Master impersonator shakes up his act

In years’ past, being an audience member at a Frank Caliendo performance meant you weren’t quite sure who was going to show up. Sure, Robert De Niro would probably be there, John Madden was almost a certainty and it wouldn’t be shocking if Shaggy from Scooby Doo popped in after some Scooby treats.

After all, Caliendo has been the most popular voice impersonator over the last 20 years, with an arsenal of voices that seems endless.

But the comedian has been changing his act lately. Longtime fans will notice that his shows aren’t so much about those characters anymore, as he concentrates on a more traditional comedy routine in his sets, though the results will be just as enjoyable.

Keith Loria spoke with him about his Jan. 19 performance. Caliendo will be appearing at the Ridgefield Playhouse — only with a few fewer “famous friends” around.

Keith Loria: What can you preview about your performance at the Ridgefield Playhouse?

Frank Caliendo: It’s my birthday that day, so maybe I will come out with a cake. I’m going to be telling a little bit more stories about family as opposed to the voice after voice after voice kind of stuff, though that will be mixed in there as well.

KL: People tend to associate you with these celebrity impressions. Why did you decide to minimize the “voices” in your act?

FC: I’m just trying to evolve as a comic as opposed to a puppet master. I have a lot of other things to talk about, whether it be my kids or something else happening in my life. I know it’s tough because people want to hear the voices — it’s how I programmed my audience — but now I tell more of a story around these voices.

KL: Since you’re still doing some of these impressions, have you thought about any new ones that might come along in 2019?

FC: I haven’t because I do want to get away from it. The audience is so segmented that it’s hard to find someone who everyone will get. I was working on some things for the NFL network, trying out Michael Irvin and Kurt Warner, but that’s only going to play to like six people. Outside of that specific audience, no one is going to get it and that’s the difficulty of doing impressions in 2019. People are watching different things overall.

KL: What’s the secret then? How has your creative process changed?

FC: This is just the beginning of it. I’m putting together some podcasts now and just changing things up. I’m not comparing myself to this person, but if you go back and watch the evolution of George Carlin, one of the greatest comics of all time, he went from doing the Hippy Dippy Weatherman to social awareness type of humor. He went through different phases, as did others, so I’m trying to transition to something like that and give the audience a little chance to listen to some things that I want to say. But these characters I know are part of what I do and I know they need to be part of the show in some way.

KL: Do you have any resolutions for the year ahead?

FC: I’m going to try and put out a lot more content on these podcasts. I’ve been silent for a while and it’s all about figuring out what the next phase is for me. Some is impression content, some is commentary, and I have one about being a dad. I’m just trying to find these other sides of me, maybe find that one-man show in my life.

KL: When you first started in the business, what was your goal? Did you always want to strike it big with the impressions?

FC: My biggest problem is I didn’t have many goals. Really, the only thing I wanted to be was a talk show guest. I grew up in the ’80s and I loved watching Jonathan Winters and other comedians who weren’t big movie stars or TV stars, but they were comedians who would just show up and make you laugh. It wasn’t from stand-up so much, as just sitting on the couch and telling stories and being silly.

KL: What’s the key to making a voice impression work?

FC: The key is to take the voice or character and add a take to it. If you watch YouTube, 99 percent of people doing voices are just repeating things people are saying. For me, Pacino is someone who is so engulfed in acting that he’s lost the world and doesn’t understand simple things like how a light bulb goes on. Maybe finding where a character fits in a fish-out-of-water situation. That’s the most important thing.

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