Jack Aiello of Arlington Heights plans to major in political science this fall at the University of Illinois, but there's good reason he hasn't ruled out stand-up comedy or even a shot at "Saturday Night Live."
Four years ago, Aiello's middle school graduation speech featuring impressions of Sen. Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump went viral, drawing 4.8 million views on YouTube. Not long after, the recent graduate of The Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights was performing his impressions on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
Fast forward to this month, when Aiello was selected to give the graduation speech for the virtual commencement ceremony at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. Once again, he turned to his favorite impressions, not only of Trump and Sanders but also of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden.
"I really studied them in the debates," said Aiello, who spent a year on the speech team at Hersey and would have captained the boys' tennis team this spring had the COVID-19 pandemic not intervened.
"Mostly, I was listening for key phrases," he said. "I mean, trying to sound like them with my voice is one thing, but saying key phrases and tying them into the content of the speech was the challenge."
Think familiar debate lines such as "The fact of the matter is" from Biden, and "Look, here is the bottom line" from Warren, for starters.
Beyond capturing the phrases and mannerisms, Aiello says the impersonations are hard on his voice. Finishing the eight-minute high school graduation speech without clearing his voice was a challenge.
"With Trump, it's all about curling up your lips and getting in front of your teeth," Aiello explains. "With Elizabeth Warren, you have to almost close your passageway so that you're kind of screeching, and with Biden it was shouting and the merging together of words."
Aiello ends his speech with Sanders, his most famous impersonation from the middle school video.
"With Bernie, you really have to open up the back of your throat," he says, "and really slow down your speech. It's not really that hard."
Aiello developed his eighth-grade graduation speech after attending some political rallies before the Iowa caucuses in 2016. He also credits shows like "Saturday Night Live" and the "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" with ramping up his interest.
"One of my favorites is Dana Carvey," Aiello says, "and the way he does impersonations on all the late night shows."
Aiello made it to one of those late night shows himself in June 2016, when he appeared alongside Fallon as "Little Donald," the perfect running mate for then-Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump. The whole experience planted a seed.
"I really do impersonations just for fun and I plan to continue doing them," he said. "I'm not positive if I'd want to do them for a living, but I'd be open to it."
This year's speech came in a similar context as the original. Back in June 2016, the shooting massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, dominated the news and Aiello figured people needed something to laugh about.
Now, during the pandemic and the shortened end to the school year, he set out even more intentionally to make his speech entertaining.
"I think people can really get turned off with politics, but if you study the candidates, there really are some lighthearted moments," Aiello said. "And with everything from COVID-19, I just wanted to find the bright spots and make it fun."