When you talk to master impressionist Frank Caliendo, you never know who you're going to get. John Madden, Robert DeNiro or our current President may emerge from his mouth but, when he talked to Jim Halterman about the return of TBS's "Frank TV," he was very forthcoming in how he deals with the reactions his impressions get as well as mastering the kaleidoscope of voices he holds in his arsenal.
One point of criticism that Caliendo has gotten from critics and fans alike is that while he may sound like the subjects he is impersonating, he doesn't always look the part. For example, while Caliendo's stocky frame may come in handy when he's doing James Gandolfini, the same look doesn't work may not be as effective when he's doing Sean Connery. If Caliendo minds the critiques, he hides it well. "I really don't read any criticism," he said. "To me, looking like the person doesn't really matter if you have the essence. That's all it's about. I'm not an impersonator. I'm just out there trying to do some funny stuff. Some people aren't wired to get past simple visuals while some are. Everyone is different."
One change for the new episodes of "Frank TV" is that Caliendo has some new help with his comedy sketches. Impersonators Mike MacRae and Freddy Lockhart have joined the cast and their addition will lead to an even wider variety of characters interacting. In tonight's episode, for example, a "Star Wars" skit casts Caliendo as Yoda, MacRae as Obi Wan Kenobi and Lockhart playing Lando Calrissian on a day off from saving the world. The unlikely threesome wreck havoc on a Fuddruckers-type restaurant before Darth Vader (voiced by Caliendo) appears. Other celebrity specialties that the new cast members bring along with them are Barack Obama, Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman (Lockhart) as well as Harrison Ford and Rip Torn (MacRae).
Caliendo is so multi-faceted at times that he is able to take on all the roles in a sketch by himself. Case in point a sketch in the season premiere focused on how film director Oliver Stone (whose George W. Bush film, "W" opened this past weekend) might portray the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. Caliendo plays both Clinton and then-VP Al Gore, who, according to the sketch, is the real culprit behind the scandal and Clinton was just doing the honorable thing by taking the heat for the indiscretion. Airing at the 11/10c hour also allows the show to have more adult humor as evident when Clinton excuses himself to the bathroom with Lewinsky's dress, harkening back to the infamous stain on the intern's dress during the real-life scandal.
Politicians are prominent targets for impersonators and they couldn't be more popular with Tina Fey's take on VP Candidate Sarah Palin creating much buzz right now. Of the politicians currently out there, how does Caliendo rate them in terms of impersonating material? "I can do McCain way better," he shared. "The way people go after Sarah Palin, it seems like there's much there. Biden does a lot of stupid stuff, too." In regards to the Presidential candidates, he said, "Obviously for me, I can't pull off a Barack Obama even in the makeup but we've got Freddy doing that for the show. McCain certainly works for me, business-wise. For McCain, you've got a P.O.W. who can't raise his arms above his shoulders and that controls a lot of his mannerisms and I thought I can do that because that's what I'm like!"
One opinion that Caliendo offered was that the politician we see before an election is a very different from the one we'll see after the election. "Once people get elected, that's when I think you see the actual person because they're not worried about being elected for a couple of years."
Smart enough to know that he might as well milk the material while the public's interest is at an all-time high, Caliendo said that "Frank TV" will feature a special election night episode of political sketches hosted by Caliendo as the outgoing President. In fact, it was his spot-on Bush impression that earned him an invitation to perform during the 2007 White House Correspondents Dinner, where he was a huge success.
The format of "Frank TV," where Caliendo introduces the pre-taped sketches to a studio audience, is something that the impressionist admitted he's very pleased with after the time he spent on Fox's "Mad TV." He explained the difference between the two by saying, "I remember when we did sketches on 'Mad TV' that were hilarious but stupid. But we loved it because it was stupid though audiences didn't always get the joke." With "Frank TV," Caliendo gets the chance to introduce the sketch and, in doing so, prep the audience a bit for what is to come. "If you know going into it that it's stupid, you go in with the right frame of mind."
In regards to the art of mastering a new voice, however, is not an easy one. Two of his most popular subjects, President George W. Bush and basketball's Charles Barkley were not necessarily two that Caliendo instantly grasped. "Barkley took me a couple of months [while] Bush took me two years to get right. Now I'm one of the people known for that." Lively NFL commentator John Madden is another voice that wasn't easy for him to master. "When you listened to me eight years ago, you'd think, That's John Madden?? Basically, my job is I get paid to practice."
As far as whose voices he takes on and whom he steers clear, Caliendo offered, "You see everyone in the world do a Jack Nicholson or Keanu Reeves so finding a new one I can put into the mix is the challenge." He added, "When they're new, they're a lot of fun to me. Charles Barkley is still a lot of fun." However, Caliendo also said, "The key is to find the one that people aren't doing. Like when Jay Mohr first did Christopher Walken on 'Saturday Night Live,' people didn't really know who he was. And now, everybody is doing a Christopher Walken impression."
If viewers find they can't get enough of Caliendo and "Frank TV," Caliendo is currently performing to sold-out crowds in theaters across the country with the "Frank TV Stand-Up Comedy Tour," sponsored by TBS. In the meantime, "Frank TV" airs tonight and every Tuesday at 11/10c on TBS.