How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions

The actress and comedian can move up and down the scales of race, age and gender with hilarious ease — a talent that grew from finding her place in a world where no one looked like her.


Comments: 101

  1. This beautifully written portrait of Maya Rudolph will give her fans even more reason to worship her. I look forward to seeing her new Amazon series and everything else she does!

  2. @Linda Pryde

    It is a beautiful article and so good to hear that I am not alone in the "mixed-race" bucket. Although I tend not to worship people, I do admire Ms. Rudolph for her honesty and humanity. I am routinely asked, "What are you," because of my "unruly hair," light-brown skin, and unidentifiable physical features. My mom was German and married my Black father after WWII, coming to the US under the cloud of laws prohibiting interracial marriages. Glad to know I can consider myself an honorary member of the underground "mixed-race" club (by the way I really hate that phrase). I am bi-racial, proud of all that came together to give me life.

  3. Have you seen her do Dionne Warwick in Kimmy Schmidt? It's fabulous. What a funny, talented person
    Maya is.

  4. This was great! Really enjoyed the writing. I remember reading a biographical piece on Maya back when she was on SNL. She remains a fascinating, affable, eminently likable, tremendously talented, insightful actor who seems like the sister you always wanted but never had.

  5. Terrific article about an amazing woman! She is incredible!!

    This sentence, however, is a little jarring: The school Rudolph attended was so white that one of her grade-school friends was Gwyneth Paltrow.

  6. @KV
    I just thought the comment meant because Paltrow's SO pale and blonde. The epitome of white girlness with the dead white skin, flat, texture-less hair and round, bland Northern European generic face.

  7. @KV C'mon, give the writer a pass for trying to join in on the funny. Gwyneth fits that joke well enough. Some of us need to pull back a notch these days. Don't forget the funny, or at least the effort if it didn't make you chuckle.

  8. @KV - I thought it was pretty funny. Laughed out loud.

  9. I can't remember a Times profile so wonderfully well-written. Which was great cause I'm a big Maya fan! Thank you!

  10. It's just too strange that you would re-image an illustration rather than current video or photo images of Maya.

  11. it is an obvious artistic attempt to combine the "real" persona and "actress" persona so they appear to be complete entangled but still separate. I applaud NYT magazine for making for this effort.

  12. She is a true talent. Thank you for this great piece.

  13. No one looked like her. Nobody? Nada? this trope is getting tired. Quite a few people look like Maya. She's beautiful, but mixed race is very common in the US and the world.

  14. The paragraph about how no one inspired Maya Rudolph in the way she inspired the author of this piece was puzzling because it was immediately followed by a paragraph about how much Rudolph looked up to Lisa Bonet, whom Rudolph felt a kinship with for also being biracial.

  15. Love her work, welcome the profile. And I love the paintings/photo illustration!

  16. I've met people who look like Maya. To keep repeating that ethnically mixed people look like an 'different' is a disservice to humanity. We are all from the same family.

  17. "the chameleonic ability to slide up and down the spectrum of races, ages and personae..."

    I believe that's why they call it "acting." I'm not sure it has anything to with God, however.

  18. @Ed L.
    Really offended by the thought that Maya Rudolph resembles God [and/or vice versa]. A totally unnecessary lede for an article about a talented woman.

  19. I'm a fan of Maya and the NYT, and I'm not even a feminist, but "Master" of Impressions. The first few definitions of Master imply male authority figures. Why not "Mistress of Impressions." Here is Merriam Webster on Mistress:

    1 : a woman who has power, authority, or ownership: such as
    a : the female head of a household
    b : a woman who employs or supervises servants The servants were required to do their mistress's bidding without question.
    c : a woman who is in charge of a school or other establishment
    Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a school —Jane Austen
    d : a woman of the Scottish nobility having a status comparable to that of a master
    2 a chiefly British : a female teacher or tutor
    b : a woman who has achieved mastery in some field She was a mistress of music.

  20. @WayneDoc

    Because the opposite of Mistress is Mister. The way you are mansplaining it here mistakes gender for expertise and skill. You don't get a "mister's degree" you get a "master's degree." It's not gendered.

  21. I hope that one day, we will all blend into a world of gorgeous mocha latte with wonderful hair of all textures (this flat hair white girl wishes she had some 'unruliness' to her) striking eyes somewhere between almond shaped and round. Not only would the result be beautiful, but we would be genetically stronger and no one would have to feel like the 'other.'
    And no religion other than a collective spirituality would be nice as well.

  22. What's with the God references and the frequent comparisons between the writer and Ms. Rudolph? It's cringe-y and gets in the way of understanding and appreciating the breadth of Ms. Rudolph's talents.

  23. @young
    I have no problem with Ms. Rudolph being God.
    One never knows. Hmmm.

  24. @young Same. I originally wrote a comment saying a better editor would have red penciled out the God weirdness and started the article at the next available paragraph. (The phrase "Kill your darlings" comes to mind.) But it was kind of mean so I erased it and wrote something less sharp. I hadn't yet seen your comment.

    In the end I didn't get much new here about Maya Rudolph except she protects her kids in a way I greatly respect. And that people need to stop talking about other people's "different" hair or EVER trying or asking to touch it.

    Also -- just curious -- why the heck didn't her dad take her to a black hair salon? They certainly existed in the 70s in Gainesville, FL.

    I noticed there's no mention of Maya's father, Richard Rudolph, in the article. Was that another off limits topic? According to Wikipedia he's alive and has a second wife who is Japanese. She was a successful jazz singer and now makes jewelry. That's kind of interesting -- too bad I had to look it up after reading a long profile of Rudolph.

  25. Comedy is hard. Not everyone can be funny. If it reads as if the writer is trying really hard to be funny, it means the writing isn’t funny.

  26. I didn't know Maya was born in Gainesville, FL. I was born in Tampa, FL in 1972, and one of the things I recall most about growing up in central Florida in the 70's is that race was never an issue. I had black, white, asian and hispanic friends. Florida was, in the truest sense, an accepting melting pot of a place to grow up.

  27. I have always loved Maya Rudolph. After reading this piece, I still don't know why. But that's okay. I know her better; and that's enough...for now.

  28. What a beautifully written profile of a wonderful performer. I appreciate the author's insight into Ms. Rudolph's experiences and the connection she felt with her subject. It felt intimate and reflective and very personal. Just all-around well done.

  29. Appreciation of Maya Rudolph aside, I loved this piece. The observation and writing are so personal and refreshing; it’s clearly the author’s dream assignment. I can see how comparing her subject to God right out of the gate could be viewed as overly ambitious, but there’s so much love and nuance here... it’s palpable. Thanks!

  30. I love Maya Rudolph. And this bio. As a bi-racial korean/white woman born in 1957 I love her success, confidence and self possession. I do find it odd that it sounds like NEWS that she is bi-racial. We've been around a long time now. We used to get called "mutts" now we get called exotic. I'll take it.

  31. The rather stiff paintings make Maya look Hispanic. Since its a painting, do you mind if we pick the particular ethnic mix ourselves? No? Well, that's no fair.

  32. @James R Dupak - Did you watch the short video about the making of the art? That's her actual face, poking through a cutout in the painting...
    Pretty cool idea actually.

  33. @James R Dupak that's her real face sticking through a hole on a painted body...

  34. Knock me over with a freaking feather. I saw Ms. Rudolph's mother with Rotary Connection at the Dallas Pop Festival, 1969. Minnie Riperton was amazing ... no one had ever heard a voice like hers. So it makes perfect sense that her daughter would be so uniquely creative in her own right.

    Thanks for a great piece on a great talent, NYT.

  35. Thank you for this well-written glimpse into the very talented Maya Rudolph. The writing is poetic and personal. Loved the art, too.

  36. I fully respect and deeply admire Maya as a talent in her own right. I can't tell you how many times I've heard my daughters screaming with laughter downstairs and discovered them watching Maya in one of her recent films.

    So I hope this remarkable talent doesn't feel at all slighted when I say that I have never been able to see her face without feeling continued sadness about her amazing Mom. Losing Minnie Riperton, and her completely unique, angelic voice, left a wound that has never really fully healed.

    Watching Maya, though, one of my generation's true comic geniuses, provides as much healing as any of us could hope for.

  37. What a well-written piece about such a talented person I've admired for so long. Thanks for the read. I needed that.

  38. She is one of my most favourite comedians of current times. She makes comedy look so easy. I wish her all the success because she is top notch! Break a leg Maya!

  39. Ms. Rudolph has always struck me as an entitled, B-list actor living on her more successful SNL buddy's laurels. And ever since she's started shilling household, cleaning products on tv she's lost respect. Her snarkiness even comes through in these advertisements. Not a fan, obviously.

  40. Delightful and insightful profile; this was a treat to read. Her points on growing up "different" are especially true when you realize there was no social media/articles/movies/SNL to watch and learn how you fit in. A smart, funny, direct woman with a voice. Who wouldn't like to be her friend?

  41. @MWG SNL was on from the time Maya Rudolph was 3.

  42. Maya Rudolph has the sexiest mouth in history. This from an elderly, straight woman.

  43. Search out her SNL performance as the young R&B artist singing the national anthem at a sports event. She was incredibly funny, head to toe. The best!!

  44. The biggest compliment I can give, I copied and pasted quotes and sections to my friends. I am only 40. Great writing, great people.

  45. I have heard it said that when a person experiences a trauma at a young age, they get stuck emotionally at the age where it happens. I have a dear friend who lost her mom in her teens, and at 40-something she is in so many ways stuck in adolescence and unable to move forward. I don't sense that from Maya. What happened to her clearly caused her a great deal of trauma and pain, but she has somehow managed to grow emotionally, heal and share her intelligence and immense talents with the world. For this I applaud her.

  46. @vmur What an interesting comment to make about your friend. I know someone close to me in the same way you described but could never articulate it.

  47. As a daughter to hippie parents too, who also didn't allow white flour or white sugar in the house, I can confirm that the closest thing carob has to chocolate is that they are both brown. ( It's terrible stuff) The part where her mom would say "Guh bless you" so as not to say "God" made me laugh, because instead of being anti-religion as Maya's were, my parents were the opposite and were ridiculously religious. To the point that we weren't allowed to say we were playing "badminton" we had to call it "goodminton" Ha hippie parents were weird. Great article. I love me so Maya Rudolph

  48. Maya Rudolph grows on you, like a clematis climbing up the mailbox post. Once she has her tentacles around you, she can’t be removed...and your life is better for it. Great deep dive on her life.

  49. @Frau Greta
    Than's a great description! She's just there . . and you are happy with that.

  50. I can relate to her to ‘hair’ issues. I am of a mixed background, my husband is black, however, our son has ‘straight’ hair - I can’t tell you how often we are asked if our son is adopted, or perhaps Indian, or this or that...it’s super annoying to have to explain: he has my mother’s hair. Eye roll. He keeps trying to get his hair to ‘stand up’ like his older brother, he’s 5. People make him feel different from his parents and family, over hair?

  51. Maya will always be Nuni to me. No, not "Nuni," silly. "Nuni," it's pronounced Nuni.

  52. "Maya Rudolph became someone Americans love to love"?! This is the first time I've ever read of her being such a towering figure! It was an interesting article, but never thought as this essay suggests, she is so highly regarded! Only in The New York Times.

  53. I most recently saw Rudolf doing a turn as Dionne Warwick in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She's wonderfully entertaining. Great profile.

  54. I love Maya Rudolph, think she is hilarious but this article, sorry to say, in its fatuousness, over-analysis and general sycophancy didn't do her justice and was embarrassing to read. Comparing her to God, dwelling on every physical characteristic, grovelling over and analyzing every statement she makes -- come on, she deserves better!!!!!

  55. Well, she did in fact play God this year. Is that a good enough reason?

  56. You write about how talented she is and how good an impressionist she is, but there the article doesn’t have a single audio or video clip showing how good she is. Did I miss something? Why not show her talent, instead of just describing it.

  57. Why write a 50-word comment describing a problem that could be solved with a two-word search?

  58. I don't feel as if I know Maya Rudolph any better after reading this complicated piece. It doesn't matter, though. She's good at her work and I hope she keeps on making interesting shows and movies for as long as she'd like!
    PS I applaud her for keeping her kids under wraps. They're not the famous ones until they can choose to be.

  59. @Jzzy55 This piece doesn't have to seem complicated. It's yet another tale of a funny person sprouting from pain. In her case it was a profound confusion surrounding identity as a child/young adult. She turned her pain into our pleasure the way nearly every funny person does.

    We're on different pages because I thought this piece was brilliant in explaining her path to funny and her uniqueness.

    It also reminds me once again that as much as I love my WAPO having grown up as a DC boy, the NYT has the most talented writers around.

  60. I really admire Maya Rudolph as an artist. She is a very good musician in addition to being a wonderful comic actress. As an African American man, it is very easy to see that she fits most comfortably in white environment. That has never stopped me from enjoying her work. Her life and experiences are not mine, and the notion that everyone that has measurable African ancestry see themselves as a Black, is relic of a white supremacist culture that bent over backwards to keep itself “pure.” Much like Latin America, the United States simply has to make room for a nuanced notion of race because children of color raised by a white parent or parents will never see themselves the way those rooted within African American culture understand themselves.

  61. You do know it was actually her mom who was black. However she (Minnie Riperton) died of cancer and so not sure who raised her daughter (dad, one would assume) and from what age. But, of course no one should expect a child to deny either of their parents. I bet some people just move naturally among different environments (peoples) anyway, despite whatever racial makeup. We do exist.

  62. As a comedy snob, I will say that Maya Rudolf is clearly one of the strongest comedians of her generation. Not only does she have monster talent, she is also very smart about about what kind of funny to be. As a rule she does rely on typical crutches like playing blue or playing mean. Instead, genuine acting tinged with exaggeration and wry satire are her go-to comedy tools. And she has dramatic acting chops to boot. All this means she has staying power, which is great news for everyone because she can continue to amaze and delight us for a long time to come. I love Maya Rudolf!

  63. Ms. Rudolph is a highly intelligent, beautiful person. I always kinda thought her heritage had something to do with her playing so many ethnicities but ascribed it more to her insight and talent. She does Asians and Europeans very well. They work because there is a kernel of truth to the impressions.

    Prince rarely spoke to media back then. Hence, Prince whispering to Maya's Beyonce is what I would have expected. I had only seen Donatella Versace in print ads. Maya's impression is how I imagined her.

    Diana Ross was a howler ("Tina, I'm in jail!"). In a few lesser SNL skits Maya would play the foil as a straight white woman, and I admired the subtlety of that.

    Paul Thomas Anderson's father was Ernie Anderson, a.k.a. late-night horror movie host "Ghoulardi," a Cleveland legend.

    Thus, Minnie Riperton and Ghoulardi have common grandchildren. It's a beautiful world.

  64. @Wordsworth from Wadsworth

    " .. Prince rarely spoke to media back then. Hence, Prince whispering to Maya's Beyonce is what I would have expected .."

    One theory: it's a "guy" thing. Some "guys" rely on their "gals" to communicate to the public. And while Jay-Z is no shrinking violet, after "Lemonade," he knows who is in charge. As in, "speak when spoken to."

    And about Prince -- he did phone interviews in his hometown of Minneapolis, after all the big lawsuits were settled. Sounded like local, a little like out of "Fargo."

  65. For all of these ruminations on Maya's alleged talents as an impersonator, here is a bitter truth pill: her impressions are not good. Her characterizations are basically three-note: the sassy black diva, the monotone dullard or the clueless white person. All using more or less the same voice.

  66. @Ed

    What are you getting out of writing a comment like this?

  67. Expressing his opinion, which is why these comments are for.

  68. So much love for Maya. Didn’t know her mother was Minnie, didn’t know her relationship. Just always loved her. Even more now after reading this. Thank you for enlightening me.
    XoxJ

  69. I've always been a huge admirer of Maya since he early SNL days because of her versatility. Fantastic musical skills, from her mom I suppose, along with impersonations, and an ability to play such a wide variety of characters. Since she left SNL, she's nailed every character she takes on that I have seen. And she can do serious along with comic, sometimes in the same scene. A wonderful performer.

  70. A great portrait. I love Maya. Her Prince cover band, Princess, is the most delectable thing in the world! Her talent astounds me.

  71. After reading this -having no clue about her mom - I gave a listen to the album Perfect Angel: How on god's great green earth (as it once was anyhow) did I miss this? She runs the gamut from the Flying Burrito Brothers to Earth Wind and Fire with some George Benson and lots of Stevie Wonder to boot. As a kid I rolled my eyes at Lovin' You, but it's totally gorgeous and stirring. And on top of that, she participated in giving us Maya Rudolph. My goodness.

  72. @Daniel Lustgarten Perfect Angel is, well, perfect, but the remainder of Minnie's solo catalogue is also wonderful. You may also want to consider giving a listen to the work of Rotary Connection; they were a band made up of several Chicago musicians, produced by a phenomenal producer named Charles Stepney. Minnie was a member of Rotary Connection and appears on many of its albums.

  73. As I saw the painting and read the first paragraph I was already starting to laugh, such is the effect Ms. Rudolph has on me. She turns up in an odd movie about an old man driving a pig to Mexico and I go ‘Is that Maya Rudolph?!’
    She is a fabulous actor. She is the funny Meryl Streep. Long may she act!

  74. While I adore Maya Rudolph (full disclosure: also, a big fan of both of her parents' music), I was mildly annoyed that the writer inserted comments into the article/interview about her own racially-mixed background. It's enough that Maya has, is, and will continue to confront identity issues, without the writer inserting information about her background. It detracted from Maya's story which is what I was more interested in knowing. Perhaps it is the weight of America's historical and contemporary baggage of racism that compelled the writer to share. I would then look forward to an article from her about her own experiences.

  75. She's a talented ensemble performer but a 'master of impressions'......not really.

  76. Because I'm a fan of Maya and have always found her interesting, I stayed with the profile in spite of the over-written opening with all the God weirdness. As the football pundits on TV intone about players who stand out on plays for all the wrong reasons, "Come on, man!"

  77. When I see Maya, I think Minnie, and I melt. I adored her. A two- fer.

  78. Anyone who has witnessed the slow, tortuous death of improvisational comedy on SNL knows full well that Maya Rudolf is a symptom of its demise.
    Occasionally, but rarely funny, Rudolph came to SNL during Lorne Michael's conversion of the show from improv to identity comedy. Like the other cast members, Rudolph mastered herself acting like she was pretending to be someone else, and admiring it.

    It is very hard for the writer of this article to isolate what is actually funny about Maya Rudolph.

    The height of Rudolph's commercial recognition came in "Bridesmaids", where she brought the house down by squatting and defecating in the middle of the street.

  79. @malfeasance Saturday Night Live is a sketch show, not improv. And news flash: it was always hit-or-miss. Baby boomers always have a hard time accepting that the show moved on and improved from its (mostly unfunny) first season.

  80. Yeah, ok. Too bad she's not funny though.

  81. Caity Weaver, that is one heck of an opening paragraph. Brava!

  82. It is a shame that famous people are impatient with the very people that help them live lives of luxury. They want the exclusive trips, the fancy clothes, the lights, the roles and the paychecks, but please, don't look when they're not at work? Anyway, Maya, if I happened to see you, I would not approach you nor loop around a second time to get another look. But I'd feel like I had walked into enchanted territory for that moment. That's the kind of feeling that great performers create in their fans.

  83. Why is it that the only instances I see or hear about Maya is in articles telling me how great she is? Strange.

  84. @Pilot, She's got a good agent with NY connections most likely to this paper?

  85. Thank you NYT for taking us through the amazing process as to how the Pragers composed the brilliant ‘painting’ of Ms Rudolph. Totally discombobulating - but in a good way.

  86. Away We Go is a wonderful film. If you've not seen it, I suggest doing so. To me, it's a wonderful pairing (Rudolph and Krasinski) that showcases both actors' abilities in a very wry, funny, touching movie.

  87. @JL You're a person with exemplary taste.

  88. While I've enjoyed immensely her television work, I find Ms Rudolph's portrayal of Verona In "Away We Go" to be her (so far) signature work. Playing a woman expecting her first child, she and husband (boyfriend? significant other? squeeze? I forget) Burt (an equally excellent John Krasinski) travel across the country trying to figure out where they should raise their family.

    Without giving away the end of the movie, they decide on a place not merely because they love each other....they are in deep like with each other. I'd imagine that that's why she and Paul Thomas Anderson have lasted and will more than likely continue to do so.

    But as for using godlike comparisons with Ms Rudolph - as much as I enjoy her work - not while Mel Brooks is still around.

  89. Liked the interesting intro re: Maya as God...until the author referred to God as a HE...what?? No.

    This was written by a woman. How conditioned we are to male superiority and our learned subordination that she can't even go with the concept of a woman as God even when she had just written a lovely scene about this woman being God!

  90. More Caity Weaver! She's a truly distinctive voice that stands way out from the pages of the NY Times. And her TGI Friday's "endless appetizers" piece on Gawker remains a modern masterpiece.

  91. How could the writer not mention Maya’s stint as a member of The Rentals?

    She’s not just hilarious, she has a beautiful singing voice!

  92. Didn’t see anyone commenting on this, but I though the photography on this piece was incredible! The photos and concept convey a lot, way more than your typical headshot portrait of a styled celebrity

  93. What a strange pick for headline photo - an 'uncanny valley' painting that looks like first semester art school (if that even would get you in).

  94. I've loved Maya's work, both on SNL and in several films. I think her range is under-appreciated - she can be completely over the top with some of the broad comedy done on SNL with impersonations, but there's also a lot of melancholy and sadness that comes through, particularly in her acting roles.

    I also love her mother's music, both with Rotary Connection and on her own. I don't "stan" very many people, and I'd respect her privacy, but I admit I'd be sorely tempted to be one of those people who felt compelled to share the connection I had to her work, and to her mother's work.

  95. I can’t get past Weaver’s writing style to try to understand what is being said about Rudolph. It is too clittered with so many references ot other people she is supposedly acting like. And the whole god start to the article - whaattt?

  96. So much better a public image than her corrupt uncle down in Palm Beach.

  97. Maya Rudolph is god? Wow. I guess back in the day most folks didn't know Jesus was God either. Thanks for the info.

  98. Vague disappointment, yes, if Minnie's daughter can't even wear her own hair, if that's what was reported. But yeah happy to see she's doin' so well (otherwise).

    Pretty sure it was over 65K in '65, my parents were married c. 1952 and I knew plenty of similar families in the 60s in Chicago.

  99. I smiled when I read about the problems with Maya's hair because I had the same problems. I have no African ancestry whatsoever, but I have quintessentially Jewish hair that wanted to stick straight out, Rosanne Rosannadanna-style, when I tried to wear it long. Maya, when I look at your face and hair, I don't see someone who fits in nowhere -- I see a lansman...er, lanswoman.

  100. I love Maya Rudolph's work and was very much looking forward to reading this, but I found the piece so overwritten, especially the top, that I had a hard time reading it. The author's intense admiration of Rudolph and the (I thought) needless insertion of herself into the article just felt annoying. A good piece should let you work out how you feel, not bully you into feeling what the author feels. Don't warn me to hold my heart carefully before reading the next paragraph. Just write it and if it's beautiful writing, I'll feel it in my bones and heart.