Growing up in a deaf family helped Craig Gass become an accomplished impressionist.
The Los Angeles comedian first achieved national notoriety in the mid-’90s doing impressions for Howard Stern’s radio show. Gass does uncanny versions of Tracy Morgan, Al Pacino, Sam Kinison and others.
The 42-year-old, performing his stand-up show Friday night in Victoria, says everyone in his family was deaf except him. His father lost his hearing as a child in an accident, while his mother and sister were born without hearing ability.
As a toddler, Gass learned to talk by listening to voices on the television. Because of this, the comic, raised in the Bronx, never spoke with a regional accent.
“Because my family was deaf, I had a clean slate to learn to talk,” said Gass, interviewed this week in the lobby of the Strathcona Hotel.
As a child, he did impressions of family members. Because his father, mother and sister could not hear, Gass would focus on the physical side of the impression — his grandfather’s gait, for instance. The ability to mimic the physical as well as voices stayed with him.
Gass tries to “channel” the celebrities he mimics, a method-acting-style approach he believes allows for a deeper impersonation. He gave examples of this, offering spot-on impressions of Pacino, Adam Sandler and Christopher Walken as people in the lobby smiled.
Although not a household name, Gass has enjoyed enviable success. He had a recurring supporting role (a delivery driver) in the TV sitcom King of Queens. He also had a bit part in Sex in the City (Miranda’s donut-gobbling boyfriend) and did his Pacino impression for The Family Guy.
Gass is best known as a regular on Howard Stern’s raunchy radio show. After doing phone-in routines starting in 1995, he landed a gig as Stern’s on-air sidekick for 10 months in 2001, replacing Jackie the Joke Man (a.k.a. Jackie Martling) before Artie Lange took over. “That gave me a career,” said Gass, who likens Stern’s showbiz influence to Johnny Carson’s for a previous generation.
Gass was doing impressions on Seattle’s KISW radio when he first sent an audition tape to Stern’s show. He got a callback because one of Stern’s staffers enjoyed his Sam Kinison impression. One of Gass’s early bits for Stern was pretending to be the late Kinison in hell, conducting talk-show interviews with the newly deceased.
“It was a really dark piece,” he said. “Every time a really bad person died, I called in with an exclusive.”
While he’s never met Pacino, Gass once played a telephone prank on him — as part of a roast for Gene Simmons of Kiss.
For the prank, he left a phone message pretending to be Pacino’s long-lost brother, using a voice exactly like the famous actor’s. Friends of Pacino later said he enjoyed the bit.
Gass has met many of the people he imitates, including Tracy Morgan of 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live (Gass used to write for SNL’s Weekend Update segment). He recalls Morgan — renowned for his outrageously off-kilter sense of humour — once kidding him about his family’s deafness.
“He came up to me and said, ‘So Craig, you’re family’s like retarded, right?’ I said, ‘No, they’re not retarded, they’re deaf.’
“He says, ‘OK deaf. So they wear like football helmets and s---?’ ”
Where: Club 9one9
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $19.95 (Lyle’s Place, Ditch Records, Strathcona Hotel and ticketweb.ca)