Known for his dead-on impressions of celebrities, politicians, and sports figures including George W. Bush and Al Pacino, comedian Frank Caliendo got his break in the entertainment industry when he landed a recurring role as a sketch performer on “MADtv” in 2001. Eight years later, Caliendo, 34, is the host of his own sketch-comedy show, “Frank TV.” During its premiere season, he took Broadway by storm as Donald Trump, cooked a turducken as NFL commentator John Madden, and traveled into the future as Jerry Seinfeld.
Do you consider what you do “impressions” of people or do you try to embody the person?
I think of them as impressions, but I think there is a difference between an “impersonator” and an “impressionist.” For me, I want you to know that it’s me doing it. An impersonator is someone doing Elvis or Cher in Vegas and you don’t know who they really are. I want to have a piece of me in my impression. That’s where the art and fun of it is for me. It’s Frank Caliendo’s comedic take on that person.
I noticed during the campaign you didn’t do an impression of Obama, but you did do John McCain. Some people might think the obvious reason you didn’t do Obama is because it would be difficult to physically portray yourself as a tall, black man. But then, you do have an impression of Charles Barkley, so …
I just don’t have the voice for Obama yet. I’ll never be able to do him in sketch. I could never pull that off. There’s a difference between a skinny African American and a chubby Caucasian. There was one black writer on Frank TV that asked me if I could do Chris Rock. There was no way I could do that. But as far as stand-up goes, that’s a different thing. As soon as I get the voice, the jokes will start coming.
What makes a bad impression?
It depends on the person. Most of the time people don’t have a joke. Some of the worst voices that I do can be the funniest because they have a comedic take. Dana Carvey did an OK-sounding Regis Philbin but it was just so funny. Will Ferrell doing President Bush sounds like, well, Will Ferrell doing President Bush, but he’s funnier than everybody else.
I can’t imagine how many people come up to you wanting to show you their impression of someone.
People do it all the time. They usually try to sneak it in. They’ll go, “I really like your Bill Clinton impression.” I’ll say, “Thanks.” Then they’ll go [as Bill Clinton], “Hey, how are you?” I don’t know why people like to do that. I think somewhere in the back of their mind they think they can get on TV. Usually, when someone does an impression they do it for too long and don’t have any jokes and I don’t even know what to say.
I know you’ve said in past interviews that John Madden isn’t a big fan of your impression of him. Do you think people have personal problems with your comedy because they don’t like to see how they are perceived?
I’m only doing my perception of the people. I have a gimmick. I’m goofing around. Some people don’t like it when you call out their gimmick or what makes them who they are. So, when I break that down, some people don’t want that secret to be let out because they think, “Ah, now everybody sees through me.”
Impressionist Rich Little has said about the craft, “You can jab but you have to be respectful.” Do you agree with that sentiment?
Yeah, I always have respect for the people. My job is not to go out and rip people to shreds. My intention is to find the humor and the fun in what a person does and go with the flow. It’s not necessarily all positive humor, but it’s not ripping people down and saying someone stinks. A lot of the people I do, I love; that’s why I do them.