm a bat, so yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: After it was announced that Melissa Villasenor would be joining "SNL," the triumph was somewhat diminished. Bloggers noticed that she had deleted some old tweets they considered racist. She isn't the only comedian whose Twitter past has been scrutinized. Old jokes by Trevor Noah and Sarah Silverman, for example, were deemed offensive when they resurfaced years later. Villasenor says those old tweets were her trying to be edgy, but she doesn't regret deleting them.

VILLASENOR: I'm flawed like everyone else and, yeah, I just wanted to make sure I was perfect.

BLAIR: She says the online attacks left her numb. She got some advice from more seasoned "SNL" cast members.

VILLASENOR: And they're just like, you got to - you got to get tough and get used to it.

BLAIR: With just one season under her belt, Villasenor says the "SNL" family has already taught her so much. She says when writers like Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell have worked with her on sketches, they'll do impressions of her.

VILLASENOR: So they're just going oh, oh, oh (unintelligible) and so they're trying out different things in my voice, and it makes me so happy. Comedians - we just love picking on each other, and it just makes me feel at home.

BLAIR: Melissa Villasenor is trying to develop original characters for "SNL." She says that's much harder than doing impressions but that we might see one this season. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.