An Interview with Frank Caliendo
by Laura Tucker
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Frank Caliendo seems to be going the way of Jimmy Kimmel, taking his humor from a non-prime time series, branching out into sports prognosticating, then landing a big gig of his own. While initially gaining fame on Mad TV, with his best known impersonation being John Madden, he moved on to a football commentating gig of his own on Fox NFL Today. Starting this month, he’ll be seen on a show of his own, Frank TV, where he feels the humor will be more adult-oriented, not geared towards teenagers like Mad TV was, and without the need to be over the top. To the delight of the men in my life, I was given the opportunity to participate in a conference call interview with Caliendo recently to talk about his new show.
Caliendo started off with a joke right away. As he explained the premise of Frank TV, a male voice came through explaining that the conference call was being recorded. Caliendo then jumped in explaining it was his newest impression, “The Conference Call Guy.” Getting back on track, he explained he’ll be doing more of the things he likes to do, yet his goal is not to attack anyone or come off as mean-spirited. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine him being mean-spirited, as he just seems to be the picture of fun. While he was certainly more serious in the interview, he still didn’t seem very threatening.
Caliendo moved from Chicago when he was around four, although he still has family living here, including the Italian side of the family, as he joked he isn’t allowed to talk about them legally. He explained he’s done impressions most of his life, but it really seemed to take off when he was in college, as he started doing people like Jay Leno. He was in school for broadcast journalism, and once he tried stand-up, it just started working for him. After he graduated, he realized he didn’t want to “work for real,” yet he now feels he’s working ten times harder than he ever thought he would.
He doesn’t just star in Frank TV, but also being billed as a writer, the current writers’ strike will be affecting everything in some ways. He can’t bring anything prepared to the tapings of the show, but he can do impromptu, on-the-spot comedy. Because of all this, the duration of episodes has been shortened. While he was originally given the go-ahead for eight, the strike has shortened the number of episodes down to four or five. He believes the writers are right, and that they are being treated unfairly.
Caliendo also wanted to make it known that the writers don’t have any misgivings writing for the show, but it’s something that they need to support, and he stands behind them on that. It has to make him fall somewhat in the middle of the issue with his feelings, being on both sides. He compares it to James Carville and President Bush being very good friends, sitting down together, despite being on different sounds of many issues. He says it’s like the cycle of war, with the drama of the situation.
Asked about the Saturday Night Live skit where show regular Jim Breuer got confronted by his impersonation victims of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Caliendo admits to having some real-life moments like that himself. Just recently he was impersonating Charles Barkley in front of Barkley. Later he admitted it was pretty good. John Madden won’t come anywhere near him, but Terry Bradshaw doesn’t seem to mind the impressions. Jay Leno has even done a few sketches with him on Fox NFL Today, making it very ironic that the only person that simply doesn’t care for the impressions at all is the one he is the most famous for.
The impersonation for Madden came from another comedian suggesting Caliendo try him. He admits to wondering at the time where that was ever going to get him, and here he is, most known for that. He realized all the popular phrases that Madden was responsible for, and it kind of took off from there. It’s become a niche for him, being known for sports impersonations, doing Bradshaw, Barkley, and others. Everyone, he feels, does that in some way, become identifiable for one thing or another, and for Caliendo, it happened to be his Madden impersonation.
Caliendo readily admits he’s not known for his sports knowledge, and points to how poorly he has done with his football picks this year as evidence. He doesn’t have the time to get into all the stats, but feels he’s still at the same level with his sports knowledge as he was before he started on Fox NFL Today. He’ll go out to dinner with the guys from the show, and seems to feel it speaks well of all the guys from the show as a whole, in that they routinely do things together as a group.
Asked about doing the more physical side of the impersonations, Caliendo thinks he struggles with it, saying that when he goes back and watches his impersonations, he looks at the physicality of it, and thinks it’s awful. For instance, when he does President Bush, he feels he looks like he was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction. Yet, it all becomes second nature to him, and he can’t remember not doing it with the physical side added in.
Caliendo doesn’t feel it does himself or the audience any good for him to go out there with a bad impersonation. He can remember back to Saturday Night Live in the ’80s, saying they only looked like who they were impersonating, and beyond that, the rest of the impersonation was nothing like subject. For him, it’s getting to the essence of the person more than anything else, and making people laugh, that leads to a good impersonation.
When Caliendo impersonates politicians, such as George Bush, he treats it routinely and doesn’t want it taken too seriously. He does it just to make people laugh, and figures that’s one of the best jobs he could do. As for the current presidential race, he’s asked if he has any preference to who wins, meaning how it will fit into his impressions. He doesn’t look that far in advance, and says it has to work for him to even try it. Had he worked on John Kerry to nail it, it would have been a waste of time. “If Hillary wins, Billy’s back,” … “if Barack Obama wins, I’m screwed.” Caliendo knows it will lose something in the translation for a short chubby caucasian guy to play an African-American.
Asked if he would ever do a dueling Brando skit like they once had on Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and Peter Boyle, Caliendo admits to never really seeing the whole thing before, and he asks if he could find it on the internet. He’s never been into the competition end of impersonations, but the guys he finds respect for are Darrell Hammond, Jim Carrey, Dana Carvey, and Phil Hartman. They always amazed him. He grew up wanting to be Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters.
Addressing the issue of how stand-up comedians feel about the work of impersonators, Caliendo feels that even if other comics don’t like his impersonations, they respect him for the humor he adds into them, as it’s not like he’s just doing impersonations in a movie. He’s putting much more into it. He feels what he does is more closely related to regular stand-up comedy, and he doesn’t feel he gets a lot of flak because of that.
Caliendo certainly has the tools to make a successful show of Frank TV, and time will tell whether it will be affected by the writers’ strike or not. Either way, tuning in November 20 on TBS, we’re bound to get a heavy dose of his impersonations, but done more for the sake of comedy, instead of just the sake of doing impersonations.
Photo by Robert Trachtenberg. Used by Permission of TNT/TBS.
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