In the country where I rule, visa priority is given to satirists, editorial cartoonists, sitcom writers, caricaturists, columnists with a sense of humor, comic-strip artists, stand-up comics, comedians, mimes and impressionists.
In these 7,000 islands, impressionists are also called imitators or impersonators. In my country, an impressionist need not go through a body search to pass immigration. All he has to do is do an impression of someone famous and he automatically gets an “H” (Hoho) visa.
Some impressionists do voice mimicry, like a celebrity’s speech, accent or singing style.
The complete impressionist does the entire persona—voice, body movements, physical looks, mannerisms—a startling likeness of a politician, social or business lion. If you haven’t seen President Noynoy Aquino 3rd in person, watching an impressionist doing Pnoy onstage is the next best thing.
Impressionists share the same lead float with first-rate caricaturists who can draw a famous face to the limits of comic exaggeration. It’s an act or piece of showmanship impressionists can do on radio, TV, the stage, movies, social and family gatherings.
Which is how Willie Nepomuceno, better known as Willie Nep, started. As a boy, he learned to become a good observer of relatives and the knack for mimicking their mannerisms. At family socials, relatives would make him stand on the dining table and begged for his amateurish but hilarious impersonations.
He began to imitate sound effects in high school, learning how to ape musical instruments at the same time. At the University of the Philippines (Diliman), where he studied and finished fine arts, he listened to his classmates and teachers and began doing voice impressions for everyone’s amusement.
But he did not become a full-time artist or professional illustrator or advertising man after graduation. Theater fascinated him after UP. With a group of activist pals, they formed a group doing street theater, presenting plays anywhere an audience could be gathered.
Meanwhile, he continued developing his skills in impersonation. He started “doing” President Ferdinand Marcos and members of his cabinet.
He produced his first show in the late 60’s. His act caught on and he started to build a following, including FM who sometimes asked Willie Nep to join his rallies as an opening act to draw a bigger crowd.
Over the years, his repertoire grew to include amusing impressions of Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Noynoy Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile, Alfredo Lim, Juan Miguel Arroyo, Cardinal Sin, Manny Pacquiao, and famous entertainers.
What makes a good impressionist? Inborn talent. An ear for speech. An eye for mannerisms. Jokes and quotations attributed to a character of interest. An understanding of the subject person’s psyche, character, roots and values. Special effects— such as a wig, mustache, eyeglasses, an unlit cigar—help.
Willie follows the footsteps of earlier showmen doing the same act professionally or as a hobby: Vic Pacia, Joonie Gamboa, Cris de Vera, Ariel Ureta, Neil Ocampo and Bing Bigotillo at the Clover Theater. In the US, among the best are Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, Vaughn Meader, Dana Carvey, Tina Fey and Bob Anderson, with whom Willie did a show in the 1990’s. Nep’s chief competitor in the business is Jon Santos.
It’s not a grand parade all the time. Willie Nep has received veiled threats on his life and career, ranging from libel suits to physical harm. Willie has taken the risks with stride. In general, Filipino politicians are “pikon” (onion-skinned) who cannot take jokes at their own expense. But most of Willie’s subjects have been sporting and appreciative.
Willie has starred in several Gridiron skits at the National Press Club, headlines the annual anniversary of the Kapihan sa Maynila, recorded five albums and produced successful shows in the Philippines and abroad for a cause, such as raising funds for victims of media killings.
On May 4, Saturday night, Willie Nep will do a repeat of “E-pal the Musical” at the Music Museum, Greenhills, San Juan, a comic look at Philippine politics, the political campaign and the May 13 elections, in the spirit of fun and good taste.
Fred De La Rosa