He moves effortlessly from Donald Trump to Morgan Freeman to John Madden and Charles Barkley. The voices, mannerisms, facial expressions and personality quirks are all there, coming from the same man: a man with the goal of simply making you laugh.
Comedian and impressionist Frank Caliendo can tilt his head to one side and draw a chuckle. Imagine what happens when he opens his mouth and all these celebrities and characters come to life.
Over the last 10 years, the 43-year-old Caliendo has been arguably the best impressionist in the business, with a broad stable of voices and stars he magically becomes at a moment’s notice.
“I always liked watching people doing impressions, but it wasn’t my plan. I began doing it, and it just worked. I was just good at it, so I went with the flow and began working on them more and more.
“When I started out, no one was really doing impressions besides Saturday Night Live on sketches. But no one was doing them in stand-up.”
His first big break came in 2000 when he appeared as a guest for comedian Jimmy Kimmel on Fox NFL Sunday. When Frank broke out his impression of legendary former NFL head coach and then-NFL analyst John Madden, everything began to happen.
By 2003, Caliendo became a fixture on the FOX NFL Sunday pre-game show with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, James Brown and the gang replacing Kimmel, who later went on to land his own late night show on ABC, and most recently host the much-talked-about Academy Awards show with the envelope miscue.
Caliendo had a long stint on MADtv. Then a few movie appearances led to the short-lived Frank TV, his sketch show on TBS, in 2007 and 2008.
But no doubt his nearly 10 years on FOX NFL Sunday brought him national acclaim and celebrity status.
Caliendo didn’t have his sights set on Hollywood and becoming the next Jerry Seinfeld, who he also does in his act. In fact, Frank had very simple and modest plans. “My goal was always just to be a TV talk show guest. Never planned to be an actor or anyone. Just wanted to be like Jonathan Winters and show up on a talk show. Be silly and go home.”
He did achieve that, appearing with Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Comedy Central and, of course, the late night king, David Letterman.
“I never really talked to [Letterman] outside of being on his show sitting there as a guest. No one ever really did. The first time I was on, I told Letterman I love football but really loved John Madden. And I never heard him speak during a stand-up session, but he just yelled out “yeah!” And I thought I just got heckled by one of my idols,” Caliendo chuckled.
Letterman was a huge sports fan, and he loved the heavy dose of sports stars in Caliendo’s routine.
It came naturally for Frank, who was born in the sports-crazed city of Chicago. He later grew up in Wisconsin, where he says that all they did every day was play football, basketball or baseball. He became a Green Bay Packers fan because “it’s a state law.” His father was a minor league baseball player early in his life, so sports is in the Caliendo DNA.
“I knew sports and played sports. I wasn’t into theater as a kid. I watched a lot of sitcom TV. I just talk about things I know,” says Caliendo.
“One of the reasons sports guys are easy to do is that they are all analysts — whether it’s Charles Barkley, John Madden or Jon Gruden. They are breaking down what they are seeing in front of them. So I take that and go to everyday life, just doing simple things like Barkley making toast.” He proceeded to do a perfect Barkley, whining about burning the toast again.
One of Caliendo’s best actor impressions is of Al Pacino, a fellow Italian. Pacino is known for screaming a lot in his roles — as Frank says, yelling for no reason whatsoever. So Caliendo put on his Pacino as a librarian and the way the Oscar-winning actor would react when someone asked him where the B section was located in the library.
As I noted earlier, Caliendo mentioned the late, great Jonathan Winters. He was an early influence when the young comedian met Winters and the late Robin Williams on the set of Mork and Mindy.
Caliendo is equally amazed by the likes of comedians Dennis Miller, Stephen Wright, Lewis Black and Louis C.K. “They are amazing because they are so completely free to walk up on stage and entertain for an hour. I have to plan a lot of stuff. I loved Winters and Williams. [They were] both geniuses who seemingly just walked up there and it worked out for them and [they could] be really, really funny.”
You don’t just wake up in the morning and suddenly become Bill Clinton or Mike Ditka. Caliendo admitted it might take months or even years to master an impression and ready it for his act. “You just never really know. Some are easier than others. A lot of times I will bounce them off my radio show appearances or friends and see how they work.”
Caliendo continued, “I’m not trying to be the person; just trying to get laughs. So many people think of me as this really bright person who does impressions. They miss the point. I’m just doing a silly voice to make you laugh.”
You won’t confuse Caliendo with the controversial and politically charged comedian Bill Maher. That’s not his schtick or objective.
“I’m not really a multi-faceted person. All we did growing up was practice baseball.”
The art of impressions, and in particular political parody and satire, are not lost on Caliendo.
Saturday Night Live has been doing it masterfully for decades. Its recent work with actor Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump has made Baldwin the expected show opener every week because of the act’s talk value and level of popularity. The fact Baldwin is a spot-on Trump is hilarious.
“SNL keeps it topical,” says Caliendo. “You don’t have to be that funny when it’s topical because you are talking about what everyone is thinking about.”
Caliendo admits President Trump “gives me material every day.” But the media may be taking that material out of context. “I think he (Trump) says a lot of crazy things. But I think the news goes after him almost too much to the point where you don’t have to make something out of something that isn’t that crazy.
“It’s weird right now. People are talking about going into therapy because Trump is president. That’s a bit much to me. I just don’t understand that. I think as a society, we are a little lost if Trump affects you that much.”
Caliendo is enjoying life on the road and touring. Though, as you would think, he says the travel is the worst part of it. The nine-year gig on FOX NFL Sunday paid him a lot of money and kept him closer to home, but all good things have to come to an end.
Frank noted he wanted to leave the show after four years, but “stuck it out for another five.
“Nine years … it just got old and tired. Every year I was never sure if I wanted to come back. They were getting bored. I was getting bored. I didn’t want to do it every week, but FOX wanted it weekly, so it was time to move on.”
Caliendo announced on his Twitter feed in August of 2012 that he would not be returning to the pre-game show. FOX replaced him with comedian Rob Riggle. And last football season, Caliendo joined the cast of NFL Countdown on ESPN. The difference is that he isn’t performing every week, which keeps it fresh and makes it less of a drain.
It also allows Caliendo to pursue his passion for stand-up.
When we spoke by phone recently, Caliendo was in Cleveland for a show, but was busy arranging his flights to get him back home to Tempe, Ariz., the following day, where he was expected to coach his son Joe’s flag football team. He’s finding out youth flag football has its own pressure to perform.
“Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim’s son plays on my team, and just recently he (Keim) went on the radio back home and said I was on the hot seat as head coach,” Caliendo said with what appeared to be a serious tone.
The funny man with many voices is well grounded at home: married since 2003 to Michele, with two kids, Joe and daughter Juliet.
Caliendo will be back on the road, coming to Southwest Louisiana for his much-anticipated show at L’Auberge Casino on Saturday, March 11. Besides a performance in New Orleans, Caliendo doesn’t know much of the south Louisiana culture, but is open to learn.
Crawfish are out, as he admitted he’s not a seafood lover. When I told him to keep his ears tuned to our Cajun accent, Caliendo seemed intrigued. “If I hear enough of it, I just might try it in the act.”
A Packers fan from Chicago with years in Hollywood and now living in the desert. I warned him that if you aren’t already a Boudreaux, a Cajun accent will end badly.
Something tells me Caliendo will stick to what he knows and does best and the laughs will come.