Photo by ROBYN VON SWANK
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Comedian/actress/impressionist extraordinaire Melissa Villasenor was born 30 years ago in Whittier, California. By the age of 12 she was doing impressions of famous people. At the tender age of 15 she did her first stand-up routine at the storied Laugh Factory in Hollywood. By the age of 18 she was a regular at comedy open mic nights around town, often hiding under a hoodie to pass for a dude to get her jokes taken seriously in this sexist world we currently reside in. After years of working the comedy circuit, and an appearance on America’s Got Talent, she landed a job as a performer on SNL in 2016. She has a remarkable gift for impersonating the likes of Owen Wilson, Barbara Walters, Jennifer Lopez, Zooey Deschanel, Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, to name but a few [see the video at the bottom of this Q&A]. She has applied this skill to voiceover work on Family Guy and Adventure Time. She played a waitress on Barry, SNL alum Bill Hader’s new show about a hitman-turned-actor on HBO, and played herself on Judd Apatow’s Crashing. She will be performing at Punchline Philly August 9th-11th, which is why we got her on the horn last week.
DISCUSSED: Tough Latinon moms, Whittier, California, the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp, Britney Speark, NSYNC, Mandy Moore, tattoos, her drawings, Freud, anxiety dreams, seeing Nickelback 56 times, SNL, being bad at talking dirty and the secret to channeling the voicings, body language and facial tics of famous people.
PHAWKER: You grew up in Whittier, California? What can you tell me about that? You have brothers and sisters or are you an only child?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: I have an older brother and a younger brother and sister who are twins. I’m the middle child. We’re close in age, they’re my best buds. I come from a Mexican family, we’re very close. Sometimes too close? My parents are very funny, they’re opposites. My mom is a really tough Latino mom. My dad is very sensitive, very jolly and my mom is just brutally honest. Polar opposites, but very fun.
PHAWKER: Is anyone else in your family a performer or comedian?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Nope, no entertainment folks.
PHAWKER: I was reading you started doing stand-up at age 15, is that correct? Like in clubs?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yes. I did the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp summer of my sophomore year. I mostly did impressions. I found that online and thought it was cool because most open mics, you can start at any age really but it’s hard when you’re not 18 yet and you can’t be in the club because they’re serving drinks. I started doing open mics at 18, 19. I was starting to do shows in Hollywood.
PHAWKER: I also read you started doing impersonations and impressions when you were twelve?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, that’s when I started doing a lot of singing impressions.
PHAWKER: What spurred that? You were just mimicking people on the radio or videos or TV or whatever?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah I was so obsessed with Britney Spears and NSYNC and Mandy Moore and I think that’s the age when you’re just soaking up a lot. I always loved singing, it comes from loving choir and singing and I think just hearing your voice over and over and realizing, ‘oh man I could change my voice.’
PHAWKER: It seems like you either have a gift for this or not, it doesn’t seem like something you can learn to do. I know people that are just naturals at doing this, but most people aren’t. Do you think that’s true? Or do you think you learned how to do this?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: I think it was just within. I never planned it, it just started happening and it was easy for me.
PHAWKER: That’s what I’ve realized with people who are really good at mimicking other people, it’s effortless for them. But tell me how you go about this. How do you make your voice sound like a voice you’re hearing.
PHAWKER: You record yourself and listen to it back to see if you got it or not?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, I’ll do that. Sometimes I’ll just be talking to myself for awhile and start hearing it, testing it out onstage and trying out videos. Just different ways of piecing it together. Originally when I just started, I used a little cassette recorder.
PHAWKER: When you were 12 or 13 you would record yourself impersonating people?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah.
PHAWKER: How long does it take you to get a new impersonation down?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Some come really quick, within a day or a couple hours or some have taken years to figure out.
PHAWKER: Really you’ll spend that long on something?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Every day I’ll work on something. I remember years ago, I tried a Kristen Wiig and forgot about it, then I watched Bridesmaids and figured it out. J-Lo was one that I would watch her and I thought she was funny and once I let it sit for awhile and maybe any time you give up it kind of finds you, it grabs you back. So sometimes I let it breathe a bit, go to sleep and then in the morning piece it together. Sometimes that helps if I listen to it for a few hours, then let it come to me.
PHAWKER: So you started doing stand-up in clubs officially when you were 15 for this summer camp. When did you decide, this is what I’m going to do with my life, I’m going to be a comedian, when did that a-ha moment happen?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: It happened in high school after my sophomore talent show. I did really well, I loved the feeling of making people laugh. I immediately knew it was what I was going to do, no question. I was stoked about graduating and I didn’t care about or go to prom, I just wanted to work in comedy.
PHAWKER: You never looked around and said, there’s not a lot of women in comedy I don’t know if I can do this, or it’s not a women’s job, that never occurred to you?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Never once. I think also because my favorite comedians were Jim Carrey, Jimmy Fallon and Dana Carvey and I loved Ellen too. I never really thought until I started doing open mics like, ‘Oh cover up and wear hoodies and dress like a dude’ because yeah it is a little hard to feel separated sometimes. It’s such a small group of comedians, everyone knows each other and once you set who you are and work for a while, I felt like I got a lot of support and wanted people on my side and to this day a lot of comics just feel like they’re my family, especially at the Comedy Store so many comics have my back. I didn’t have too much of an issue in that.
PHAWKER: I was looking at your Twitter feed and you have this this funny picture pinned of you dressed up like somebody’s mom sticking her tongue out and flashing the devil horns with the guys from Nickelback, and it says “Lola Gomez Wife, Mother, Seen Nickelback 56 Times.” What is that from? Is that a skit?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah that was my sketch on SNL, that one was special to me because it was a bit from my stand up and my friend Steven Castillo who’s a writer on SNL and a funny comedian, he and I wrote that and it was such a super fun little rock star moment and I had to pin that, it was my favorite.
PHAWKER: Did you hear anything from Nickelback about that?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, they were the best. They tweeted it out, it said something like, BIGGEST FAN MISS GOMEZ, SHE WAS THE BEST. They played along with it.
PHAWKER: Speaking of SNL, there’s the recurring dirty talk sketch where you’re in bed with your BF and you guys are trying to act out some sex fantasy but you always go too far and say something that is WAY over the line and kill the moment. I’m guessing you wrote that since you keep appearing in that?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Co-wrote but I feel like it came from [fellow SNL cast member] Mikey Day imitating me. A lot of people do at work do that — they imitate my voice. I think it was one night where we were filming a pre-recorded sketch pretty early on in my first season, and I don’t know if I was just hyper or what but I was trying to talk dirty and it sounded too innocent in my voice — it might have came from that. But they like my voice being in a situation like that.
PHAWKER: I also saw on your Twitter page that you posted a drawing of a shark swimming in a bed, do you draw frequently?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, I’m trying to get my book in the fall.
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah.
PHAWKER: When will that be coming out?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: I don’t know I’m still piecing it together but I’m hoping next year.
PHAWKER: So about the shark one, it seems very Freudian, can you explain it to me? Why is there a shark in your bed? I’m assuming it’s you, is it?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah it’s always a little form of me. Maybe when I’m sleeping I have nightmares.
PHAWKER: Like anxiety dreams?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, maybe a touch of dating someone I didn’t feel good near. Sometimes I just exaggerate.
PHAWKER: How long have you been drawing?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Maybe the past ten years. Whenever I’m especially sad, that’s what I lean on, drawing helps me out in my standup. I can’t put into words the feeling, that’s what I like about it.
PHAWKER: Are you self-taught or did you take some art classes?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Pretty much self-taught but in high school I always graduated towards art class. I think I took one art class in junior college. I’ve always loved when teachers taught shading and line work. I just love the pencil and pen.
PHAWKER: Getting back to your impressions, you do the best Owen Wilson I’ve ever seen.
PHAWKER: Seems like a lot of fun to be Owen Wilson. But you’ve nailed not just his voice but all his facial tics and surfer dude mannerisms. Is that something else you do when you’re working on impersonations, looking in the mirror and conjuring that person up with your face?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: I don’t think I stood in the mirror, I just let it take over my whole body. Using photos help.
PHAWKER: You can just snap into it once you’ve nailed it, at the drop of a hat?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah.
PHAWKER: You have what looks like a pretty badass tattoo on your left arm. What is it?
MELISSA VILLASENOR: On my left arm. I have a few. The one up top is an origami crane, on the other side I have a spiral flower that I’ve drawn in my notebooks since I was twelve, on my comedy notebooks you’ll find them on all the pages. I recently got these two flowers by a [tattoo] artist in Brooklyn, he does very fine line work. I had faded laser removal ones underneath so it’s a cover-up, but this past year in particular I’ve been growing into me and the flowers just represent that. I love art and drawings so.
PHAWKER: You’ve referenced that only now you’re comfortable in your own skin and comfortable with who you are.
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, getting there, sure.
PHAWKER: I think that’s a natural progression. I think everyone in their twenties are still trying to figure out who they are. That’s the cool thing about being in your thirties is you’re still young but you’re not crazy anymore, you’re comfortable with who you are.
MELISSA VILLASENOR: Absolutely.