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Not Mr. Nice

Entertainment | Paul Shanklin takes the high art of high-level impersonation very seriously

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

LAFAYETTE, La.-The place: a banquet room in a private club in southwestern Louisiana. The time: an evening less than two weeks before Election Day 2008. Two hundred mostly middle-aged Republicans (the event is a fundraiser for the Acadiana Republican Women) sit six to a table before plates from which they've just consumed a decidedly rich fare in an attempt to appease their appetites and to suppress their growing anxiety about the upcoming election's results.

The richest fare of the evening, however, stands behind a lectern on the podium, holding a mic, balding but trim, singing Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" to pre-recorded accompaniment. Except that it's the voice of Al Gore. And the words have been changed to "Our whole world will be a burning ball of fire. / Polar bears drown, drown as the seas grow higher."

The attendees laugh and applaud although they've surely heard the parody before. There's no way they couldn't have, as it's been a staple of The Rush Limbaugh Show for months, one of the more than 1,400 parodies that the man at the lectern, Paul Shanklin, has contributed since 1993 to the most listened-to radio talk show in the world.

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That song (re-titled "Ball of Fire") is one of many highlights on Shanklin's 12th and latest CD, We Hate the USA, copies of which Shanklin, 46, sells and autographs at the end of his one-hour performance. The disc contains 41 "greatest bits" in all, and, like each of Shanklin's albums, skillfully distills a plethora of political absurdity to its comedic essence.

We Hate the USA also contains what has become Shanklin's best-known parody, "Barack the Magic Negro." Based upon "Obama the 'Magic Negro,'" a March 2007 editorial in the Los Angeles Times by columnist David Ehrenstein, the song features Shanklin impersonating the Reverend Al Sharpton questioning Obama's "authenticity" to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon." A side-splitting satiric bull's-eye, the song went over the heads of those unfamiliar with its context-heads that included the talking ones on NBC's Today Show.

"Of course, they wanted to bring me on and tear me up," Shanklin told WORLD. "'When did you start being a racist? Oh, you mean you stopped being a racist? You're from the South? I see.' But a good friend of mine said, 'Just tell them that it's a parody and it speaks for itself.' And I thought, 'Man, what a cool thing! My song speaks for itself!' So we just told them the song spoke for itself and let them go on their merry way."

As popular as his work is, Shanklin admits that its availability for free over the airwaves has cut into his CD sales. But he also knows he has the most enviable platform for parodies since Weird Al Yankovic hit MTV, and he still enjoys recalling how it began.

"I got started at a 'Do Your Moo' booth at the [Memphis] Mid-South Fair," he said. "I said, 'Do you want me to moo like Ross Perot?' And the guy said, 'Uh, yeah, sure. Whatever.' And I said [imitating Perot], 'Look, I'm only gonna do this for the volunteers! I don't do this for anybody else! Here goes!'" But instead of mooing, Shanklin bleated like a sheep. "'I'm sorry, I did the volunteers! Can I start over?' And the guy said, 'Can you talk to our morning guy?'"

A period of local work followed, culminating in Shanklin's submitting tapes of his work to Limbaugh production director Johnny Donovan. After getting no response, Shanklin called Donovan as President Bill Clinton.

"I said, 'Johnny, this is Bill Clinton. I don't know where Rush and I got off on the wrong track, but we're just not as close as we used to be. Can you put us back together?' And he said, 'Who is this?' I said, 'This is Paul Shanklin.' He goes, 'That was great! Can you send me a tape?' And I said, 'Well, I've already sent you three.' That's where it started."

Now, 15 years later, Shanklin happily spends much of his time in his home studio, writing and recording hilariously spot-on impersonations of everyone who's anyone in the world of political controversy.

A deacon in the Church of Christ ("Not the Trinity United Church of Christ or the United Church of Christ!" he's quick to point out), Shanklin admits that staying true to his faith while riding the "cutting edge of societal evolution" can be a challenge. "I try to be as clean as I possibly can," he says, "but I have to be in certain characters. What do you expect from Bill Clinton? Well, if I have to play him, I have to talk like him."

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