Milwaukee Talks: Comedian Frank Caliendo
Be yourself. It's classic advice, but in the case of locally raised comedian Frank Caliendo, being himself is being other people. The comedian's uncanny impersonations of celebrities like John Madden, Charles Barkley and George W. Bush took him from Waukesha to the comedy stage, Fox NFL Sunday and currently ESPN.
OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk to Frank Caliendo, a man of a thousand voices and faces, to talk about his upcoming comedy show Saturday night at the Riverside, his latest impressions, working at ESPN and his secret ping pong expertise.
OnMilwauke.com: When did you discover that you had this gift for impressions?
Frank Caliendo: I guess I started when I was younger – probably a little bit in grade school, more in middle school and a bunch in high school – but I didn't really know what I could do until I was in college at UWM. And as it got to senior year in college, I didn't know what I was going to do. I went to the broadcast journalism school, but I didn't really want to interview people so much.
So I thought maybe I'd be a SportsCenter anchor or something, but I wasn't good at interviewing people. So I just tried comedy and just went into it and really started going at it like an obsessive compulsive. And it worked.
OMC: Madden was kind of the impression that broke you into the spotlight. How long did it take you to develop that impression?
FC: It's funny; it just developed over time. They all do. I think they sound decent at the beginning and they work, and then I go back and listen to stuff I did 10 years ago – especially when I was first breaking – that people thought was great, and I don't think it sounds anything like him anymore. I sound a lot more like him now. It's almost like being paid to practice all of the time. But they get better usually.
OMC: Now you have a new impression for this new show, if I heard correctly?
FC: There's always some that I haven't done much of. It depends on what people have heard. I hadn't done a bunch of the Morgan Freeman impression, and I now I do a lot of it. Now, people have seen me do a bunch of new ones that I'm doing on ESPN, like Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper, and they yell them out if I haven't done them.
Sometimes, like the Mel Kiper Jr., it's very specific for a very small audience, but that audience goes crazy for it. Some of those more narrow ones are huge to certain people, and other people are like, "Why are these people laughing?"
OMC: What was the secret to the Morgan Freeman impression?
FC: You start off quietly and build the strength in the voice. When I first started, it didn't really sound like him and then (puts on Morgan Freeman voice) slowly I figured out the way to make it work. It's kind of like building a muscle; you tear down the muscle to have it rebuild.
OMC: How was it doing those impressions of Gruden and Kiper in a place where you were working with them as well?
FC: They both have been pretty cool about it. They both like me so that's pretty good. Originally, I'm not sure Gruden knew how to take me, but then once I met him, he really starting getting into it, and I think he likes it now. And Kiper comes across on TV as an angry, mean guy, but he couldn't be further from that.
OMC: Where were the big secrets and elements for cracking those two impressions?
FC: For Gruden, a lot of it was in the face, getting that Chucky look and the "I'll tell you what, man." It's all in the cadence, especially Kiper. Kiper wouldn't say just the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers; he'd be like, "The Green Bay Packers organization … Aaron Rodgers at the quarterback position." He never says anything directly. He talks around it a lot and uses big words. You just get into the way they talk about things and the cadence.
OMC: Have there been any impressions that you really wanted to do, but you had to give up on them because they weren't coming together right?
FC: Oh yeah, all the time. I only do the ones that I'm pretty good at. It makes me look better. But there are tons. I can't really do a good Joe Pesci, so I don't even try.
OMC: How is it working at ESPN? It seems like it would be the coolest place to work.
FC: I'm only there once in a while, but it's very different from Fox. Fox was like a magazine, and ESPN is like a newspaper. A lot of people who are there went to school for broadcast journalism and were at the top of their field. Not to say that they weren't at Fox, but it's a very different feel. It's super numbers intensive, and everyone's in a cubicle working. It's much more newspaper-like than Fox, which felt more TV. It feels old school in terms of the work environment, but in terms of what they do, it's definitely cutting edge.
OMC: Besides the weather, how is it returning back to Wisconsin?
FC: It's good! I always get to see a bunch of old friends, and we're doing a promotion over at Spin Milwaukee, playing some table tennis against some people who might not be coming to the show and they'll have a chance to win some tickets. It'll be just a fun time. My brother and I might play some doubles against some people.
OMC: I heard you are secretly awesome at ping pong. When and how did you develop that?
FC: My dad used to play when we were little. We used to play up at UW-Waukesha in a little club up there. But when I was in Vegas for a couple of years, I had nothing to do during the day so they had a full-time table tennis club so I'd go play ping pong there, pretty much everyday. There were plenty of people who were former national champions and all kinds of stuff there, so you'd get to learn a lot of different things from a lot of different people.
It's one of those games that everybody laughs at, but if you play it for real, you're like, "Oh my goodness; this is a big workout!" I've lost about 30 pounds, and a part of it is from that. So in an hour of doing ping pong drills, believe it or not, you can burn 600 calories.
OMC: I've been to Spin a couple of times, and you see the professional players there. They are just insane.
FC: Oh yeah, they'd probably destroy me.
Frank Caliendo will perform at the Riverside Theater Saturday, Jan. 25. Doors open at 6 p.m. He will also be playing ping pong at Spin Milwaukee Saturday afternoon from noon until 3 p.m.
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