Packers fan Frank Caliendo knows the comedy game

Mike Thiel
Post-Crescent Media
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Frank Caliendo makes his money by being someone else.

One day he could be a sports icon such as John Madden or Jon Gruden and the next an award-winning actor such as Morgan Freeman or Robert Downey Jr. From their speech to hand gestures to the way they walk down the street, Caliendo studies his subjects intensely.

From that description it may sound as if Caliendo is the leader of an identity theft ring, but this 40-year-old master impressionist only uses his skills to make people laugh. And come Friday, he'll unload his 100-plus impressions onstage at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton.

A comedian since the 1990s, Caliendo is technically a Chicago native, but he moved to Waukesha at age 4, attended Waukesha South High School and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There's no doubt Caliendo prides himself on being a Wisconsinite, and his numerous shows in the Badger state — Caliendo also performs in Madison tonight and Milwaukee on Saturday — shows his home state also has his back. He admitted to purposely booking this string of Wisconsin shows around NFL championship weekend in hopes of an NFC title game at Lambeau Field. Alas, that didn't quite happen, but with the Packers still alive and well in pursuit of a return to the Super Bowl, the comedian knows he'll be greeted by fellow Packers fans at a fever pitch this week.

Caliendo isn't just an obsessed Packers fan. Pro football has provided a major boost for his career. As a member of "Fox NFL Sunday" throughout the 2000s and more recently a regular on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown," Caliendo's comedy and impressions have become a part of sports entertainment. His mocking of sports legends such as Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, John Madden and Charles Barkley have gone viral. He may do a better Jon Gruden than Jon Gruden does.

Though Caliendo has carved a niche in sports comedy, he uses his standup routine to prove he's more than just a one-trick pony. We talked to Caliendo about his comedy beginnings, how he masters impressions and what his standup is all about.

You've performed often in the Fox Valley, and Skyline Comedy Cafe in Appleton was actually one of the first clubs you performed at, correct?

Caliendo: Yeah, the Comedy Cafe in Milwaukee and the Skyline (Comedy Cafe) in Appleton were in major rotation for the first few months when I started doing comedy. I've never played the PAC. I've played in Green Bay a few times, but this is the first time I've done Appleton outside of the Skyline.

You graduated with a broadcast journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. How did you end up in comedy and how did that degree help you with your comedy career?

Caliendo: Well, I never wanted to start out working at a television station in Eau Claire or something like that. I didn't think I was a very good interviewer and I got into TV because I thought I wanted to be a SportsCenter anchor or something like that. I found out later that I didn't have anywhere near the knowledge base compared to some of the men and women who are there, but the way my degree has helped is knowing the business side and the technical side of broadcasting.

How did you get into the business of impersonating others?

Caliendo: I hurt my back when I was in college, a sophomore at UWM. I'd done (impersonations) a little bit, but I remember being bored, doing my mass communications homework and watching a lot of TV because the Internet wasn't around back then. So I was just mimicking a lot of stuff I saw on TV. Then I thought, hey, maybe I can do something with this.

After you got the idea, how did you learn to master these impressions? Take Jon Gruden for example. What did you study about him?

Caliendo: I think the first thing is you find the phrasing. What are the little ways they start sentences? For Gruden it's, 'I'll tell you what, man,' like he's going to give you some information. He's going to tell you that he's about to give you some information. It's the look in the eyes and stuff like that. … You can look like somebody by manipulating your face even if the rest of your face doesn't look like them. Sometimes the voice I do, I don't even think is that good, but I sell it with the mannerisms and the look.

Now that I've lost 50 or 60 pounds, it actually helps quite a bit because I don't look like Cartman from "South Park" trying to do the impression. A lot of time it's the whole presentation of something. It's not just the voice. You can sell it with a look that makes it even better than it actually is. There are plenty of characters I do that have OK voices, but you put them in the right scene and the right situation and say something funny and it turns out.

Which impression took the longest to master?

Caliendo: (ESPN anchor) Chris Berman has taken a long time. Barack Obama took a long time. … There are tons I can't do. People think I can just do whatever. It doesn't work that way. There are plenty I'm still in the midst of figuring out. I can't even really do a good Joe Pesci, yet.

Anyone you're working on impersonating?

Caliendo: In the sports world, I'm working on a Dick Vitale. So many people do it and I'm trying to do something a little different with it. … Otherwise, Jack Black. I think Russell Crowe is interesting. Tom Hanks is one, but sometimes (the impressions) are so subtle, it's hard to make people laugh. Samuel L. Jackson is one I've been working on, too, but I'm trying to talk like him without yelling or swearing (laughs)."

You catapulted into the mainstream with your "Fox NFL Sunday" gig throughout most of the 2000s. Now, you're with ESPN. Why are football pregame shows seeking out comedians?

Caliendo: (The networks) are always looking to do something outside of just plainly talking about football. It's funny because you have the purists who only want to hear about football, but the shows themselves get bored. The shows want to do more and be more entertaining whether it's Fox or CBS or ESPN, they're always trying to innovate and do something new. Just look at the way football games were broadcast from 20 years ago. When they started putting all the information on the screen, people thought they were nuts and that they were destroying the game. Now people can't live without it.

Take me through a Frank Caliendo standup show. It's not just about sports, correct?

Caliendo: Sports is about a quarter of the show and it's pretty spread out, so I don't lose anybody. … I have to set a lot of stuff up. I set up an alternate reality so I can call back all the characters I've used in the show. Basically, I talk about people and then I reference them throughout the show. Like George (W.) Bush, which I used to do a ton of, or Terry Bradshaw is going to have a dumb comment. Charles Barkley's thing is "Turrible," and with Morgan Freeman, if you don't get the joke, it's often narrated. It sets more and more people up and then it ends up being a hurricane of different impressions at the end. It's like I'm shooting fireworks the whole time and then you're really waiting for the grand finale.

— Mike Thiel: 920-993-1000, ext. 526, or mthiel@postcrescent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @thielwrites

If you go

Who: Comedian Frank Caliendo with special guest George Kanter

Where: Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, downtown Appleton

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Tickets: $25 and up. The show is close to a sellout. Only a few tickets remain. For more information, visit foxcitiespac.com.

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