Many comedians hone their craft by performing in front of critical audiences. Craig Gass developed his skills with a particularly tough audience: his family.
It’s not that they were hard on him; they just couldn’t hear what he was saying — Gass’ parents and sister are deaf.
“Growing up in that family, I couldn’t learn how to speak from my own family. I learned how to talk by mimicking all the voices I heard on TV,” Gass said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.
Now known for his celebrity impressions, Gass, a one-time Seattle resident, has gone on to perform stand-up, work on “The Howard Stern Show” and act in several popular TV shows. The comedian will perform Saturday at Tacoma’s Pantages Theater.
Originally from Mount Vernon, N.Y., just outside the Bronx, Gass learned to use his entire body to impersonate family members, neighbors and anyone else who would amuse his family. He fully absorbed the characters, he said.
Because he learned to speak from TV voices, Gass said he never developed the distinctive Bronx accent. There, everyone sounds like Tracy Morgan, Gass said, regardless of race or gender. Gass can do a dead-on impression of a Morgan-like voice: “This is your next door neighbor and I’m a Vietnamese girl.”
Gass started performing stand-up when he moved to Seattle in 1993. He also began working with radio personality Bob Rivers, helping him create his Twisted Tunes. In 1995, Gass started contributing to the Stern show and then moved to New York in 1998 to work for Stern full time. Gass’s roommate was the late comedian Mitch Hedberg.
For the last four years, Gass has been based in Los Angeles because of his frequent voiceover work on the animated sitcom “Family Guy.” That gig started when he was asked to impersonate Al Pacino. Soon, “Family Guy” producers started calling every few months.
“‘Hey, can you do this voice and can you do this voice?’ Whatever voice they’d ask me, I would lie to them and say, ‘Oh yeah. That’s one of my favorite voices,’” Gass said. “If they wanted Owen Wilson, I’d watch a couple of Owen Wilson movies over and over again until I got something down.”
“Family Guy” came after several guest acting roles on “Sex and the City” and “The King of Queens.”
After telling a story on the Stern show about a bad romantic breakup, he got a call from HBO: “‘Hey, we think you would play a good insecure guy on ‘Sex and the City.’’ That wasn’t the most flattering thing in the world,” Gass recalled. “I always end up playing something weird on TV.”
Gass’ time in Seattle was short but it was formative. He is a rabid Seahawks fan.
“I’ve been a diehard fan for over 20 years now. It’s sad sometimes,” Gass said. “I’ve actually spent the last 10 years booking my shows around the U.S. based on the Seahawks and Mariners road schedule – which has not paid off very well.”
His love of the Seahawks is part of his act.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been cheered for it in cities like Pittsburgh and Boston and in San Francisco – cities that normally hate the Seahawks,” Gass said. “They usually start booing me, but I manage to turn them around and get them to cheer my love for the team.”
Gass achieves that by tapping into every sports fan’s loss of verbal control when face to face with their sports heroes.
“I have completely embarrassed myself in front of some of my favorite Seahawks,” he said. “There’s something relatable about that in every city I go to. ‘You know what? I’d be the same way if I met my quarterback.’”
Gass picked out the date of Saturday’s show last summer, even though it was only decided last Saturday that the Seahawks would be playing a playoff game in Seattle this weekend. “I had to do a show with a hope and gamble that there would be a game played in Seattle on Jan. 19. Here we are six months later and it looks like the gamble is actually going to pay off.”
Gass’ show his first headlining act in the Puget Sound area in six years, he said. Opening for him is former Seahawks offensive guard John Moffitt. It’s Moffitt’s first attempt at stand-up.
“He’s a really funny dude with some interesting life experiences,” Gass said of Moffitt. “I fell in love with him watching him on the ‘The Real Rob Report,’” an video blog shot by Seahawks player Michael Robinson. One segment had Moffitt explaining his conspiracy theory that quarterback Russell Wilson is a robot. Moffitt rifled through Wilson’s locker to find evidence and prove his theory.
Gass uses many impressions during his show. Occasionally he will run into the celebrities he impersonates and they’ll ask him to perform his take on them. He usually regrets it.
“It’s always negative. At best it’s very uncomfortable,” Gass said.
He recalled a dinner with actor Christopher Walken.
“He hated me. Richard Belzer, another comedian at the table, kept trying to get me to do my Christopher Walken impression for Christopher Walken,” Gass said. “Walken finally cut me off in the middle of one of my impressions and said, ‘Listen. I get it. You’re talented. Who cares?’ and he went back to cutting his steak.”
One celebrity who does love Gass’ impression of him is Kiss frontman Gene Simmons.
“I have said awful things as Gene Simmons,” Gass said. “And Gene not only gets a kick out of hearing an impression of him, he comes to my show and requests that I talk about him on stage. Gene will be in the front row with his arms around some women saying, ‘See that? He’s talking about me. Isn’t that something?’”
Gass’s history extends into the South Sound. His comedy DVD, “The Worst Comedy Show Ever,” was filmed at Dave’s of Milton. Band members from Alice in Chains and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam make cameos on the DVD. Gass once opened for Alice in Chains.
Gass started a friendship with legendary comedian George Carlin in Tacoma at the Temple Theatre.
“I was so intimated and overwhelmed by him. He had a profound effect on me on how to be a decent human being. He was so kind and generous to everybody, but especially comedians,” Gass recalled.
Gass never took Carlin up on his offers of career guidance.
“I just wanted a father figure,” Gass said. “This is crazy to admit, but I saved all the voice mail messages he left me. I was so honored to be friends with the guy.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma