More entertainers should be like Frank Caliendo.
You may have seen the countless commercials on TBS featuring Caliendo impersonating pop culture icons like President George Bush, Dr. Phil, Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams. The funnyman’s new heavily-advertised sketch comedy show, FrankTV, premiered last Tuesday.
“I’d like to think of it as a live-action South Park – a bunch of little round people running around,” Caliendo said.
But the genial impressionist extraordinaire, probably best known for his John Madden act, said his show is good-natured and is not intended to put anyone down.
“We’re going for silly and fun, less mean-spirited,” he explained. “We don’t want to be doing that ‘Britney Spears sucks’ stuff. That’s not what this [show] is about.”
Caliendo, 33, got his start as a regular cast member on Fox’s MadTV in 2001, where he would occasionally get a chance to do his impressions. He admitted that he “never fit in so much” on the show.
He also did regular guest spots on The Late Show with David Letterman starting in 2006, both in full guise as Madden and as a comic during the show’s “Impressionist Week.” It’s more of this type of performing Caliendo hopes to convey.
“Our aim is a little higher audience than MadTV,” he said, adding that MadTV typically goes for the teenage demographic. “We’re not really going for outrageous and over-the-top.”
We see in the first two episodes, the second of which airing tonight at 11 p.m. on TBS, that Caliendo is still trying to find a rhythm, like Drew Carey in his first season on The Price is Right. There are kinks to be worked out, but true Caliendo fans shouldn’t be disappointed. Simply watching Caliendo work will leave you with a dropped jaw and a cracked smile.
Viewers can expect what they’ve seen from him in the past, Caliendo said. There will be some new acts, like a Charles Barkley impression he’s been perfecting in the past few months.
“You see me do impressions that I’m good at,” he said. “There’re lots of mediocre impressions I do, but I don’t do those because I don’t want to go out there and be average.”
But being an impressionist is more than having the voice of a single character. It’s about adopting that character’s personality and physical attributes, something Caliendo has been able to master.
“I think there’s some natural ability [to impersonating someone],” he said. “Bush is one of the [impressions] I’m most known for. I couldn’t even do that four years ago.”
And he has been recognized for his talents in more ways than getting his own show, which he truly deserves as a man who speaks with a humble confidence about his profession. He was invited to attend the annual White House Correspondents Dinner where he performed one of his President Bush routines while standing next to Vice President Dick Cheney.
“When it comes down to it, it’s about being funny,” Caliendo said. “It’s not about being dead-on with the impression. It’s about making people laugh.”
One way to do that is to keep the content fresh. Caliendo said he doesn’t get tired of impersonating the same people because he always changes the material.
For example, in an upcoming episode of FrankTV, he does an impression of Al Gore. But instead of having Gore discuss global warming issues, Caliendo does the ex-vice president worrying about the threat of a looming supernova.
“As long as there’s new stuff coming out and I’m still being creative, I’m still having fun,” he said.
Caliendo is a family man – a husband and a father. In an unforgettable skit airing tonight, we see Caliendo teaching his preschool-aged son how to impersonate President Bush.
But out of respect for his family, he typically stays himself when he’s not working.
“I tend not to do this stuff that much in the regular life,” he said. “My wife doesn’t like my impressions.”
Caliendo understands that it’s impossible to please everyone. He continued to stress that the show is not intended to be mean-spirited, but not everyone can take the jokes in stride.
“John Madden doesn’t like me at all,” he said firmly.
Before it even begins, trouble may be ahead for FrankTV. The show has only four episodes completed because of the striking Writers Guild of America. The strike, which began more than two weeks ago, has more than 12,000 writers picketing. TBS hasn’t announced any plans for FrankTV beyond the four-episode run.
But for now, Caliendo is taking the show’s run in stride. It’s a show he’s proud to produce just for the sake of having fun.
“It’s about being silly,” he said, “and, hopefully, people will like it.”
Chris Stover can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.