Stand-up comedian Frank Caliendo gets his shot in strike-shortened run

His impression of John Madden is his best-known, but the target is not amused.



LOS ANGELES — Frank Caliendo was on a Manhattan street last week when he noticed another pedestrian stare at him, glance upward, then stare again.

Caliendo turned around and discovered why: A huge ad for his new series, TBS’ “Frank TV,” was plastered across a building and displaying three, count ’em, three photos of the comedian-impressionist.

“I looked up and thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Caliendo recalled.

It was just the tip of the promotional skyscraper. The postseason baseball audience was bombarded with “Frank TV” spots featuring comedy snippets of Caliendo as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and other assorted stars and newsmakers.

Fans could place the voices and the face, too: Caliendo was a longtime part of Fox’s “MadTV,” drops in regularly on “Fox NFL Sunday” and CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman,” and has ample YouTube exposure. He also takes his stand-up act on tour.

“Frank TV,” which beginstonight, is his first shot at solo TV stardom. In an ironic twist for a comedian, the timing isn’t great: Because of the film and TV writers strike that started Nov. 5, the series will be cut from the planned eight episodes to as few as five.

When he tells his first-episode audience that “I feel like a little kid who just got a TV show for Christmas,” it’s hard to avoid thinking that Santa forgot to include batteries. But Caliendo is looking on the bright side.

“We’re on the air,” he said in an interview. “If we hadn’t gotten on and had to change that, I would have been disappointed. ... But I feel like we’re getting a chance.”

Besides, he says, he’s heard that network executives can tell after four episodes whether a show is gaining traction. And maybe viewers will taste just enough “Frank TV,” which marries sketches and stand-up, to be left wanting more.

“I don’t want to use it [the strike] to my advantage, but there’s plusses and minuses in everything in terms of the airing of a show,” he said. “I just hope they can fix this stuff,” he said of the dispute between studios and the Writers Guild of America that’s halted much TV production.

The credits for “Frank TV” list eight writers besides Caliendo. But he’s the man who’s doing all the on-camera heavy lifting in a series of skits in which he plays John Madden, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Dick Cheney and more.

His jet-propelled Madden imitation is Caliendo’s best-known, to the apparent dismay of its subject.

“My manager went up to him at a Super Bowl and said, ‘What do you think of the guy who does the John Madden impression?’ He said, ‘I don’t like it,’ and walked away,” Caliendo said.

The sleight-of-hand digital editing on “Frank TV” makes possible a parody of a 2027 “Seinfeld” reunion show in which Jerry, George, Kramer and Newman bicker once more via Caliendo’s dead-on vocal impressions.

He summons a target’s look with wigs and wardrobe — and a bit of a wink and a nod that viewers will use their imaginations or just go with it anyway. Caliendo does put on full drag as Elaine, however — and bears an unnerving resemblance to Rosie O’Donnell.

When he’s on the screen as several different people at once, Caliendo notes, his stocky frame and full face create an odd effect.

“I look like live-action ‘South Park,’ as I call it. ... A bunch of little round guys running around,” he said.

He recognizes that some viewers focus more on the visual than the audio, but he’s not trying to create slavish impersonations of the famous. Although he admires the work of Rich Little, Caliendo cites two idiosyncratic comedians as inspirations.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be an impressionist. I loved Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters,” he said. “If I could combine what I do best and the influence of Williams and Winters with these free-flowing characters, that’s what I wanted to be.”

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