What happens when comedian Frank Caliendo comes face-to-face with celebrities he has incorporated into his act over the years? “Most of the time they’re not sure how to take it until you do the impression in front of them and they find out the kind of person you are,” said Caliendo.
Caliendo’s character work and impressions are well-known from his time on “MADtv” and Fox NFL Sunday. But nothing quite prepared him for John Madden, who he first met at a Super Bowl game.
“I had been doing an impression of him for eight or 10 years by that point, it was what I was known for mostly at the time,” Caliendo said. “Jimmy Johnson was standing next to him, and I was on the other side of Jimmy like, ‘Can you believe I’m this close to Madden?’ And Jimmy says, ‘What? You haven’t met him?’ He taps Madden on the shoulder and Madden turns and is like (growls Madden-like). He was with his grandkids and had this look on his face of pure terror. So I broke the ice with the kids and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m the guy who talks like your grandfather. (Madden voice) ‘If you don’t finish your dinner, you don’t get any dessert!’
“The kids look at Madden. They look at me. Nothing. It was the longest 3 seconds in my life. And suddenly the kids start to crack up, and then it was like a light bulb went on in Madden’s head: ‘I get it now!’”
But when Caliendo was just starting out, most of his gigs were at college campuses. And one performance was memorably excruciating.
“I was performing at a small Penn State satellite school, and it was a lunchtime show in the dining hall. Remember, as a comedian you’re just talking at people and if they’re not paying attention, you’re in trouble.
“Well, I get there and they have a TV on and it’s got ‘SportsCenter’ playing and they’re like, ‘We’ll turn the TV off and move it; you’re performing in the middle of the lunchroom.’ And I’m like, ‘People are watching ESPN right now! This is going to be awful!’ So they turn the TV off, everyone boos and then I’m introduced: ‘Please welcome Frank Cadendo’ or something like that; they got my name wrong.
“I go up there, and I’m just tanking it and I can hear them calling out the lunch orders: ‘No. 53, your grilled cheese is ready.’
“I’m trying to do the John Madden impression, and nobody’s paying attention. I think everyone is just embarrassed for me. I remember a girl in the front row looked at me and goes, ‘Talk about having gas or something!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not what I do! You want to get up here and talk about that?’
“I just went down in flames, and after that I called my agent and said, ‘No more lunch shows!’ Early in your career you’re more of an attraction, you know? Not a specific attraction – you’re an attraction, not the attraction.”
“I learned to have a show ‘advanced,’ which means I find out what’s going on before I get there. At the time I was the kind of person to just show up and say, ‘Oh, I’ll deal with whatever happens.’
“I didn’t understand the business of it. But think about it, if someone is going to pay all this money, you want a show that’s going to give you what you’re asking for. Working outside is way tougher than inside because there are so many distractions – a plane, a helicopter, birds. Wind, even. So you try to make sure it’s inside. And if not inside, then try to make sure it’s in a tent and that there’s no surrounding noise.
“That’s when I decided I needed to start getting more information ahead of time ... but as a performer, you have to go and do it. And at colleges, you never know what’s going to happen.”
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