Almost all the impressions Jordan Firstman posts to Instagram begin the same: with his head in the frame and the subject of his imitation spelled out in text. In one posted on April 9 of this year, Firstman reclines in a brown leather seat, behind which is a window overlooking a breezy Los Angeles afternoon. He’s only visible from the neck up — with a gold-hoop earring and a world-weary expression — such that he takes up the bottom half of the frame; above him are the words “This Is My Impression of a Person on Instagram Live.” Firstman’s eyes are trained on the bottom of his iPhone, which, to us, makes him look as though he’s staring, dead-eyed, at the ground. He coos, “Hi,” and does that flappy wave people in parades offer onlookers. “Hi, Vanessa … Shout-out to Eric,” he chirps dully, then pauses to peer more closely at his screen. Everyone who has ever watched (or done) an Instagram Live recognizes this strangely universal choreography, which is why it’s a very good impression.
If you know Firstman, it’s most likely for this: impressions of highly specific archetypes and abstract concepts. Back in April, Firstman posted the first group of impressions to Instagram. There are now about 130 impressions divided into 19 “seasons”; notable entries include a guy who’s addicted to saying that quarantine isn’t that different from his normal life; how money feels when it’s donated; a mosquito denying an anonymous woman’s claim that “mosquitos love her.” Where memes tend to reduce a concept’s complexity, Firstman’s impressions build worlds for every caricature and cliché. Each is only about a minute long, and he rarely employs a prop, but by varying his voice, his posture, and the angle of his iPhone, Firstman renders stray, observational comedy three-dimensional.
And yet it’s just him: stuck at home, alone, like so many of us have been for so much of this year. I don’t want to be told I can “make the most” of this pandemic, but it’s striking to watch someone else do it. Jordan Firstman wasn’t exactly without prospects before his impressions took off; he’s a TV writer whose credits include Search Party and Big Mouth. Still, there are plenty of TV writers whose names aren’t known, plenty who don’t have 800,000 followers on Instagram. It’s likely there aren’t many at all who will look back and point to quarantine as the instigator of their success.
“I think what I was trying to subtly do in my work is show people that inner worlds exist and you can have a really rich, deep, funny, fun inner world when the world is going to shit,” says Firstman when we speak over Zoom. In the span of nine months, his impressions have garnered him more than three-quarters of a million new followers on Instagram and a fresh, feverish round of interest from Hollywood.
But Firstman’s year began on a very different note. On a Sunday in January, Firstman, now 29, broke up with his longtime boyfriend (and creative partner). The following Tuesday, he got word that the show he’d been developing for four years would never be made. Something about this latest Hollywood rejection felt final, and he posted a shirtless selfie to Instagram with a caption referencing his “stolen creativity.”
“It was a shedding of my entire life,” he says now. “It was a complete release from every single part of my life at once.” Where some people might see this as reason enough to write off 2020 altogether, Firstman went on to experience these tandem losses as a psychic — and creative — renewal. Five days after his show was killed, a song Firstman wrote to honor Laura Dern was performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at the Independent Spirit Awards. People went nuts for it, Dern included. February, not usually known for its vigor, proved liberating for Firstman, who flew to Mexico City, did “more drugs than I’ve ever done,” and fucked some “really, really hot” guys. Not long after came California’s stay-at-home order. Seeking a way to keep the good vibes rolling, he turned to Instagram and his impressions were born.
“The breakup changed my face and made me really hot,” he says matter-of-factly. It’s true that though he’s deleted most photos from before 2020, what’s left of 2019 shows a more self-conscious selfie-taker in less photogenic settings. 2020 Jordan is hot and does hot-girl shit. “I’m cocky, and that’s what repels people, but I’m also warm and real,” he says. “I feel like I’m always bringing people forward and backward at the same time.”
This is true, too, of his impressions: Moments of vulnerability are dangled and then yanked back. For every topical, virality-minded subject like “Banana Bread’s Publicist,” there’s more cerebral, poignant social commentary, like “Person Being Seen and Accepted for the First Time.” (The latter he considers an underrated impression; the former, overrated. “I don’t know, something about it pisses me off,” he says.) Firstman harvests low-hanging fruit with gusto, but while he’s got you, he’ll unveil a mortifyingly pointed insight about some essential human tendency you thought went unnoticed. The effect is strangely moving, especially during a time when most of us have so few opportunities to be observed.
Firstman grew up on Long Island, the younger brother to twin siblings — both queer. (“Three for three,” he says.) His parents were newspaper reporters at Newsday, later authors in the true-crime genre. (They co-wrote the New York Times “Notable Book” The Death of Innocents: A True Story of Murder, Medicine, and High-Stakes Science.) They were supportive of his coming out, as were his peers — with a little puppeteering on Firstman’s part. “When they started to glean that I might be gay, all the jocks turned against me, but then I, like, Lysistrata-ed them,” he says, laughing. “I told the girls, ‘If they’re mean to me, we’re saying no to them.’ So then all the girls were like, ‘If you’re mean to Jordan, you’re not going to finger us.’” Naturally, the jocks backed off.
After a brief stint at an undergraduate musical-theater program in Cincinnati (“I’m working on my shame about that”), Firstman lived in Manhattan for a year. At 21, he moved to Los Angeles, not knowing exactly where to direct his creativity. He tried improv classes, but he didn’t like improv people. In 2013, Firstman turned to Kickstarter to fund his first short film, The Disgustings, about acerbic, self-involved best friends, and decided film people were just right.
Firstman made two more short films, which got him an agent, a manager, and, indirectly, a boyfriend in show business. The boyfriend gave Firstman his first TV job, writing for Search Party. Around the same time, he started building one of his shorts — Call Your Father, about a roller-coaster first date between a narcissistic millennial and a man old enough to match his daddy issues — into a TV pilot. He wrote and rewrote the pitch and the pilot for four years. As it often goes in Hollywood, the show was always this close to getting made, until it wasn’t.
“Making people smile and laugh in this era is something I take seriously,” Firstman says. He has always put pressure on himself, he says, but before, it was entirely self-involved: his films, his pilot, his career. An audience confers accountability. “When the impressions started, it became not about me anymore and instead about what I was giving to people and how I was making them feel,” says Firstman. “It weirdly made me a lot less selfish.” Unexpectedly, his impressions have given Firstman something so many of us find lacking amid every destabilizing force 2020 hath wrought: purpose.
But back when Firstman posted his first impressions in early April, they were met with modest fanfare. He released several more seasons that month and, on May 13, published his seventh, including the now-famous impression of banana bread’s publicist. (“I said it: This is your year. We did it. We got everyone home, we got them a bunch of fucking rotted bananas, and they went off, bitch.”) That’s when his following exploded. Celebrities like Ariana Grande, Harry Styles, and Chrissy Teigen discovered Firstman, reposted his impressions, and slid into his DMs. “I think the reason I got so many celebrities is because no one [in Hollywood] was working,” he hypothesizes. “There are a lot of young funny people on the internet, but for some reason, celebrities haven’t been tapped into that world until quarantine.” It doesn’t hurt that celebrities, too, love jokes about publicists and how expensive it is to live in Los Angeles.
Among the most thrilling follows for Firstman were Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston; as a 29-year-old millennial, Firstman still considers late-’90s and early-aughts TV stars the pinnacle of fame. “[Aniston] was watching Secrets one night,” says Firstman, of his second-most popular franchise, for which he invites his followers to DM him secrets and then comments on their anonymous, lurid confessions over Instagram Stories. Some examples: “I like to dress up like Shirley Temple and spank myself with a hockey stick,” from one follower; “I broke my gf’s fave coffee mug,” from another; and simply, “I love giving blow jobs.” Firstman thinks the appeal of Secrets is constrained to a specific audience. He says, “I was like, ‘Wait, no, Jen, don’t watch these. These aren’t for you.’”
Unscripted and considerably dirtier than the shtick that made him famous, Firstman’s Secrets are for the extremely online: people with nothing better to do and a prurient interest in strangers’ sex lives. A weirdly high number of the secrets Firstman posts reference incestuous attraction; many more “confess” to sexual proclivities they seem to find shocking but which Firstman gently mocks as banal. The exception is followers who disclose deep depression or suicidal ideation; I’ve seen this happen, twice, and watched Firstman encourage their senders to DM him to talk.
Firstman knows how important it is to have someone to talk to. He was recently dropped (for the second time) by a beloved therapist, mainly because he canceled too frequently. “I needed him so bad,” he says, “but I figured it out. I had the mushroom trip, I got a lot out of that.” The trip to which he refers was, of course, documented on Instagram, until Instagram took it down.
As Firstman’s following has grown, so have his work projects; now in progress are a number of fashion campaigns and the new show he’s writing, about which he can tell me very little, except — upon professing my love for The L Word — that it’s co-created by Ilene Chaiken. “What I want more than anything is to be fully seen,” he says. “It’s never enough.”
One of Firstman’s early impressions addresses that very desire. In his impression of someone being truly seen and accepted for the first time, he is briefly touched before changing his mind. (“What? You don’t know me,” he mumbles. “Fuck you.”) Sure, there’s pleasure in being perceived, but what if someone sees something you don’t want them to? What if it’s, like, 800,000 people?
Over the summer, Firstman redecorated his home in part because so many strangers were seeing (and judging) where he lived. What was once a tragic, sparsely furnished breakup apartment is now an Architectural Digest–worthy neon palace, fit for a rising star confined to his home’s own background options. After the AD story was published, a number of commenters accused Firstman of being rich; he tells me his redecorating budget was $15,000 but he spent closer to $25,000. “If I’d had a business manager,” he says, “they would have told me, ‘Don’t do that.’”
Firstman’s psychedelic paradise is a rental. He doesn’t know how long he’ll live there or how he’ll get the custom built-in fur bed out when he moves. “I don’t ever think about consequences or the future,” he says. You will be unsurprised to hear he didn’t ask his landlord for permission to redecorate.
“I don’t want to be told no,” he says. “You can’t be told no if you never ask.”