The comedian on impersonating celebrities, not watching TV and her new show, ‘Maya and Marty’
The comedian Maya Rudolph is dressed as a suburban housewife bidding a heartfelt farewell to her husband, an astronaut played by Tom Hanks, who is about to soar off on a five-year trip into space. Or so she thinks. Minutes later, she finds him pulled over on the side of the road watching the TV drama “Chicago Fire” on his phone. Soon afterward, she runs into him again in a parking lot eating chicken fries with a pal—and two years later realizes that instead of being in space, her husband has been living 15 minutes away at his friend’s house, where he has been Skyping with her from a shuttle made of cardboard.
It’s a sketch from her new variety show with Martin Short, “Maya and Marty,” which made its debut last week on NBC. Ms. Rudolph is especially known for her impersonations, from Paris Hilton to Beyoncé, but she doesn’t consider herself a true mimic. “I’m not an impressionist,” she says. “I’m inspired by haircuts or expressions”—and sometimes by news events such as space launches and political campaigns.
Ms. Rudolph, 43, got plenty of practice doing impressions on “Saturday Night Live,” where she was a cast member from 2000 to 2007. She has also had roles in big ensemble films, such as Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups” (2010) and the hit comedy “Bridesmaids” (2011), in which she played the bride.
“Maya and Marty,” a collaboration with the producer Lorne Michaels, grew out of her successful 2014 NBC special “The Maya Rudolph Show,” which drew 7.2 million viewers. Every week, the new show will feature a lineup of skits and celebrity guests. The first episode included Miley Cyrus, Larry David and Mr. Hanks and brought in 6.4 million viewers.
The show is taped before a studio audience five days before airing. She had missed performing in front of people and says that she and Mr. Short just clicked. They had met only once before, on a “Saturday Night Live” special, but had a lot in common. “We both come from very similar roots,” she says. “Both of us did sketch comedy and improv and speak the same language.”
Ms. Rudolph grew up in Los Angeles with musician parents. Her mother, Minnie Riperton, was a successful soul singer and songwriter. Her father, Richard Rudolph, was a music producer and songwriter, too. Ms. Rudolph knew at a young age that she wanted to go into entertainment. “It probably helps when you see your mother on stage with a microphone, and you think that’s a normal thing,” she says.
he went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, then worked in Los Angeles as a member of the famed improvisation troupe the Groundlings. She left “Saturday Night Live” in 2007, when her first child was born, because of the late-night schedule, but she has continued to make appearances on the show. A few weeks ago, she portrayed former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, holding a cigar and an umbrella drink and celebrating her “retirement.” Ms. Rudolph had volunteered to play the Brazilian leader, she says, because she liked her animated facial expressions.
The character she has found hardest to play is Oprah Winfrey. “I didn’t know how to impersonate her,” she says. Before her first Oprah sketch, fellow comedian Darrell Hammond helped her look at specific mannerisms. She ended up riffing on the way that Ms. Winfrey makes her audience members cheer and scream and “lose their minds.”
She was anxious about impersonating Barack Obama in 2007, then in his first presidential campaign, when he made a cameo on “Saturday Night Live.” (In the skit, he shows up at a Halloween party at Bill and Hillary Clinton’s house.) She was relieved when her part was nixed, she says, “but unfortunately he saw me dressed as him before it got cut.” She asked Mr. Obama what he thought of her outfit. He replied, “I don’t wear a three-button suit,” she says.
Ms. Rudolph sings, too. For the past five years, she and a friend, Gretchen Lieberum, have done occasional gigs with their Prince tribute band, Princess. “We never thought we’d ever be doing it when Prince wasn’t on this planet with us, so we’re figuring out what we want it to be next,” she says.
When she isn’t working, Ms. Rudolph spends time at home in Los Angeles with her husband, the director Paul Thomas Anderson, known for films such as “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “There Will Be Blood” (2007), and their four children, ages 2 to 10. She finds little time to watch TV. “I feel like I’m committing a deadly sin when I’m laying down and watching a television program now that I have kids,” she says.
Does she have a comedic formula to win over audiences? Ms. Rudolph says that what works with other people is usually what she herself finds funny. A skit makes her laugh when “it’s as close to reality as possible, but also when things are completely ridiculous,” whether it’s bathroom humor in “Bridesmaids” or a “Maya and Marty” skit last week in which Melania Trump was depicted eating diamonds. “My stuff is all over the place,” she adds. “I personally don’t have any rules.”