A veteran of the stand-up comedy circuit, Greg Morton is renowned for his rapid-fire impression riffs, in which he distills movie franchises such as “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” into three-minute primers (you can see them on YouTube). Morton is a popular draw at Goodnight’s Comedy Club, where he’s been a regular for about 10 years. He recently spoke to the N&O about cartoon animation, the art of impersonation and the secret to howling like a Wookiee.
Q: Were you into comedy as a kid?
A: Sure, in grade school I used to put on shows in class, on the bus. I was an impressionist even then, but I would do impressions of cartoon characters.
I think my first comedy record was Bill Cosby, and I’d do those routines as well. You know, when you recite somebody like that, you inherently pick up their timing and sensibility. You don’t realize it, but you’re kind of subconsciously deconstructing and breaking it down. You learn a lot that way.
It’s the same with music, same with art. I have an art background, and we would often be assigned to paint or draw others’ work. That’s how we learned how to draw.
Q: You started out as an animator, right?
A: Mm-hmm. I thought I was going to be a cartoonist. I managed to get a job right out of college working for Hanna Barbara on the “Scooby and Scrappy Doo” show. I thought it was the best of all worlds for me. It could incorporate my drawing skills, my comedic skills, my acting skills.
I worked on a number of cartoons. “Hello Kitty” was my first voice-over. I also did directing for voice-over with “Super Mario Bros.,” “Legend of Zelda.” That’s when they were turning a lot of video games into shows. I worked mostly in Toronto and Vancouver, a little bit in New York and L.A.
Q: They produced those shows out of Canada?
A: Yeah, and in fact part of my job as director was working with the other performers to beat the (adopts Canadian accent) “oots” and “aboots” out.
Q: You incorporate a lot of impressions in your act. Is that something you have to be born with, or can you learn it to a degree?
A: A lot of it is having a good ear. Just like music. Once again, you break it down. One thing – and I’ve heard other impressionists say this – if you hear someone else do a particular voice, it helps. It’s as if someone else has done the breaking down for you. It makes it easier to do that particular impression.
Each impression is a composite of different things that you do with your vocal cords – pitch, accents, those sorts of things. (In George Bush voice:) Like George Bush Sr., you draw the voice out and it’s a little bit John Wayne, but clipped and with a certain Texas swagger.
(In Bill Clinton voice:) Or Clinton with the raspy voice, you just drop your pitch down here, add a little accent, and he’s going to feel your pain.
Those are relatively easy. (In Barack Obama voice:) But Obama is different again. He has a staccato voice. You find that rhythm, that pitch.
Some things just aren’t in my range; they’re a little more difficult. Right now I’m trying to work on the Dark Knight, Batman. I’m probably going to work on that the week that I’m there. But some are relatively easy, like “Star Wars,” because I’ve seen it so many times. I built that a little bit at a time and it’s become a kind of montage. It triggers all those great memories.
Q: Your Chewbacca is pretty astounding, but it sounds very painful. Is it painful?
A: Well, it depends on how early in the morning you do it. If you’re not warmed up, it’s a very difficult impression because it’s like yawning and growling at the same time. And gargling as well. You’ve got to get your uvula going back and forth as well. (Attempts a failed Chewbacca howl.) See, I don’t have enough moisture in my mouth right now. (Tries again, with success.) There we go. Then you open and close your mouth to get that variation.
It’s tricky because the actual Chewbacca howl in the films is made up of four or five different sounds. It’s like a bear growl, and, I think, a whale and a lion. It’s crazy.