- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2001

Presidential impressionist Jim Morris has his work cut out for him — going from the soft, scratchy Arkansas accent of Bill Clinton to the Texas twang of George W. Bush.

It's an inevitability, he says, like shifting gears in a car, and that's the attitude he'll bring to the Hotline Comedy Concert tomorrow night at the Warner Theatre — a day after Mr. Bush's inauguration as the nation's 43rd president.

"We're going to have a great time," says Will Durst, the political satirist who's also in the lineup. "We're kicking off what promises to be a great four-year comedy tour. I think Bush is going to do for political comedy what the microwave did for appliance stores.

"He just seems to be a great target. He's got a sense of humor about himself, and his own staff admits he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer."

The concert will feature nationally headlined comics such as Mr. Morris, Mr. Durst, local favorite and Improv veteran Bob Somerby, and Lewis Black from Comedy Central's Daily Show. Fox TV's Tony Snow will play host to the concert.

Making a special appearance will be syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, who scored big in the Washington political comedy world by winning the annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest in December.

In the past four years, the comedy concert has raised $375,000 for Children's Hospital, according to Howard Silberstein, director of the Children's Hospital Foundation.

Mr. Durst will be taking a few verbal shots at Mr. Clinton, though politically he's going to miss him. "What's he going to do? He's only 54," Mr. Durst says. "Is he going to get appointed ambassador to 'Baywatch'? Teach a college course in situational ethics?"

Mr. Durst says that although Mr. Clinton was the victim of below-the-belt material, so to speak, "It'll be nice to get above the belt but below the neck."

Mr. Morris, 43, made his first flash on the national circuit with his near-perfect impression of Ronald Reagan, and has made presidents his major shtick ever since the 1980s. He says Mr. Reagan remains his favorite. But Mr. Morris takes great care not to lampoon too close to the bone when he does Mr. Reagan at corporate events, because of the former president's battle with Alzheimer's disease.

"In the beginning he was very polarizing, but everybody had a soft spot for him," Mr. Morris says. "I think I do Clinton as well as I do Reagan. The problem is I always feel unclean after I do Clinton.

"There's a thing about acting when you stay in a character for an extended period of time; it has an effect on you. Emotionally, I feel like a weasel after I do Clinton."

Still, for eight years, "Bubba" was Mr. Morris' bread and butter so he'll be "unclean" again for the Warner Theatre date.

"Obviously, ushering out Mr. Clinton, I'm not going to focus on it, but it'll be a kind of closure to do Clinton out and George W. in," Mr. Morris says.

"I like the surreal, I like to imagine the first hundred days, in character, with help from supporting characters such as his father and other Republicans."

To get someone down, Mr. Morris says he watches hours and hours of tapes, particularly on C-SPAN, looking for sound bites. He lists Bushisms such as "appeal to our better angels and not our darker impulses," "no child be left behind," "faith-based institutions," "compassionate conservatism."

"It makes my job easier," he says, "because I know that will be the reference point that the audience will get."

Mr. Morris' twists on such phrases include "faith-based executions."

Mr. Durst says Mr. Bush and his campaign opponent, Vice President Al Gore, were predictable.

"You had Gore pretending he was a Kennedy, you know, wearing the black turtleneck and playing touch football," Mr. Durst says. "Except he runs like a girl robot. The Tin Man playing football. And Bush is hangin' at the ranch, trying to do the Reagan thing.

"And the American people were predictable, too. We have the attention span of high-speed lint. 'We don't care, flip a coin.' "

While Mr. Durst thrives on letting these people and events get under his skin, Mr. Morris gets beneath the skin of his subjects to flesh them out. Like a method actor, working from the inside out, the last things he works on will be the gestures and facial expressions of the politicos. ("I don't know how to describe it. It's like Johnny Carson said, 'When you start talking about the process of comedy, it's no longer funny.' ")

Note that Mr. Morris calls them characters, not impressions. It takes him a while with his subject, especially when he has to ad-lib. Yet the Morris version of Mr. Bush is dead-on, right down to the smirk, the pursed lips, the head-bobbing and the jumpy syntax.

"I like being scary," he says. "If it's too cartoonish, then people don't have as much a stake in it. This guy's president, the reality will sink in before long. I wouldn't call it shock humor, but people will see more than a grain of reality in what I do and hopefully they'll realize that it's not going to be as bad as I paint it."

The trick for Mr. Morris is jumping in and out of character, such as when he does a conversation between George W. and his father, former President Bush. "My 'W' ends up being more of a cartoonish character because I don't know the character as well.

"There's a lot of George Sr. in 'W,' but not too much."

WHAT: The Hotline Comedy Concert for Children's HospitalWHEN: 7:30 p.m. tomorrowWHERE: Warner TheatreTICKETS: $30PHONE: 202/432-SEAT or 703/573-SEAT

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