Mr. Movie

My Q & A with comedian/TV star Frank Caliendo

Frank Caliendo does TV. So how does the movie critic end up with the interview assignment?

Just lucky, I guess. I’ve interviewed hundreds of celebrities during my career, and some of them I have clicked with and liked very much.

Frank Caliendo tops that list. He is one of the world’s nicest guys, grateful for his talent and the good life he has created and that has been created for him.

And Frank loves his fans. He is never too busy to talk with them, laugh with them, take photos and enjoy their company. That, too, is something to be admired.

These days, he’s all over Fox TV picking football game winners for Fox Sports on the pregame show with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson. He has also launched his new TV show on TBS called Frank TV.

Frank also still does stand-up comedy and is touring. We sat down late on a Friday afternoon just before one of his concerts in the lobby of a Portland hotel.

GW: Don’t you find it strange that a newspaper guy is interviewing an impressionist?

FC: I don’t know. It’s been done a lot lately. You have to use a lot of parentheses. He said as George Bush, “Why not? It’s all wordified.”

GW: Tell me about Frank TV.

FC: It’s like my stand-up show. I set things up and we do a sketch. What if Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were on Dancing with the Stars? Or ESPN. They have ESPN 1 and ESPN 2. Sometime you might see them doing ESPN Political. A political sports station. I can see a show hosted by [former basketball great and now television commentator] Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. W. is coming out. I think Oliver Stone missed somebody. Bill Clinton. So we did the movie Oliver Stone’s Clinton. It’s basically where Al Gore is in love with Monica Lewinksy and Bill is covering for him. (Breaks into Bill Clinton) Al, you’re just too important to the environment. I’ll take the hit on this. (Slips into Al Gore) But Bill you’ve never lied before! (Back to Clinton) I’ll try to make it work this time.

GW: It’s very different then.

FC: The smartest sketch we did is a cartoon in the premiere. Congress went after baseball players for steroid use and then they went after all sports and then musicians. Who’s next? Cut to the back of the heads of Popeye, the Incredible Hulk, Superman, Batman and Barry Bonds. Hulk, isn’t it true that you use an overdose of gamma radiation and Andro?’ (Hulk voice) Hulk not use that! Hulk, isn’t it true that you use steroids or if we look under those Hulk pants of yours that we’ll see proof of steroid use? (Hulk voice) Hulk plead the fifth.

GW: The humor is very mature.

FC: Yes. We’re in late night. There’s nothing dirty. We took some chances. We did some different things. We took some chances.

GW: How come you can do impressions and I can’t?

FC: My son can do them and he’s four. I look at somebody and it gets broken down. I don’t see three people walking, I see three different strides. I see way more than other people. My brain automatically breaks things down.

GW: But I’m a reporter. I’m a film critic. I break things down, too.

FC: You make observations probably on behavior and that kind of stuff.

GW: Not necessarily. I see things like you do.

FC: But I see it and can put it back out.

GW: Have you always been able to do this?

FC: Yeah. I could always do little bits of voices.

GW: What makes an impression work? Is it the voice? Or the mannerisms?

FC: All of it. Your face is like a pizza slice. You take a line and draw it across your eyebrows. Then extend it from both ends into a triangle that ends at the point of the chin. (slips into Bill Clinton) It’ll make you look like anybody you want, Bubba. (then to Robin Williams) See you can be Robin Williams, just grow a beard and win an Academy Award. Jay Leno is like this.

GW: You have a rubber face.

FC: It’s more like latex.

GW: Were you the class clown?

FC: A little bit in high school, but not much before then. I never got in trouble. I could read the audience very well.

GW: That’s handy for a comedian. I couldn’t. I was always being politely asked to leave and go to a different school. So you weren’t the class clown and you weren’t a cut up. When did you find out you were funny?

FC: I don’t know. Sometime in high school. I think I was in the fourth grade when I started coming out of my shell. I had things going through my mind so I’d just say it, but I had timing. Timing is the key. Three people can say the same thing, but if you time it right and do it with the right inflection or whatever, you get a laugh.

GW: Who inspired you?

FC: Rich Little and Frank Gorshin. Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters. They are the best. They make observations and they act them out. That’s what those guys do. They create characters from that. Impressionists say lines from movies. That’s Vaudevillian. That didn’t evolve. The rest of comedy evolved. The impressionists were still doing lines from movies where Jack Nicholson is working at McDonalds.

GW: And it’s different now?

FC: People grew past that. They wanted to hear stories and hear real observations that they maybe didn’t always think of. With the Vaudevillian impressionist there is the realization of the voice and the joke. And they go for three minutes with the voice. People don’t go for that anymore. I’ll do three voices. If I do one voice for a long time there has to be a lot of jokes in it. Joke. Joke. Joke.

GW: Who makes you laugh?

FC: My kids. I don’t watch a lot of comedy. It’s like going to work. I like stupid action movies. I love to watch things with twists. Did you see The Prestige? Of course, you did. You’re a film critic. That’s the kind of stuff I like. I love things that are zigging and zagging. I could watch that kind of stuff all day. I like Law and Order, things where there is a turn. Most comedies don’t have that. Comedies are straight ahead. I like twists where if you paid attention earlier it pays off.

GW: Like in your act.

FC: That’s why I do so many call backs. Now, you’re getting rewarded. You’re so funny that people have to come back and see you two or three times. Take The Simpsons. I was laughing so hard the first time I saw it that I missed three of the jokes. That’s what I want Frank TV to be. We want to be a sketch comedy version of that, creating all these characters, and different layers. Like The Muppets with all these different layers going on.

GW: I loved The Muppets.

FC: People don’t realize they were teaching you stuff. They were making points.

GW: Tell me more about you.

FC: I’m kind of a middle-of-the-road guy for the most part. Fiscally, I’m probably conservative and socially I’m liberal. I choose to live my life fairly conservatively in all aspects. The mortgage crisis is crazy to me. I have spent my entire life making sure I have insurance policies on myself. And other people didn’t do that. Now they want everybody to pay for it. Nobody is responsible anymore.

GW: That’s interesting.

FC: I’ve never been drunk. I’ve tasted some drinks, but I’ve never been drunk. I’ve never had a drug. I always like to be in complete control. It’s the same thing financially. I like to be three or four steps ahead in case there is a problem. Most people don’t think like that. I have a family that I have to support.

GW: Does it go even deeper than that?

FC: When I think about the TV show, I think that I have a network that is backing me hugely. I feel a responsibility to represent it properly. People don’t realize how many people depend on one person in this business. Their livelihoods are all based on me. I’m kind of like a small business. I have a lot of responsibilities and that weighs you down sometimes, too.

GW: You’re a celebrity. Celebrities aren’t supposed to think that way.

FC: I used to live in Los Angeles. I wanted to raise my kids in a decent place so I moved to Tempe, Arizona. I fly to L.A. every week, do the pre-game stuff for Fox, I get my work done and come back.

GW: You’re also not very politically correct.

FC: Like when I’m in dress-up and do Charles Barkley in full make-up. People say, “How do you get away with putting on black face?” Let’s break down what you just said. You said “get away with” which indicates I’ve done something totally wrong. This isn’t a minstrel show. I’m not Al Jolson. I’m not doing something that is blatantly offensive. I do realize there is a history behind this and you have to be careful when you do it. But I’ve had more people walk up to me and say I learn about you by watching you do the Charles Barkley. I tell them I have always worried about doing it and offending people. And then I ask them if it offends them. They say no because you do it well. How easy was it for the Wayans brothers to do a movie called White Chicks. And nobody complained.

GW: I complained. It was a bad movie. But my complaint was that it was a bad movie and it had nothing to do with skin color.

FC: We have a bad history, and we haven’t righted all the wrongs. I always hate it when people say because I’m a white person I can’t say the “N” word. Why are you worried about that? Who cares? Don’t worry about what you can’t say. Do you really want to say that? That’s your problem. It’s not that you can’t say it and somebody else can. We don’t need equality on that level.

GW: I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. You’re a very interesting guy.

FC: I live a comfortable life. I’m pretty rich now, I guess. But look at me. I still don’t wear socks. I’m me. I can’t not be me. That’s why TBS came to me in the beginning. They said, “You’re a regular average guy. You can just do this quote, unquote, amazing stuff.” Losing 40 pounds would help me. That’s probably my next step for Frank TV’s third season. I’m never going to be skinny. That’s never going to happen. But I would like to have my neck back. Right now it’s helping me. Everybody knows it’s me doing an impression.

GW: And your impressions are impressive.

FC: When people see me they think they’re going to see a 6’5”, 280-pound guy.

GW: Frankly, I thought you’d be a pretty good-sized guy.

FC: I’m 5’7” and I’m this wide? You put me on my side and I’m the same height. Right now I think the weight helps because everybody sees me in the impressions. I’ll put on a nose or a wig or a chin sometimes, but I don’t do much of that because I want you to see me in the impression. Everything in Frank TV is Frank’s take on something. We’re not trying to hide me.