Calling from somewhere in Indiana, right after an elliptical workout, comedian Melissa Villaseñor sounds not winded, but rather as if she’s ready to energetically launch into an impersonation as soon as she jumps on the phone. It’s the cadence and zeal of her everyday voice – so recognizable from Saturday Night Live – that is both soothing in its friendliness, and alarming in its quick-to-shift fluidity.
Surely, impressions of Owen Wilson, Gwen Stefani, Maria Bamford and more would’ve been waiting had we stayed chatting longer. Then again, perhaps Villaseñor was saving those staged voices, as well as an ever-changing stand-up comedy routine, for her three-day stint (Aug. 9-11) at Punch Line Philly. “This summer I felt really good about my writing and my creative flow, want to soak it in while I can, and get on the road,” she says, regarding her off-time from NBC’s SNL taping. “Besides, if I’m just home in New York, without a project, I’ll just slack off.”
Despite being discovered on America’s Got Talent, and familiar to the sketch comedy world of SNL, it was stand-up that was her first love and hard work-out. “Though I took classes with The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade, I started in stand-up when I went to Catholic high school in Southern Californian and went to the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp in LA,” Villaseñor says with pride. “I used it as a way to forward myself. It’s free, you know? You don’t have to pay to stand behind a mic, do open mics and get better at on your own…. It also helped to be on the road early on as a stand-up. Bombing out loud helped me. Plus, I could be me. When you’re doing sketch work, you can hide behind characters.”
Before Villaseñor got to SNL, much was made of her Latin heritage and that being a first for the televised sketch giant. Looking back, would she have preferred a different focus on her talents – to be hyped as funny before being hyped for heritage. “I’m obviously very proud of my heritage, but having it hyped like that caused pressure too,” she says. “Now, that I am talking about my life and family in my stand up that’s cool, but I wasn’t doing that when I first started at SNL. Then again, it made me think about my something one of my acting class teachers once said: 'It‘s not just about getting good at your craft, but learning to be strong enough to handle all that is written about you.'"
Three seasons with SNL – apart from her own writing – is she able to get her voice heard? “I think so,” says Villaseñor. “I’ve made friends there, pals within the writer’s room, and I think they’re beginning to get my humor. and it’s a matter of showing people what you are capable of.”
Is she shy? Yes. “I’m a sensitive person who gets hurt by every little thing, and things like writing help me be free. It’s a growth thing. When I feel good, I write.” Being in New York City has also opened her up beyond introversion. “I can talk to anyone on the street there, now. Now, my energy is that of an extrovert. I’m OK talking.”
Without playing dime-store psychologist, was being shy while coming up in the biz the thing that led Villaseñor to shed her own voice in lieu of other’s voices, and the act of impersonation? “Oh yeah, absolutely,” she says. “The shy, quiet ones are always the observant ones. We soak up what we’re seeing and hearing That comes with the territory.”
Saturday Night Live star Melissa Villaseñor reveals secret behind celebrity impressions
What catches her ear and spins her head around when it comes to another’s voice and mannerisms is different with each subject she copycats. “If I enjoy watching them, making me laugh, or have a pattern they repeat – that’s what pulls me to them. I just started doing Sandra Bullock and Diane Keaton, both of whom have many repetitious tendencies. Also, it’s about liking and admiring the person. That’s important to me. There’s no method to it all. Every mannerism, facial expression and vocal tic is another little puzzle piece.”
Don’t expect Villaseñor’s entire show to be impersonating the rich and famous, however. Life in her adopted city, relationship weirdness, and family stuff new and old pops out throughout every set. “I’m constantly trying to find out what’s going on everywhere I go, and make that a part of my stand-up,” she says. “That’s just another part of soaking everything up.”