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Transcript

Originally aired 02.17.2012

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/458

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Bill Langworthy makes reality TV shows. He was one of the producers of The Hills. And he says that he's always been surprised, even after doing this for years, at how people end up doing things on television they would never do in real life, throwing themselves into the part so completely they even confuse themselves.

Bill Langworthy

I mean, we literally shot scenes before a husband and wife, and midway through the scene, the wife turns to me and says, "Hold on a second, is this for the show, or are we really fighting right now?" And I couldn't answer her.

Ira Glass

So Bill never totally got why so many people would let themselves do so many embarrassing things on camera that they would never do normally.

Bill Langworthy

And I would always say, gosh, if I were on one of these shows, if I was in this situation, I would just handle myself so differently.

Ira Glass

And after years of being in jobs like this and thinking all that, he went to a Dodgers game.

Bill Langworthy

And I was there with my ex-girlfriend's best friend. And all you need to know-- it's my ex-girlfriend's best friend. This is a girl that I cannot kiss under any circumstances. There are just so many rules against that. And this guy comes around whose job it is to find people to go on the Kiss Cam, which is when they put the camera on you.

Ira Glass

Oh, and it shows up on, like, the jumbotron for the stadium to see.

Bill Langworthy

Yeah, exactly. And so we were also there with two of our friends who were married. And so they signed up, that, yeah, we're going to come back later in the game with a camera on you guys. So you guys will kiss and everyone will see it on the jumbotron.

Ira Glass

And they'll cheer.

Bill Langworthy

Yeah, and sort of realized now that that guy and I have exactly the same profession, which is we try and find strangers to do embarrassing things on camera. But at the time, none of that's registering with me. And so several innings later and several beer runs later, we've managed to switch seats.

And of course, that's how they do it, is by what seat you're in. You know, 50,000 people, you don't just say, it's the tall guy with brown hair. So the Kiss Cam comes around, and instead of being pointed at the married couple, it's pointing at me and my ex-girlfriend's best friend.

Ira Glass

Because now you're in those seats.

Bill Langworthy

Exactly. And so I have a producer who's looking at me. I expect something of you. The stadium is literally screaming at us. Five seconds earlier, I would have promised you, under no circumstances would I ever kiss this woman. And I leaned over and kissed her on the lips.

Ira Glass

He knew he didn't have to kiss her. There'd be no penalty. There was no contract. No money had changed hands.

Bill Langworthy

That didn't even cross my mind. Not doing it was not an option. You couldn't have paid me $1 million to do it, but I was on camera, I had to do it.

Ira Glass

Yeah, but that makes no sense. You of all people know that you don't have to do it.

Bill Langworthy

I certainly would have told you that right ahead of time. But yeah, I just got this feeling that I was letting everybody down, I was letting the producer down, that I was letting the audience down.

50,000 people were looking at the jumbotron. They wanted one thing and one thing only. I realize I guess I'm just not that much different than the people that I put on TV.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, people who are driven to act very differently than who they really are, flipping their personalities, completely doing the exact opposite of what they normally do. You only go that far if there are very powerful reasons to do it.

In Act One, it is somebody doing this for money. In Act Two, it's somebody doing it for love. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. The Audacity of Louis Ortiz.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Audacity of Louis Ortiz. Usually when you play a part, the expectations are pretty clear. There are lines. There's a script. There's a storyline you follow.

So when you're on the Kiss Cam, you kiss. When you're Hamlet, you stress out. You know what you're on stage to do. Our first story today is about a man who found himself in a part with huge expectations and no script whatsoever. He had to make it up as he went along.

It comes to us from filmmaker, Ryan Murdock. A warning to listeners that this is a story that's partly about race, and a racial slur gets used.

Ryan Murdock

2008 was a hard year for Louis Ortiz. He was living in the Bronx, but he lost his job as a phone technician for Verizon over a year earlier. So he was collecting workers' comp and playing in pool tournaments for extra spending money. But then things started to change.

Louis Ortiz

I think it was, like, August '08, people were like, oh, dude, you made the front page. I'm like, what? I don't know what the hell people are talking about. So I look at the page, Daily News I believe it was, and there's this dude with big ears, just smiling. He's running against Hillary, or whatever.

And I'm like, all right, I don't really get it. I think it's the big ear thing. Three weeks went by of those jokes.

Ryan Murdock

Louis is a Puerto Rican guy in his late 30s. He describes himself as an occasional voter. And he hadn't really been following the election.

Then, at some point, Louis went to his usual bar, The Williamsbridge Tavern, to shoot some pool. Pat [? Tebelis ?] was tending bar that day. Louis sat down and asked for a Corona.

Pat

I just mentioned it to him. I said, did anybody ever tell you you look like this guy that's running for the president?

Louis Ortiz

And I said, "Yeah. Who, this dude, Obama?" And he goes, "Yeah. You really look like him."

Pat

And he says, "Yeah. yeah, yeah." He sort of blew it off.

Louis Ortiz

I'm like, "I don't see it, dude."

Pat

And I said, "No, no, really. You really do." And he says, "Nah, I don't know." I said, "I'm telling you. You go home and you shave off that goatee and mustache."

Louis Ortiz

I'm like, uh-uh. I ain't taking this off.

Ryan Murdock

Ever since he's been in the Army, Louis had had facial hair. For more than a decade, it had been the same-- full mustache, full goatee. He never would have dreamt of taking it off. But then Pat brought up something no one else had.

Pat

I told him, I said, "You could make money. If this guy does become the president, it's a tremendous opportunity for you to make money, if you want to go in that direction. You know, first black man to be the president of the United States." I said, "This is powerful."

Louis Ortiz

And I'm thinking, hey, cha-ching. I need money right now. I'm unemployed for a whole year, so I start listening to the dude, listening to the dude.

Pat

I said, "Look, I'll tell you what. You go home. If you're willing to shave your mustache and your goatee, put on a white shirt, put on a tie, look in the mirror. If you don't think you look like this guy," I said, "then just grow your mustache and your goatee back. Take the shot, go see."

Ryan Murdock

So Louis walked a few blocks back to his one-bedroom apartment, found the clippers, found the razor, and got busy.

Louis Ortiz

Once I took it all off, I looked at myself, put the aftershave on, looked at myself in the mirror, and I was like, holy [BLEEP]. It was just, wow, wow, wow. I can't believe this. I can't believe this. Holy [BLEEP]. What the [BLEEP], everything.

All the holy whatevers, everything was there, everything, all at once. And it was a good feeling, because being broke, unemployed for a whole year-- hypothetically, I saw dollar signs all in the mirror, all around my face, all around everywhere.

I put on a suit. I didn't even have a suit. I put a suit top. I had a jacket, some bull [BLEEP] shirt, a rinky-dink tie. And I went right back out with the shorts that I had left the bar with.

So I leave the house with a suit top and shorts and sandals on the bottom, walk back into the bar, and say, "Hey, guys, what do you think?" And everybody's jaw dropped, like, everybody screaming, like, yo, dude, are you serious? You look just like this dude.

Pat

I said to Louis, I said, "I'm going to tell you something right now." I said, "There's like, maybe three people in the country that look like him, and he's one of them, in this whole country." You really, really got to look at it long and hard to figure out who is who. It's just striking. If you just, like, gave it a quick glance, dead ringer, like twin brother.

Ryan Murdock

Twin brother is actually a good way of explaining just how much Louis Ortiz really does look like Barack Obama. I've been filming Louis for months, working on a movie about him. And I've looked at his face for hours on end. I've studied the details.

From certain angles, the resemblance is hard to believe. His right side, slightly from above at 45 degrees, perfect. His left side, slightly from below, is just as good. From those directions, you'd have to take your time to tell him and Obama apart. Also from behind, you know, the ears.

There's even details that seem impossible. The hairlines are the same. Louis, just like Obama, has a mole next to his nose. On Louis, it's just on the opposite side. If he smiles, Louis gets that crinkly-eyed thing that Obama gets. And when he gets serious, he does that chin-up, squinty thing too.

But it's not perfect. The resemblance is at the level of maybe a double take. I've seen people wonder aloud, "Is that him?" And reach for their cameras before they realize it's not. Up close, in person, one second, he's Obama. The next, he's obviously Louis. Then he's Obama. Then he's Louis. It's weird. But back to 2008, back to the Bronx, back to the bar, back to Pat.

Louis Ortiz

And he said, "I'm telling you, Lou, you got something here?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I could see, but what do I got and how do I-- you know, I'm not an actor. How do I do this? Whose door am I knocking on?"

And he just told me, first things first, you need head shots. So I was like, "What's a head shot?"

Ryan Murdock

Pat [? Tebelis ?], the bartender, had what he described to Louis as a little experience in the business, meaning show business. He'd been an extra, done some modeling, a commercial or two. Pat immediately set about mapping a plan for Louis, a plan that, to Louis, sounded far-fetched.

Keep in mind, this was a rough time in Louis's life. Again, he'd been fired from a job he'd had for more than a decade. He was in the middle of a lawsuit, trying to get his job back. His daughter had just returned home after a nasty custody battle with the parents of his late wife, Louis's late wife, who died of diabetes several years before.

So there he is, sitting across the bar from this guy he barely knows, who's basically telling him he'd hit the jackpot, that his life could be totally different if he just put in a little money up front.

Louis Ortiz

He was telling me numbers, like $200 for head shots, $200 for a suit. And you've got to go here and there. And I have my regular, normal, everyday life problems, and I was very reluctant to take the few bucks that I had to go and throw a Hail Mary up. At least I thought it was a Hail Mary.

Ryan Murdock

Louis had his doubts, but he scraped together money for a photo shoot and borrowed money to buy a suit, a new one, and one with pants. He got a list of agents, enlisted some friends. And from the back of the bar, they stuffed envelope after envelope with resumes and head shots.

At home, Louis was experimenting with what he started calling the look, practicing in the mirror, then more trips to the bar. It wasn't until sometime in late September that he decided to take it public in a big way, to take it for a real test run.

Louis Ortiz

Yeah, I had gotten an invite to a Yankee game. And they were like, "We got an extra bleacher seat." I'm like, "All right, great."

Ryan Murdock

This was a historic day for the Bronx. It was the last game to be played in the old Yankee stadium, and the park was sold out, filled to capacity.

Louis Ortiz

I went into the stadium and went into the bleachers with the suit on. I told the guys I was with-- a bunch of retired cops, couple of telephone guys-- I'm like, "Yo, dude, this is a real crazy look. You guys are really going to protect me, right?"

And they're like, "Oh, we got you, we got you." I'm like, "OK." Once we get up there, we're all fun and games. They start playing around, like, "Hey, watch it, we got Obama coming through. We got Obama coming through."

And then, once people from further away started noticing the commotion that was happening, more people started looking. The more people that start looking, the more people that start looking. So everybody's looking, from close to far to-- you know, before you know it-- [SNAPS FINGERS] jumbotron. Everyone said, "Hey, you're on the jumbotron."

And I'm like, "Are you serious?" So I'm like, "Let me go with it." I started waving at people, and people started going nuts. And this is September, a month and a half, or whatever, before election time. Obama had a lot of hype. And it was just exciting.

Ryan Murdock

Is the game actually happening at this point. Is there baseball happening?

Louis Ortiz

Baseball is happening, but a lot of fans are lining up to come take pictures with me. People were lining up. Can I get a picture? People were bringing me their babies to kiss their babies and take pictures with their babies.

I mean, it was just crazy. It was like, oh my god. You feel like a star. In some weird way, you feel like the president.

I'm like, damn, how must he feel if I'm feeling like this? And I'm not even the real dude. Imagine how he feels whenever he goes and people are just going crazy over him.

Ryan Murdock

On Election Night, Louis, who three months earlier hadn't even heard of Obama, was in the Bronx watching the votes come in like a man with a lottery ticket, watching the winning numbers on TV. At some point, the race hadn't been called, but he put on his suit and headed out of the Bronx.

Louis Ortiz

We start driving towards Manhattan to hook up with some friends, me and this kid, Benny. And we're like, yo, I want to be downtown when this whole thing goes down. My mother's like, "[UNINTELLIGIBLE] please be safe, please be safe."

So I start heading down, and all of a sudden, I pull up at a gas station, and I hear gunshots. Bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla. And I'm like, oh my god, let's get back in the car.

And then I hear people screaming. Ah! And I'm like, nobody got shot. People are celebrating. So I turn on the radio, and I just hear people screaming, gunshots, people screaming out the window everywhere. I was in the South Bronx, mind you. So that's when I knew he won. And I'm like, I'm in. I am so in.

I didn't know where I was going to end up. I didn't know if I was going to make a ton of money or a little bit of money, but everybody's celebrating Obama. It's like, everybody's celebrating Obama. So everywhere I walked in with a suit, it was my party. It was my party everywhere I went. And it's a pretty crazy feeling.

This could really just turn somebody's life upside down. It turned my life right side up. My life was already upside down.

[CHEERS]

Ryan Murdock

This is sound from Washington Square Park, Louis's last stop on Election Night. He got there around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and the crowd was still celebrating. Ever since his big day at the Yankees game, Louis had adopted a sort of homespun guerrilla marketing strategy.

Mostly, it consisted of, put on a suit, find a place with a lot of people, and just show up. These appearances were for free. Louis got nothing, but he was hoping eventually they'd turn into money.

In just a few minutes of tape from Election Night, one after another, people stop Louis. They giggle and point. They use words like "awesome" and "amazing." And they're left with this weird contact high, like they almost met Obama. And they want a picture so they can fool their friends.

One astonished lady asked him, "What's your name, Obama?" At one point, the crowd mobbed Louis and actually picked him up, carrying him through the air, chanting, Barack Obama, Barack Obama.

[CHEERS]

Barack Obama was now President Obama, and Louis started getting serious. He signed on with an agent, then two. And to get gigs, one of his agents asked Louis to make a pitch tape, something to send out to people who might hire him.

Louis Ortiz

My name is Louis Ortiz. I am a 38-year-old Puerto Rican American who landed the look of a lifetime.

Ryan Murdock

For the tape, Louis wrote the script himself, and filmed it in a stairwell. It's cheap and lo-fi. Louis has his suit on, and he's trying hard, but it's awkward. He's not sure what he's supposed to be doing. At one moment, he turns from side to side in the empty stairwell, waving at imaginary crowds. And then he makes his best attempt at an Obama impression.

Louis Ortiz

Thank you. At this defining moment, change has come to America. With that said, change has also come to my life in a monumental way.

Ryan Murdock

And this brings us to Louis's biggest problem. He can't seem to manage a convincing Obama oppression for more than a "thank you" or two. Louis looks more like Obama than any impersonator I've ever seen, but there's a key difference between a look-alike and an impersonator. And that difference is huge in terms of money, the potential money Louis could make doing this.

I mean, maybe you've seen Reggie Brown or Fred Armisen, guys who do President Obama on late-night TV a lot. They look way less like Obama than Louis, but the impression carries it. But Louis's agent sent out his pitch tape anyway. And pretty soon, he got a call. He landed an audition for HBO for Flight of the Conchords.

Louis Ortiz

Yeah, Flight of the Conchords. I'm like, what the hell is that? I never of Flight of the Conchords.

Ryan Murdock

Flight of the Conchords was a hipster comedy about a band from New Zealand, not really something Louis would watch. But soon, he was in his suit, waiting for the producers to call him in.

Louis Ortiz

I'm sitting there at the audition place. They were like, "Oh, yeah, just wait right here." I'm sitting there, and I see this other dude walk in in a suit. He was a light-skinned black dude. And matter of fact, when that dude walked in, I'm like, please don't let some other dude walk in here looking more like Obama than I do.

I looked at him, he looked at me, and he walked right out. He walked right out.

Man

Please put your hands together, the 44th president of the United States.

Ryan Murdock

The Flight of the Conchords role was actually perfect for Louis, because they weren't looking for someone to play Obama. They were looking for someone to play an Obama impersonator. In the show-- season two, episode seven, if you're curious-- Louis doesn't appear until the final scene. Here, the joke is that the prime minister of New Zealand thinks he's meeting Obama, but everyone else knows it's not really the president. It's Louis, who in a way is sort of playing himself.

Louis Ortiz

Oh yeah, I met him back at the agency. I also do Usher and sometimes Will Smith.

Man

The agency? What's he talking about, mate?

Man

Uh, CIA.

Louis Ortiz

I mean, your first job to be HBO? At that point, I said, wow. I mean, I felt accomplished right there. I felt like I did something, like I really finally did something.

I want to put my daughter to college, and I want to pay all the bills at home, want to get my girl out of debt. I want to buy a house for my mom, all that. Yeah, you think about all that. You think about all of it, and living life, not just surviving, like I have been so many years.

Ryan Murdock

So it felt within reach.

Louis Ortiz

I thought that this could lead to something really big or something, but not the way it actually did.

Ryan Murdock

Day by day, Louis started picking up more work doing Obama. Gradually, it started to feel less like a string of uncertain events, and more like one thing was leading to another. Louis even started calling himself the [? Puertoack ?] Barack. Before he knew it, he was booking high-profile jobs overseas.

There was a big-budget movie in Japan, a comedy where Louis, as Obama, negotiates a fictional peace treaty.

Woman

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Ryan Murdock

There was Australia, where Louis was cast as the lead singer of a band, a super-group of Nobel Peace Prize impersonators called the Nobel Funk Off-- Louis as Obama, and various other impersonators as band mates, including Go-Go Gandhi, Nelson the Mandela, Martin Luther the King.

This group performed, at one point, for the real actual Dalai Lama. You heard that correctly-- Louis met the Dalai Lama. But Louis's first taste of international work was in Korea, where a company flew him all the way to Seoul to shoot a commercial for a cable service called SkyLife.

Woman

[SPEAKING KOREAN]

Louis Ortiz

Do you know HD has [INAUDIBLE]?

Ryan Murdock

The commercial was set to look just like the Inauguration-- podium, teleprompters, Louis in a dark winter coat, and a bunch of non-Asians who'd been rounded up to sit in rows behind him.

Louis Ortiz

Change, right now.

[CHEERS]

Louis Ortiz

[UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Chorus

SkyLife.

Man

[SPEAKING KOREAN]

Ryan Murdock

And that was how, in a 19-hour plane ride, Louis went from being someone with a bunch of problems he needed help with, to being someone who had people catering to his every need. For example, Louis has MS. Most of the time it doesn't bother him, but he gets tired easy.

In Korea, with the jet lag, the busy schedule, he was drained and exhausted and didn't know what to do about it.

Louis Ortiz

I actually found out that it was on them, that it was OK for me to go get one of those massages from the hotel, the yatsu-- what do you call them?-- massages that the start smacking up your back. Taka, taka, taka, taka, taka. What is that?

Ryan Murdock

Shiatsu?

Louis Ortiz

Shiatsu, there you go, one of them massages. Man, once I found that out, I was down there. I hit it at least twice.

But I tell you what, I was so in peace out there. Things were so clean out there. People were so humble. Hospitality was incredible.

To be treated the way I was treated out there, to not see arguments in the street, to not see garbage and stuff like that, coming from the Bronx where I'm from, it just sucked coming back. Coming back was like, am I really going back to the US?

After Korea, I wanted to move to South Korea. After Japan, I wanted to be in Japan for the rest of my life. After Australia-- that's the latest one-- I want to move to Australia. It's like I feel like that every time I leave the States.

Ryan Murdock

The big jobs did come with big paychecks. The Japanese maybe paid the most, $10,000. By the time all of this was in full swing, Louis was making enough to pay off some bills and debts, and do little things like take his girlfriend out to dinner. But the money also went quick.

Louis started investing in his new career. He enrolled in acting class, bought another suit, and got his teeth whitened. He even started flirting with the idea of having surgery to close a small gap between his two front teeth, one of the little giveaways that sometimes ruins the Obama look.

But even the big ticket jobs weren't really enough to get Louis out of the financial hole he was in, and they tended to be few and far between. Early on, Pat [? Tebelis, ?] the bartender, had advised Louis, in order to launch this whole new career, this Obama business, that Louis should take any job. There was no telling what could lead to his big break.

And it was advice Louis took to heart. Most of the jobs were the small ones-- emceeing awards ceremonies, political picnics, union rallies, cameos on television. But there were also things that were even stranger, further off the expected path.

Louis Ortiz

I said, OK, rappers pay me some money. I'm going to be in the video. I'm going to play the president.

Ryan Murdock

Here's the full premise of the music video Louis was hired to be in. President Obama's helicopter gets shot down, and he's captured and tortured by Arab terrorists. Then the rappers, Waka Flocka Flame and French Montana, show up in full camo, guns blazing, and rescue him.

[MUSIC - "CHOPPA CHOPPA DOWN" BY FRENCH MONTANA FT. WAKA FLOCKA FLAME]

Because Louis looks so much like the president, the footage from this shoot is very weird to watch. Take after take, Louis is tied up in a chair. There's fake blood all over his shirt. One guy in Arab clothing is pressing a knife to his throat. Another guy is holding a taser and a blowtorch a few inches from his arm.

The whole time this is going on, the director is yelling at Louis. But he's not calling him Louis. He's calling him Barack.

Man

And rolling camera.

Ryan Murdock

Just look at me, Barack. Get mad, Barack.

Man

And struggle, struggle, guys, struggle, struggle, struggle. Look towards me, Barack.

[SCREAMING]

Man

Damn, he looked like Barack, right there. Let me get that--

Ben Calhoun

Is there a type of job that you would turn down because you just wouldn't want to lend the president's image to something?

Ryan Murdock

That's my producer, Ben Calhoun, asking that question.

Louis Ortiz

A job that I would turn down?

Ryan Murdock

Louis stumbled around for over a minute, a minute and 22 seconds, actually--

Louis Ortiz

I would definitely turn down a few jobs.

Ryan Murdock

--before finally telling us the one job that crossed the line for him.

Louis Ortiz

I've had offers to do pornos, like Barack Oboner, Nailin' Palin. I can't see myself doing all that craziness.

Ryan Murdock

The jobs Louis felt most conflicted about, though, are not the strange things he was asked to do on camera. It's the live appearances. And he did a lot of them. Actually, a lot of the small jobs were ones in which Louis was paid just a little money to show up in person in a suit for a couple hours, kind of like having a living cardboard cut-out of the president to take pictures with.

Louis Ortiz

These were some of the fireman. These were two of the friendly ones.

Ryan Murdock

So those guys were nice to you.

Louis Ortiz

Yeah. A couple of guys were nice, but it was just so many that weren't.

Ryan Murdock

Louis showed me pictures from one of these jobs. The number of a bar named Rathbones had hired him to show up and take some pictures on Saint Patrick's Day. The bar was a big hangout for New York firefighters, and there were lots of them there that day. Louis says he figured they'd done a parade, because many were wearing FDNY shirts.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Firefighter 1

There he is.

Firefighter 2

Move out of the way.

Ryan Murdock

There's video of all this. According to Louis, the crowd was a few beers into their day, and they were pretty much hostile from the start. In the video, as Louis walks in, you can hear guys say something about black Irish. Louis looks uncomfortable, nervous.

He stands with his back against the wall and attempts a presidential wave and smile. Somebody yells, beat it. And then the crowd starts to boo.

[CROWD BOOING]

Here, the video suddenly cuts out. Louis says what followed was an hour of people throwing things at him, shoving him, and shouting.

Louis Ortiz

You're the worst [BLEEP] president. You [BLEEP] suck. [BLEEP] nigger.

Ryan Murdock

Wow.

Louis Ortiz

Yeah, all kinds of horrible things. It was bad.

Ryan Murdock

At one point, Louis was behind the bar serving beers, where things seemed a little safer, with some distance between him and the crowd.

Louis Ortiz

I had somebody-- they got on the bar, and they saw me when I started approaching the bar. And he tried to actually grab my head, like, trying to do some motion like that.

Ryan Murdock

By motion like that, Louis means that the guy tried to shove Louis's face into his crotch.

Louis Ortiz

And I just backed up. And I held myself so much from just knocking that dude out. I didn't want to let the Bronx come out of me and just punch somebody in the face, because I'm doing this thing, like I'm the president. So I have to compose myself.

Nobody's going scream the N-word to Obama. Nobody's going to have the balls to do that, but they will have the balls-- oh, look at that dude. He looks like Obama. He looks like that N-word.

Like, wait a second. I've gotta hear this [BLEEP] for him. I've lived in New York City all my life. I know how crazy people in New York are. I've never had to experience the racism like I face it now. It oozes out of people skins now when they see my face.

Ryan Murdock

At first, Louis had friends from the phone company dress up like Secret Service, with earpieces and sunglasses, just for dramatic effect. But after a few bad episodes, Louis got genuinely scared for his safety. Before going out, he would tell his friends to stick close and be ready to actually protect him.

Ryan Murdock

Who's the most belligerent person you've encountered with the whole Obama thing?

Louis Ortiz

The most. Weren't too many words said, but I remember somebody looking at me, walking out drunk out of a bar. And I'm walking in, and he looks at me and he goes, "Oh, man, you're so lucky I'm drunk." And he just started pointing, like if he had a gun in his hand. He's pointing at me like, "You suck."

I didn't get called the N-word. I didn't get cursed out. But just the fact that he was drunk, pointing his hand at me like if he had a gun, that was just unnerving. That really bothered me.

Ryan Murdock

But even with the hecklers, even when these jobs went badly, even when the jobs were hard to come by, the look was an escape for Louis, this weird superpower that he could use any time he wanted. I've watched Louis in front of a crowd of third graders, in a school near his apartment in the Bronx, where they asked him to give a speech.

Louis was nervous, but when the kids saw him, they saw the leader of the free world, this historic figure. One girl couldn't stop crying. He originally began impersonating Obama for money, to make a few bucks, and it turned out to be so much more than that.

Louis Ortiz

How do I explain this? When I first discovered this look, if I was home, down and out, and I felt down about anything, I'd throw on the suit, shave up, look at myself in the mirror, and I'd go somewhere, hit downtown Manhattan. And now my attitude went from down here to up here.

And now it's up because people look at you. When they see me in the suit, they look at you and they're like, "Oh, wow, dude, do you know who you look like?" And I feel like a million bucks, like I have no problems in the world. I never want that moment to end.

And when it's all over and I have to go home and take off the suit, that's when it's like, ugh, back to my problems.

Ryan Murdock

Unfortunately for Louis, his problems got worse. Louis' new career was tethered to Obama's, and as the president's first term wore on and his approval rating slid, the look-alike jobs slowly disappeared. Eventually, Louis decided to put the Obama stuff on ice, go down to Florida and be with his daughter.

The plan was, he'd go there and wait for his job situation with the phone company, with Verizon, to sort itself out. He said he was looking forward to being Louis the phone guy again.

I went to see him. My first day there, we went fishing in the fenced-in man-made pond outside his parents' apartment complex. And he explained to me his deal with Verizon. Louis had been fired in late 2007. According to him, a string of events led to a heated argument with his boss. Louis stormed out, closed the door pretty hard, kind of slammed it, and the window broke. Louis was fired.

He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. And in late 2010, his case went to arbitration. If it went his way, he'd get thousands and thousands in back pay.

Louis Ortiz

My lawyer broke it down. It's pretty much a hands-down case.

Ryan Murdock

So what's your financial situation?

Louis Ortiz

Broke as a joke. I mean, I get Obama gigs here and there, but you know my deal. I'm waiting on these boys to pay me my retro-pay from Verizon.

Ryan Murdock

His lawyer called in late November. When Louis picked up, she didn't sound excited. Louis asked, "Should I be sitting down?" And she said, "Yeah." At that point he knew the arbitrator had sided with Verizon. Louis was now empty-handed, no job back, no retro-pay, not much of anything.

Rayna

My dad has been down here for, like, four months already, probably more, never mind. Like, five, six. I don't know, but he's really cool.

Ryan Murdock

This is Louis's daughter, Reina. She's 15, a great basketball player, a serious student, funny, and just a really nice kid. Back when the Obama stuff heated up, and Louis was traveling a lot, he sent Reina here to live with his parents.

They hadn't seen much of each other since. But now the two of them could be a family again. Every day at 5:30 in the morning, Louis would drive Reina to school. And at night, they'd hang out after she got home from basketball practice.

Rayna

Yeah, it's kind of better. He's a fun person to be around. That's why I like when he's down here.

Ryan Murdock

Louis spent his days in Florida, while Reina was at school, figuring out a plan to piece his life back together. He'd gone to a phone company in Florida, but they said they weren't hiring. At some point, he got in touch with his agent, who told him how successful other Obama impersonators had been, that there was still money to be made. With campaign season approaching, demand would probably be high.

But his agent said he'd need what he lacking the first time around, a better impression. Specifically she said, work on the voice.

Barack Obama

And I want to thank all of you.

Ryan Murdock

So Louis started watching Obama speeches on YouTube, listening to them on his iPod over and over, practicing the cadence, the timing, and the delivery.

Barack Obama

Every single American, gay--

Louis Ortiz

Gay--

Barack Obama

--straight--

Louis Ortiz

--straight.

Barack Obama

--lesbian, bisexual, transgender, every single American--

Louis Ortiz

Every single American deserves to be treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our society. It's a pretty simple proposition. Now, I don't have to tell you that, uh, we have a ways to go in that struggle.

Ryan Murdock

As you can hear, Louis really is getting better. And once again, the Obama stuff is starting to feel like Louis's best and only option. But Louis thinks New York is a better place to take another shot, to start getting Obama work again. And that means leaving Reina.

Rayna

He told me the news, like, two days ago, or three days ago. And it kind of sucks, because I'm going to miss him.

Ryan Murdock

Did you tell him that?

Rayna

No. I would never get that emotional with him. I don't know. But I do feel [? excited ?] for him. I wish he could just stay, but he says he has his work to do or whatever over there, so I guess not.

I guess he can't stay, but whatever. I haven't seen him in, like, four years, and then he comes, and then he just leaves again. But whatever. It doesn't bother me.

Barack Obama

You believe in that future. That's why you're working hard. That's why you're putting in long hours. You know that doing big things isn't easy, but you haven't given up. That's the spirit we've got to have right now.

Ryan Murdock

The way it's turned out, right now both the president and Louis are both looking for second chances, both looking back at the last three years, thinking about what they've accomplished and what they still need to do. Recently, Louis was laying out to me his big plans for 2012. Whatever reservations Louis has about leaving Rayna again, that's exactly what he's doing.

He's doubling down on the whole Obama thing. And he's back in New York. He said he's hopeful. He's feeling good.

At some point, I ask Louis, if he could somehow choose, choose between being a great, successful Obama impersonator, or going back to being Louis the phone guy, if he could choose, which one would he pick? He hesitated, seemed to give it some real thought, and he told me, if he could be anyone, if it was totally up to him, he'd go back to his old life, working for Verizon, and be the phone guy, and be himself.

Ira Glass

Ryan Murdock. He is still filming for his movie about Louis. It is called The Audacity of Louis Ortiz. He's looking for more funders on Kickstarter. His website, where you can see just how much Louis looks like Obama, audacitythemovie.com.

Coming up, feigning interest in what your spouse is saying, and how that can save your marriage. That is in a minute, from Chicago Public radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Wife Lessons.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Play the Part, people faking who they are, pretending they are the opposite of their real personalities because they feel they have no other option.

We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Wife Lessons. Kristen was a speech therapist at a school where she worked with some kids who had autism. Some had Asperger Syndrome.

Kristen Finch

It was kind of one of those things. We joked about it, the staff that I worked with, where we kept saying, oh, my husband, or my significant other has Asperger's too. It kind of became this running joke, because there is so many similarities between the neurotypical man, and then you take it a few steps forward and you have Asperger's.

Ira Glass

Not to trivialize how serious Asperger's can be, but the symptoms include emotional distance, inflexibility, missing social cues. A couples counselor once told me that every woman who hears about Asperger's for the first time thinks her husband has it.

So anyway, they had this joke at work about their husbands all having Asperger's. And then one day it occurred to Kristen-- wait a second, maybe in her case it was not a joke. After all, at the time things were going pretty badly with her husband, Dave. They'd been best friends in high school, started dating in college.

But once they were married and had two kids, they were in conflict a lot. Any little change in plans would set Dave off, like they would plan to leave a party at 9 o'clock, and Kristen wasn't ready to go until 9:15, and it didn't seem like a big deal to her. Dave would throw what he would call a man-tantrum, and stew about it, obsess about it, not speak to her for days, or a week.

And in these incidents, she was frustrated with him, he felt misunderstood by her. It devastated them both, and it confused them. It stumped them. It really stumped them for years, five years.

And then one day she found this quiz online, this online quiz to help the parents of one of her students. And this quiz was supposed to test different disorders like autism and Asperger's-- 150 questions. Lots of them, like, do you find it necessary to sit in the same seat all the time? Or do you dislike changes in routine? Lots of these questions reminded her of her husband.

He remembers what happened next this way. Things had been pretty chilly between them for a long time. It was around 8 o'clock at night. The kids had been put to bed.

David Finch

It was so quiet. Kristen had made dinner. And she came up to me, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, out of the blue she approached me and gave me this hug, a real, warm, just tender hug. And I said, "Oh, hello there. How are you doing?" And she just looked up and she said, "When you're ready, why don't you come downstairs to my office. There's something I want to show you."

Ira Glass

So he comes down to the basement, and Kristen starts administering this quiz to him.

Kristen Finch

I remember him saying, at the beginning of it, he's like, "What is this, like, a Cosmo quiz?" I'm like, "No, I'm not taking you down to the basement for a Cosmo quiz."

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] Because that would be hot.

Kristen Finch

Yeah. We're not going there, buddy.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah. So did you tell him, this is going to be a quiz about whether or not you have Asperger's, or you just started asking questions?

Kristen Finch

No.

Ira Glass

No, just started asking questions?

Kristen Finch

No, I just started asking him questions. And as we were going, as the questions got to be so familiar to him, he's like, "What is this quiz? Like, did you write these questions? Did you do this for me?"

David Finch

The ones that really resonated with me were things like, do you find you have most success in social situations when you can script out possible conversations ahead of time? Even things like, do you sometimes feel tortured by the clothes you're wearing, itchy tags, shirt cuffs? Do people often comment on your odd mannerisms and habits? It was a yes, an emphatic yes to all of these things.

Kristen Finch

And then the questions started getting even just bizarre, where I was like, this must be a typo. I remember there was one question about, have you ever fantasized about making traps? And I said, "Oh, that must be a typo." And he's like, "No, I totally have."

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Kristen Finch

Traps? What are you talking about? So it was when we were starting to get into those specific things, I'm like, jeez, I am just missing this here. This has been in front of me for so long, and I needed this 150-question quiz in order to finally see, oh, OK, that explains a lot.

Ira Glass

And so you get to the end, and then what do you say? Like, how do you break the news?

Kristen Finch

Well, at the very end, you just calculate. And so, when the quiz got done, before I hit calculate, I told him what it was. And he was like, "Oh, OK." So I'm like, "Are you ready to calculate?" So I hit the button, and it was a big, old yes.

David Finch

It was such a huge moment, a sublime moment. It's a weird way to say it, but I almost felt as though I was present at my own birth, if that's it, if that's a decent way of saying that.

I mean, it was as if somebody finally handed me a user manual for myself. You know, here's how you operate, and if you read this manual, everything that was difficult in life before is going to be a lot easier now, because it makes sense and you can learn how to control certain things.

Ira Glass

Kristen found it just as comforting. All the things that seemed to be destroying their marriage, she could see now that they were not his fault. And she hadn't realized just how hard things were for him in everyday situations. So they went to a doctor and they got the diagnosis confirmed. David had Asperger's.

Typically, people with Asperger's have trouble reading social cues, they have trouble interacting, they're usually obsessive in their routines or interests. And then, armed with this diagnosis, Dave set about fixing whatever it was possible to fix. And he did this with the deep obsessiveness of a deeply obsessive person.

He understood, OK, there's clearly a gap between his instincts and the way that other people acted. And he wanted to close that gap by imitating them. So he started keeping this list. Whenever he stumbled onto some kind of behavior that he wanted to change, any behavior that was causing friction between him and Kristen, he would write it down. For instance--

David Finch

It would really bother her when she would be singing along in the radio and she'd be in a good mood and happy and I would change the station mid-song. And so she would say, "Are you kidding? You can't do that."

So I would write it down. I would say, OK, you know what, I really want to change things. So lest I forget, I'm going to put it somewhere. So I'd write it down on a notepad-- don't change the radio station when she's singing along.

Ira Glass

Now, if that just seems unbelievably basic, you can see why he and Kristen had been fighting for five years, and why he needed a list. He started to call all these little scraps of paper that he was doing this on, he started to call it, "The Journal of Best Practices." Other items on the list-- don't sneak up on her, better to fold the laundry and put it away than only take what you need from the dryer, give Kristen time to shower without crowding her.

David Finch

Well, some of them were actually quite profound, things like, learn how to listen. I mean, that's a huge one.

Ira Glass

Wait a minute. How do you operationalize that one?

David Finch

Well, learn how to listen-- for example, she would maybe have a complaint about something that happened in her day, you know, somebody at work was so annoying today, or it's taking me so long to get to work, man, with all this traffic. And what I would do is I would offer her a million solutions. Let's sit down, let's map out this traffic route that you're taking. We can optimize travel time versus rush hour versus stoplights.

And she would just stare at me like, are you kidding me? And just say, ultimately, "No I'm good." And just leave. And then I would feel hurt, like where are you going? If you didn't want a solution, why did you bring this up?

Well, what I didn't know, and what she didn't know, was I just needed to be told sometimes, "Dave, look, I have some things on my mind, I don't need a solution, all I want you to do is, when I'm done talking, just nod your head and say, that must be rough." [LAUGHS] I could literally practice doing that.

Now, sometimes I got it wrong. Like, she would come to me seeking a solution. "This house is absolutely a disaster. I can't clean this up all by myself." And I would say, "Yeah, I totally hear you, that's gotta be so rough." And then I would just leave the room.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Kristen says that, all of his life, Dave had gotten by by imitating the way people around him behave. And he had a real talent for noticing little things that people did and then copying them, and now that really kicked in hard.

Kristen Finch

So he was able to start learning how to, again, in quotes, "look normal, look neurotypical" by doing things like watching The Late Show With David Letterman, listening to Howard Stern.

Ira Glass

Really?

Kristen Finch

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. Your husband learned to talk to other human beings by listening to Howard Stern and watching David Letterman?

Kristen Finch

He learned how to have small-talk conversations, the flow of conversations, when they were kind of going to change, what their facial expression might look like, or their body language might look like when they're about to switch topics, or kind of how to just go with the flow during a conversation.

David Finch

I had always listened to Howard Stern.

Ira Glass

I love Howard.

David Finch

Right. So you know, as a Howard listener, it's engaging. Well, what I started keying in on was the way that Howard would get through a story, parse a story. He's talking about going out and getting pancakes with his parents last weekend, and he'll keep that up for 30, 45 minutes if he has to.

He's able to take interruptions from the other people in the studio, from Robin, from Gary, from callers. And when he wants to be sincere, he'll lower his voice, and he'll slow down, maybe much like what I'm doing right now, because that's kind of who I learned from, was Howard.

So I would take notes on how he did this, and then I would practice. Sometimes I got it right. Sometimes I got it way wrong. So if I was--

Ira Glass

Can you give me an example of a time that it went way wrong?

David Finch

[LAUGHS] I can give you lots of examples of those. I think trying to start some banter with one of the engineers in my lab, somebody that I never talk to about anything besides how our oscilloscopes work. So I would sit down and say things like, "So listen, whatcha doing over there? You got anything going on sexually in your life, anything going on love life that--"

Ira Glass

Wait, you actually said this to somebody at work?

David Finch

Just to see how they would react. And sometimes people would just start laughing, and sometimes they would actually engage the conversation. And then other times, they would just say, like, "Are you kidding me?"

Ira Glass

So David's trying all these things to try to change his behavior. And overall, it works. The first thing that he notices is that there is an absence of resentment between him and Kristen. And things just get better and better.

And then his problem is, he's obsessive by nature-- like, that's his whole diagnosis, right? And he starts wanting regular performance reviews from Kristen. He puts together these PowerPoint slides for these reviews. And a year and a half into this, she has had enough of the "Journal of Best Practices." And she has to tell him, we have learned what we needed to learn from this.

Kristen Finch

That's the point where we ordered out or something, and he ate all the crab rangoon. And I just kind of was like, "Ugh, you ate all the crab rangoon." And all of a sudden now that's a best practice. So that's kind of where I stopped it.

And I said, you know what, we don't have to work on this for the next three weeks. Just don't eat all the crab rangoon. And so I had to explain to him, people who are married still-- it's OK if I sigh and roll my eyes when you eat all the crab rangoon, like, that's OK.

Best practices is done. We have the essentials. The things that were really difficult for us, we got. Leave the crab rangoon out of it.

Ira Glass

And that must have been hard for him.

Kristen Finch

It was. That was one of the best practices that I gave him. I was like, here's your new best practice. Not everything is a best practice. And so I'm sure he went and ran and wrote it down in his journal, like, OK, not everything's a best practice.

Ira Glass

David is still faking his way through things today. He listens to Kristen's problems at the end of the day, and he waits until it's time for him to say, that sounds hard, and then he says, that sounds hard. And it's gotten pretty comfortable.

David Finch

At some point in this process, it felt like it did become second nature. I can't claim that it's true empathy. It's more intellect than it is just raw--

Ira Glass

Feeling.

David Finch

--empathy and emotional response. Exactly, it's knowing versus feeling. I've achieved something that very much resembles empathy, and it's close enough for us.

Ira Glass

But wait, is that satisfying for her? I mean, if you say to her, like, god, that must be terrible for you, and you're not really empathizing, and she knows you're just saying it by rote because you've been trained to do it, is that actually satisfying to her?

David Finch

That's a really great point. I can now surmise, using intellect, that, yes, that must've been very trying for her. Whether that's satisfying to her, maybe it would come as no surprise, I hadn't really thought about it too much in those terms.

Kristen Finch

Maybe it's not exactly heartfelt, but I don't now. I guess it works well enough for me.

Ira Glass

And that's kind of the question. If your spouse is pretending to be like everyone else who is in a marriage, is that just as good as them being like everyone else in a marriage?

Kristen Finch

No. Well, I don't know. I mean, I think, as the wife, I wanted him to have empathy. I wanted him to put my feelings first, just in general. There are times when I wish he truly understood, I think.

But I did understand that that's just not how his brain was wired. Of course you want someone just to be able to magically do that, to read your mind, but that's not going to happen. I mean, that's every marriage.

You know, why won't he just do what I want him to do? Well, because he's not a mind-reader. But so, OK, I'm going to tell him, this is how I need you to react, and it worked.

Ira Glass

And the fact that he's going through the trouble in a way is showing that he cares.

Kristen Finch

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

I was playing a draft of this story for three of the This American Life producers. And I got done with it, and all four of us kind of admitted to each other that, in our own marriages, either we've been instructed or we have instructed our spouse the exact same thing that Kristen told Dave. Just listen to me complain about my day, or whatever it is, and then here is what I want you to say.

And in those moments, when you go through the motions for the person that you love, and say what they want you to say because they specifically said that's what they need-- we have all had the experience in our marriages-- that does the job. That works just fine.

David Finch has written a book about all this called The Journal of Best Practices. His wife, Kristen, says that women are constantly asking her for the link to that questionnaire that she gave her husband. So you can find that out our website, thisamericanlife.org.

[MUSIC -"SWEET INSPIRATON" BY THE SWEET INSPIRATIONS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream all of our old shows for absolutely free, subscribe to our podcast. And we have posted right now, a listener's survey. It would help us find more listeners like you if we knew who you are. So I hope you'll consider taking a minute to fill it out. Again, that's thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who starts his new sexual harassment in the workplace training video this way.

David Finch

So listen, whatcha doing over there? You got anything going on sexually in your life, anything going on love life?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.