Frank Caliendo snookered me. For a split second, I thought I was talking to President Obama. There were no censorious press secretaries filtering his words, no spokespeople wanting to go off the record. Just me and the world's most powerful politician. Obama spoke in his customary locution: clipped sentences, parsing, his habit of starting sentences with "Look" or "Here's the deal."
"I'm studying his mannerisms, the way he talks," said Caliendo, unaware that I bought his impression hook, line and sinker. "He parses things into short phrases. Where we are in the country as far as politically, you're on one side or the other, and there's a lot of friction there. From a comedic standpoint, he's a human being, so you can make fun of him a little bit more."
If Caliendo's name doesn't ring a bell, his face might: His spot-on riffs on NFL commentator John Madden and former President George W. Bush have made him a favorite of the late-night talk show circuit, landed him recurring roles on the Fox NFL pregame show and the sketch comedy show "MadTV" and scored him numerous commercial gigs and even his own show (the since-canceled "Frank TV" on TBS).
On Oct. 12, the celebrity impressionist/comedian began the next phase of his career, as a Vegas headliner. He follows magician Lance Burton with a 9:30 p.m. show (dark Wednesdays) at the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino. Tickets run $59 to $95, taxes and fees included.
"I'd been kicking around the thought of doing Vegas for some time," said Caliendo, who lives with his wife and two children in Tempe, Ariz.
"When [celebrity impressionist] Danny Gans moved to the Wynn, there was talk about me possibly coming to the Mirage or somewhere else on the Strip. Well, [ventriloquist/impressionist] Terry Fator got signed to the Mirage. When I met with the MGM Mirage folks, I knew they were serious, and it all came together."
Stand-up comedy on steroids
In a town known for its top-notch impressionists, such as Fator and Gans (who died in May), Caliendo sees his show as providing something altogether different.
"I call it a stand-up show on steroids," he said of the show, which will feature impressions, comedy, live music, videos, even singing. "It's a show for all audiences. I'm doing lots of voices, everyone from Andy Rooney to Chris Rock.
"I'm something different here because a lot of impressionists here are great entertainers," he said. "Most of them sing, and they sing just like the stars. But I fall into the comedy category. Mine is really a comedy show with impressions and action that I really hope people are entertained by."
Born to impress
The seeds of Caliendo's stand-up routine were sown in his formative years, watching Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters.
"I enjoyed the speed of their performances, not staying on a character too long," he said. "It's informed my approach, which is sort of vaudevillian. Younger audiences need you to move faster in terms of pace and to have lots of energy and be different.
"I'll even talk to myself on stage; I'll lose myself in a character for a second and forget the audience is watching because I'm having so much fun being in character."
Born in Chicago, Caliendo moved to Waukesha, Wis., with his family at age 4. Not quite a class clown, Caliendo said he was nonetheless the school entertainer, always cracking jokes and making people laugh. "Saturday Night Live" provided comic inspiration.
Caliendo, who studied broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, hit the road after graduating, doing well enough to get hired for several stand-up gigs.
"Nobody was doing impressions at the time in and around Milwaukee," he said. "I performed in Chicago, elsewhere in the Midwest and every once in a while in Texas. I started touring colleges around 1998. I got on TV in 1999, the 'Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn' for my John Madden impression. I just kept getting more and more work."
A career is born
Caliendo went to Los Angeles in 2000. He worked on "Hype," which was modeled after "MadTV." It may have been perfect timing: His popularity began taking off.
Caliendo made the rounds on late-night TV ("The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "The Late Show With David Letterman," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno") as well as daytime programs ("The View"), sports shows (Fox Sports' "The Best Damn Sports Show Period," ESPN 2's "Mike and Mike") and specials ("Comedy Central Presents Frank Caliendo"). He's even performed on C-SPAN.
Then came the gigs that made him a household, er, face: mimicking George W. Bush for Dish Network commercials and appearances on Fox's NFL pregame show, predicting the outcome of games.
That segment reaches 36 million viewers each week during the pro football season. "It's only three minutes, but ... it's done a lot for my exposure," Caliendo said.
Performing in Vegas
The steady stream of commercials and TV appearances meant Caliendo was away from home a lot. A headlining gig in Vegas offered stability. He'd played the city on various occasions, opening for comedian Jay Mohr and providing entertainment for corporations hosting conventions.
He's working on new impressions, Morgan Freeman and Nicolas Cage among them. But his Madden and Bush impressions remain the most popular.
Caliendo, who has a residency contract at the Monte Carlo through 2019, said his show has universal appeal: "It's very clean. You could bring a 7-year-old kid, although they might not understand some jokes. The dirtiest thing I say is, 'I like melons,' in a joke about Bill Clinton.
"I'm not controversial. I like doing the things I like and people like about famous people. Basically, I mimic stuff I see on TV. My parents used to say that I was never going to get anywhere watching too much TV. Guess I proved them wrong."
For more, visit www.montecarlo.com/frankcaliendo.