It’s about halfway through Frank Caliendo’s stand-up routine, and he’s been slowly morphing from a young man doing spot-on impressions into a schizophrenic medium. The 33-year-old comedian begins channeling his celebrity alter egos in rapid succession.
Within a few minutes, the sold-out Allen Theatre audience is bounced from Al Pacino, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton discussing their favorite chewing gum (“Those Doublemint twins are the best,” Caliendo says in a cheesy drawl) to a fight between Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards to curmudgeonly “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney. (“Do you ever wonder if you hear voices that aren’t really there?”)
The frenetic performance makes it hard to imagine Caliendo as a normal guy. But the part-time Clevelander (he and his family divide their time between Phoenix and Avon Lake) is surprisingly calm and soft-spoken offstage.
“This is normal Frank,” he explains a month later while calling from a car ride back to his New York City hotel room, following a TV appearance to promote his TBS late-night show “Frank TV” (and if you watched a single inning of the Cleveland Indians’ American League Division Series on TBS, you know exactly what we’re talking about).
The weekly 30-minute television show, which premiered Nov. 20, is a showcase for Caliendo’s arsenal of impersonations. It is just the latest development in a career that began when he started mimicking friends and teachers as a kid in Milwaukee.
At the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Caliendo began working on a Jay Leno impression. “I just looked in the mirror, jutted my chin out and said, ‘I can do this!’ ” he recalls. “When I graduated from college, I tried to do the impressions as a stand-up. It worked well.”
The gigs led to appearances on late-night television shows, a Comedy Central special, a gig on “MADtv” and, more recently, a stint as a regular on “FOX NFL Sunday.” The touring also led him to his wife Michele, a Lorain native whose father works as a recruiter for the Cleveland Clinic.
“She was in the front row at the Improv years ago, not laughing at anything I did,” he remembers. “We ended up getting married two years to the day later.”
Caliendo admits there are people whose voices and mannerisms he has yet to make his own — he mentions former vice president Al Gore and ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman. “It took me a long time to get President Bush,” he says. “I never thought I could do Charles Barkley,” now a fixture in his routine. Most of the people who have become part of his act are flattered by the attention. Football commentator John Madden, however, is definitely not.
“My manager went up to him at the Super Bowl a couple of years ago and said, ‘What do you think of the guy who does the great John Madden impression?’ ” Caliendo recalls, then slips into his rumbling John Madden voice. “He said, ‘I don’t like it!’ and walked away.”
Despite the attention, Caliendo knows there’s a chance viewers could also walk away from “Frank TV.” (The show’s eight-week season had been cut to five at press time because of the writers’ strike.) It is that knowledge, along with the immediate gratification of performing in front of a live audience, that keeps him on the road, even though he hates being away from his son Joey, 3, and daughter Juliet, 1. And one of the most striking things about his stand-up act is that it can be hilarious while still staying firmly in the territory of family fare.
“I don’t like people to be upset,” Caliendo explains. “I want them to walk out with smiles on their faces.”