How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions

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How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions

The actress and comedian can move up and down the scales of race, age and gender with hilarious ease — a talent that grew from finding her place in a world where no one looked like her.

CreditCreditAlex Prager for The New York Times. Painting by Vanessa Prager. Stylist: Rebecca Grice. Hair: Bobby Eliot. Makeup: Molly R. Stern.

By Caity Weaver
Sept. 14, 2018

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Supposing that God is real and possessed of a human corporeal form — mankind being created in his image (reportedly) — we might reasonably conjecture that God’s anthropoid body integrates the totality of physical traits expressed in Earth’s human population: the skin tones blended to a light tan; the hair dark and thick; the height neither too tall nor too short — about 5-foot-7, say; every shade of human iris (the iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly, the pale green of lichen clinging to a tree, lots of brown) combining to create eyes that are … also brown. Considering his propensity for giving life, God would probably be a mother. Considering his appreciation of beauty (e.g., snowflake geometry) and busy schedule (e.g., Genesis), he would probably clothe himself in breezily tasteful garments made from natural fabrics cut for maneuverability, like a long denim jumper dress worn over a shirt of pure white cotton. God would look, in other words, like Maya Rudolph running errands on a Tuesday.

Separate from the irrefutable fact that God looks like Maya Rudolph is the equally remarkable revelation that Maya Rudolph looks like God — that is, she looks at you the same way, you must imagine, that God takes in his creation: happy to see it, while somehow existentially disappointed in it, but forgiving of it and still maintaining affection for it, even though it has absolutely let him down in some indefinable way only he can understand. Her wide eyes, which lend themselves so easily to bald astonishment or mania in her comedy, turn down one fraction of one degree at the outer corners when at rest, lending a suggestion of ruefulness to her neutral gaze. The effect is offset by Rudolph’s cautious, closemouthed smile, which rests on her face as easily as powder on a puff. It’s invigorating to find yourself the subject of a look so wistful, even if the expression is inadvertent. It makes you want to be the better version of yourself Maya Rudolph apparently knows you can be.

Traditionally, one of the slipperiest things about talking to God is trying to tell someone else about it after the fact. It’s the same with Maya Rudolph. Her comedy is so rooted in elasticized facial expressions and meticulously off-kilter impressions that attempts to recreate conversations with her inevitably fall flat. One of the funniest things Rudolph said at our first meeting, as we sat in a San Fernando Valley French bistro tucking into hot, pricey fries so good they could have been from McDonald’s, was: “O.K., well.”

She was telling the story of the time she was bitten by a black-widow spider while getting a massage on a girls’ vacation that many comedy fans might commit real-life murder to attend, with her “Saturday Night Live” friends Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer and the writers Paula Pell and Emily Spivey. Rudolph was doing an impression of Gasteyer the moment Rudolph explained to her that she was possibly about to die.

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Her Gasteyer was a 120 percent concentration: angular head movements; precise intentional blinks; a modulated operatic voice — classic Gasteyer, but swirled with the essential oils of her performance as a tightly wound 1990s Martha Stewart. Rudolph’s account of the fiasco was bursting with rollicking impressions — Poehler taking charge with peppy fortitude; Dratch trying to discreetly escape to a shower — but to print the transcript would be a disservice to Rudolph, because the transcript is simply not funny. The element that brings tears of laughter to your eyes is not the words themselves, but the curious, thrilling sensation of witnessing other people’s faces and voices emerge from Rudolph’s own.

It’s tough to put a finger on exactly when Maya Rudolph became someone Americans love to love. They liked her on “Saturday Night Live,” when she demonstrated a particular knack for impersonating musical divas across time and race. They liked her, too, in the 2011 film “Bridesmaids,” when she turned the part of the ostensible straight-woman — the bridal tether against which the titular maids jostle like Mylar balloons in the wind — into a character at once heartfelt and grotesque. At some point, though, viewers began to regard Rudolph with an enthusiasm normally reserved for a three-day weekend. Like those holidays, she comes around fairly regularly: stealing scenes in movies, turning up for delightful guest arcs in prime time. “It’s kind of like everybody has a song,” Poehler told me, “and I think Maya’s song is like a really good popular song that will stand the test of time.”

When Rudolph took the stage at the Oscars, in a flowing red Valentino turtleneck jumpsuit, to present a couple of awards alongside the funnywoman of the moment, Tiffany Haddish, the response was overwhelming. Haddish displayed her trademark manic energy, but Rudolph earned no fewer laughs with a demeanor of stately calm. It felt as if a wry adult had entered the room. On the internet for days after, people craved Maya Rudolph. They thirsted for her dry wisdom. They demanded that she and Haddish be given the reins to next year’s show. They wanted them to star in a buddy comedy, their own sitcom, a two-woman play about presenting the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject — anything.

Nearly 20 years in, Rudolph’s career appears to be entering a platinum era. Earlier this summer, she wrapped filming on a 2019 Netflix movie directed by Poehler, inspired by their real-life vacations: “Wine Country.” This year, she’s up for an Emmy for playing, well, God; Rudolph captivated viewers in a two-episode stint on NBC’s “The Good Place,” as an all-powerful cosmic decider. Her “Judge” was goofy, charming and sinisterly unreadable — perhaps her strongest-ever flexing of her ability to embody multiple personalities concurrently. This month, she’ll star in “Forever,” a new streaming series for Amazon. Less a traditional comedy than a surreal minimalist comedy, it offers an opportunity for Rudolph to display a quality rarely seen in two-minute comedy sketches about space travel: pathos.

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