To Be Frank (and many others)

by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n Friday night, John Madden will be at the INB Performing Arts Center. Sort of. As will George Bush and John McCain. Oh, and possibly Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Charles Barkley and Jeff Goldblum. These are but a few of the characters, voices and mannerisms stuffed inside the skin of impressionist Frank Caliendo.

Caliendo grew up admiring the impersonations of Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams. "I wanted to be the guy who'd switch voices," Caliendo says.

So it's no surprise there's a bit of Williams' ADHD tendencies in Caliendo's act as well. Get him on a roll and he begins pinballing back and forth, faster and faster, among a considerable number of characters. In fact, one of Caliendo's most accurate impressions is of Robin Williams doing a flurry of impressions. (Still, Caliendo favors a more serious Williams, the one "where he grows the beard and tries to win the award, more than the over-the-top crazy version.")

As a kid, Caliendo began to mimic the characters and voices from Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, but his first real celebrity impression was a squeaky-voiced rendition of Jay Leno.

"Jay Leno is the only guy on earth who could have a bobblehead made after him that would bobble less than his actual head," Caliendo says in one of the countless YouTube clips of his impressions floating around online.

Slowly, Caliendo began to expand his number of impressions. Today, Wikipedia lists around 120 different personalities, from Adam Sandler to Yoda.

The breadth paid off. Caliendo's resume has grown to include repeated appearances on both Letterman and Leno, a five-year stint on Mad TV, and finally his own TBS TV show: Frank TV.

Yes, Caliendo was awarded with a TV show bearing his first name, and all the show's episode titles also work "Frank" puns into the title. (Examples: "Ballpark Frank," "Franksgiving," and "Frankly, My Dear, I don't give a Frank.")

Caliendo comes to Spokane on the cusp of the show's second season. Frank TV regularly features Caliendo's best-known impression: John Madden. Frank TV's Madden brims with frantic bombast, slightly slurred bluster, and an undying love for Brett Favre. Caliendo says he can do a pitch-perfect impression of Madden if he wants to, but usually ratchets up the caricature to get more laughs. Where some comedians, such as Bill Hicks or Bill Maher, pepper their acts with political rants and off-color op-eds, Caliendo sticks strictly to silly. His act is clean of both obscenity and attempts at political persuasion.

"I have no interest in changing people's minds. I step away -- it's all jokes. It's all goofy. I try to play fairly neutral. It's about making people laugh," Caliendo says. "You're not going to learn anything from me."

Interestingly, Caliendo says doesn't watch many other comedians or other impressionists. He says he hasn't watched Mad TV in years. One advantage to avoiding others' material: It's easier to avoid simply doing impressions of others' impressions.

Caliendo says he's seen others copy the quirks from his impressions, but purposefully avoids doing the same.

"If I do an impression, I want to have a different take," Caliendo says. "My Bush impression is nothing like Will Ferrell's Bush. Will Ferrell was doing it in a cowboy-ish, frat-boy style."

Caliendo prefers a more laidback Bush, the dude who answers questions with long pauses, tangled syntax and awkward phrases.

"When our president gets something right, he is the happiest man on earth," Caliendo said in one of his late-night appearances, "He gets that little smile on his face -- that I-can't-believe-that-came-out-correctly smile." Then Caliendo squints and scrunches up his face into a self-satisfied smirk.

Caliendo says this crop of presidential contenders poses more of a challenge: Imitating Obama's tricky because of his race (though Caliendo has played Charles Barkley and Chris Rock before). Imitating McCain is tricky because much of McCain's physical awkwardness stems from old prisoner-of-war injuries. Still, that hasn't stopped Caliendo from mocking other aspects of McCain's persona, like his nasally voice or his unbearable whiteness of being.

"I've refused to let myself be hindered by my whiteness," Caliendo says as McCain on a recent Frank TV sketch, in paper-pale makeup. "As a child, I was once lost in my own bed sheets for several days."

When he's not on the stage or screen, Caliendo rarely brings out his impressions, he says. But there is one exception, one time in his personal life where his full range of vocal talent comes to play.

"Maybe a little bit with my kids, reading stories," Caliendo says.

Frank Caliendo plays the INB Performing Arts Center on Friday, Sept. 19, at 8 pm. Tickets: $41. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through May 23
  • or

About The Author