I met Steve while we were attending BIOLA University in the 1980's. Steve had students on the floor with his hysterical impressions of famous celebrities. He had us in stitches with the voices of Scooby Doo, Ronald Reagan, Jack Nicholson. You named the voice. He would nail it. We both got bit hard by the stand-up comedy bug.
We quit our jobs as youth pastors and started doing gigs. Lots of them. I did magic and comedy. Steve became a full time comic-impressionist. A small group of us launched "Clean Comedians" in the 1990's. Steve quickly became our poster boy for proving that comedy doesn't have to be filthy to be funny.
All along, there was something about him that was far more amazing than his many impressions. It was the impression he left on your heart when you got to know him.
Before gaining international attention with his side-splitting impersonation of George W. Bush, Steve gave hundreds of performances "paying his dues" in front of every type of audience. He'd go from The Comedy Store at night to morning performances for organizations you would never associate with hiring a comedian: Crisis pregnancy centers, corporate safety meetings, non-profit luncheons, YMCA fundraisers. We used to joke about how he could perform in Las Vegas one night and then do his same show at a PTA program the next night. Steve even had a "Say No to Drugs!" message for high school students. He got students to bust up and he helped some of them wake up. He told kids, "Don't drink...think."
And think he did. Steve earned his bachelors degree at BIOLA, then went and got an additional Masters degree at Talbot Theological seminary. You read that right. One of the funniest performers of our time went to...Seminary. On road trips, we would talk for hours about gags and about God. He could go from doing a masterful impression of Ross Perot one minute, to discussing the book of Ecclesiastes with you the next. I still have one of his books I forgot to return to him. It's called How to be Ridiculously Well Read in One Evening. Like most great comedians, Steve spent a lot of time alone thinking hard. But he would come alive with genuine bliss onstage. Steve discovered that comedy and tragedy are two sides of this coin called life.
I wondered when Steve would get his big break. He met a brilliant artist manager named Randy Nolen. Randy put Steve into movie star quality make-up. It took several hours to get it just right, but then right in front of your eyes he becameGeorge W. Bush. Steve didn't naturally look like Bush or Clinton, or Schwarzenegger, or Obama. But he mastered their voices and movements.
He could get bigger laughs doing a George Bush shoulder tic than most comedians could get doing 10 jokes. One of the many highlights of his career came in 2006. Steve hosted a side-by-side press conference with the real President Bush. George W. Bush spoke. Then Steve as the "alter ego" Bush would really speak his mind. Everybody roared. It didn't matter what your politics were, when Steve was doing impressions, you laughed. Even when he was sarcastic, his spirit was more about humoring than harming U.S. leaders. In fact, Barbara Bush (GW's own mother) was a big Steve Bridges fan. Sharp political humor? Yes. But Steve was more like a Will Rogers than a Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher.
His untimely death at age 48 leaves me feeling a way Steve never seemed to be. Speechless. I feel both grateful and devastated at the same time. The last time we worked together was a few months back. We were roasting our mutual friend and mentor, Pastor Gary Richmond. All the speakers took their shots at Gary. Then Steve came in with guns and voices blazing. He brought the voices of Bush, Obama, Billy Graham, Vin Scully, and dozens of others to roast our friend. The audience was doubled over howling. And Pastor Gary felt, just like everybody who got to enjoy Steve in action--the principal of Vejar Elementary school, the director at Forest Home Camp, or the staff of the Tonight Show--that there was a streak of kindness behind underneath the humor. He made comedy feel good for a change.
As I write this after learning of Steve's death, tears are streaming down my cheeks. But I need to get ready to go onstage myself in St. Louis tonight. It's another one of those unique gigs. I'll be in front of about 400 family farm owners. So I think to myself, "How would Steve prepare for this one?" And I remember. He would find out as much about these farmers as possible. He would get to know them and personalize his comedy just for them. He would make them feel great about their group...and about being alive.
Steve's final impression is not anybody else's voice. It's his own. A voice of love and laughter in the world.