TEMPE, ARIZ. -- Frank Caliendo does 10 minutes of impressions of Robin Williams and John Madden, much to the delight of his audience. Then, he sits down quietly in the back of this writer's Media Literacy class at UWM.
Just a few years ago, Caliendo played to audiences of fellow students in his UWM classes, and before that at Waukesha South High School. His following has grown considerably.
Caliendo now plays to hundreds of people in tours of comedy clubs nationwide. His April 2 appearance at Giggles in Germantown has been sold out for a couple weeks. He makes another appearance there in June, and tickets are going rapidly. Upcoming appearances in Minneapolis and Peoria also are sold out.
Perhaps Caliendo has become best known for his impressions of John Madden and others on the FOX NFL pre-game show. He also was a regular on "MADTV" and WB's "Hype."
He's done sketches on the "Best Damn Sports Show" and standup on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend." "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "NBC Late Friday," "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilbourn" and "The View."
On March 29, Caliendo will perform at the Washington correspondence dinner before Vice President Dick Cheney, members of Congress and the journalists who cover the President and Congress. President Bush had been scheduled to attend, but the White House recently informed Caliendo -- who does hilarious impressions of the President -- that Bush will not make the affair.
Frankly, Caliendo, now 32, has become one of the hottest comedians around. This writer caught up with his former student at a performance at The Improv in Tempe, Ariz., and spent a morning with him, his wife, Michele, and son, Joey, at their Tempe home.
"I learned a lot doing those impressions in my classes back in those days," said Caliendo, a 1996 graduate of the UWM Journalism and Mass Communication Department.
"I really wasn't that interested in becoming a journalist because I'm not an intrusive type of person, but a lot of what we studied applied to what I wanted to do in other ways, and I knew I could always fall back on the degree if comedy thing didn't work out. I also needed to take a risk, and try what I was really interested in."
Caliente often infused life into some evening classes by starting them with an impression or two. He always knew when to quit though and become serious. He was a near 4.0 GPA student and could have become a fine journalist, but the "comedy thing" has worked out very, very well.
"I think I always did know when enough was enough," Caliendo said. "Even back in high school, I was never a disruptive student or really got in trouble because I was always doing jokes or anything."
Caliendo did a little club work while still a student at UWM, but had mixed success. After his graduation, he started to pick up more club work, in Chicago and elsewhere, first as an emcee, then as a middle act and finally as a headliner. He also did well making comedy tours of college campuses.
"I was able to pick up work right after graduation," he said. "I liked doing clubs, still do like them, in fact. The college tours were fun too. I was closer to their age, so connected with them. I was able to use the college tours as leverage to move up to more headliner work at clubs."
Caliendo hooked up as a regular on "Hype" and then "MADTV." Through those gigs, he gained recognition, to the point where Jimmy Kimmel asked him to do his Madden impressions as part of his segment on the NFL pre-game show.
"That actually is an interesting story because Jimmy wanted me to join the show, and his producer said he had this other guy who did Madden that he wanted on the show. It turned out they were both talking about me," Caliendo said.
When Kimmel moved on, Caliendo joined the pre-game crew and now hangs with Terry, Howie, Jimmie and the others.
"They are a great bunch to work with," said Caliendo. "I think Terry Bradshaw could do anything he wants. He is very talented. After I do an impression of him, he'll say, 'not funny, Frank,' on the air, but then when we're off the air he'll say, 'That was really funny, Frank.'"
One guy who does not share Bradshaw's love for Caliendo is Madden, who has protested the impressions by "that little fat guy" on FOX. "I just think Madden was so big at one time that he wasn't used to anybody doing something like this," Caliendo said. "He really doesn't like it or me."
Caliendo does Madden so well that some people don't understand he's not Madden. "I heard Frank on the radio the other day. He didn't get to say much though, Madden kept interrupting him," reads a quote on Caliendo's Web site. The person quoted had no clue Caliendo was doing the Madden voice.
Caliendo's Web site -- frankcaliendo.com -- claims his "genius" started even earlier than his days at Waukesha South or UWM:
"Born at the age of 3 in northern Illinois, Frank was already ahead of his time. Even on the day of his birth, Frank's two younger brothers knew something was funny. Before he could even speak, Frank's mother noticed him doing an incredible impersonation of a young Dudley Moore. Of course, Frank's father reasoned that all babies sound like they are drunk and heave all over themselves, but that is not the point. This kid had something special. He seemed likely to perhaps have a chance to maybe someday possibly become questionably close to one of the funniest persons alive."
This is just one example of the crazy humor on the Web site. Maintained by Frank's brother, Terry Caliendo, the site offers downloadable clips of shows, radio appearances, voices of Madden, Bush and others, and a lot of other zany stuff. "And, we're going to do some updating and redesign of it," Caliendo said.
Good writing -- along with keen observation skills, keeping up on topical issues, having a sense of what is funny -- is an essential part of Caliendo's acts. "There really are two tiers to making it work," he said.
"You first have to capture the person's voice, mannerisms, expressions. I concentrate on the triangle around the eyes, nose and mouth. Nobody is the same and you see that when you look there. You try to catch what makes the person unique.
"The second tier is to put the character into a funny situation. A lot of impressionists don't also have a sense of the comic. I try to combine them, by touching on topical situations, or doing the fish out of water routine, like John Madden narrating skating at the Olympics -- 'you put a circle here, and a circle there'. That is done, in part, through good writing. I script major parts of my acts, but I also improv at times.
"I've always tried to make it organic. I like it to evolve from the character, sort of like Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters do."
In addition to his brother, Caliendo works closely with his agent, Barry Katz, and a cadre of others who help with his shows and appearances. Katz is in the process of reviving the Last Comic Standing event.
Comedy has given Caliendo and his family some great things -- homes in Tempe, Los Angeles and Ohio. But, he admits it also can be a hectic, crazy life.
"I travel all the time, which gets harder with the family," said Caliendo, whose son, Joey, has been diagnosed with a rather severe allergy to peanuts and other things.
"He drank some Clorox not long ago, and never got sick. It was like kryptonite for him, but if you throw a peanut at the little guy he swells up and has real problems," said Caliendo, who tries to spend as much time with the 19-month-old as possible.
"We're also expecting a second child ... although my wife doesn't know that yet," Caliendo added. Michele actually is, of course, quite aware of it, since she was six-months pregnant at the time of our interview.
Turning serious, Caliendo said, "I want to earn a good living for my family, give them a nice place to live and that, but I know they also need me to be here for them."
Caliendo moved from L.A. to Tempe for family purposes. "I really don't like Hollywood," he said. "Everybody is an actor and is trying to get auditions. People are treated like crap there. Everybody seems desperate. I don't want to feel desperate and don't want to raise a family in that environment.
"It really is all about family for me. I want to work to earn a good living for them, but also want to live in a place where my kids can have some sense of normalcy."
Caliendo's Milwaukee upbringing has helped him remain grounded, and family-oriented.
"Milwaukee is a great place to raise a family," he said. "You can remain grounded there. I'm sure you also can do quite well there in certain businesses, but the entertainment business isn't one of them.
"You have to move to a bigger city. Even Chicago isn't enough. You almost have to move to one of the coasts because things come out of New York or L.A. So, I had to move, but my family and many of my friends are still in the Milwaukee area. I'm trying to maintain some of that grounded quality, some balance, in my family life."
Back in the days when Caliendo's audience was primarily students in a UWM Media Literacy course, you could already see the talent, creativity and wit in his impressions and jokes. He also did indeed know when "enough was enough." He was a very good student in the three or four courses he took from me.
Watching him at his Tempe show, I couldn't help but flash back to those days at UWM, but also noted the growth and maturity in Caliendo's work. He has become a true pro.
Spending that morning with him and his family at their home, I also could see maturity in my former student as a person. Frank Caliendo is, and always will be, a very funny man, but that's not all he is - even if he equates life with a comedy sketch on his web site:
"Life's a sketch ... and then you die."