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Turlock-bound comic impersonator Caliendo keeps it clean and goofy

(Laurie McAdam / The Modesto Bee)
(Laurie McAdam / The Modesto Bee)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then just call Frank Caliendo the flatterer in chief.

The comic is known for his impersonations of everyone from President Bush to John Madden to Jack Nicholson. His impressions can be seen all over TV, on his own show, "Frank TV," as well as on "Fox NFL Sunday" and commercials for DISH Network.

Caliendo says his act really is more about flattering the person in question rather than ridiculing him.

"Whenever I saw people do impersonations, sketches, it was ripping on the person," be said. "But for me, that wasn't what it was about. I'm goofing around with the people and getting the jokes to come from there."

The former "MAD TV" cast member launched his own comedy show, "Frank TV," on TBS last year. The series returns Oct. 21 for 10 new episodes. His comedy DVD, "Frank Caliendo All Over the Place," was released last month.

Caliendo will bring his act to Turlock Community Theatre on Oct. 14.

He spoke with The Bee while returning home to Tempe, Ariz.

Q: From people only familiar with you from TV, how is your live act different?

A: What most people see on TV is me in a wig looking like a "South Park" version of President Bush. But the stand-up I grew up loving was from Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters. I loved hearing them do different characters. I set things up; I talk about people.

Al Pacino yells for no reason. President Bush pauses awkwardly trying to figure out what his next word will be. That's what my stand-up is like. It's a clean show. I don't swear once, I'm just silly and goofy. I like people to be able to kick back. Some comedians are philosophers, I'm not one of those.

Q: When did you realize you could do impressions?

A: I've been mimicking people since I was a kid. I started doing the famous people probably right around high school; in early college, I'd do Jay Leno. I always wanted to do the different versions of someone.

Q: Who is your favorite person to impersonate now?

A: Charles Barkley is a fun one to do. Not everyone has seen it yet. Pacino is still fun to do. Doing Madden, too. The look on people's face when I do the Madden live, they're like "weird." Jeff Goldblum is fun, too. I like the weird ones.

Q: When you meet the people you've impersonated, how do they react?

A: I've done Leno with Leno. Dave (Letterman) with Dave. I've done Terry Bradshaw with those guys. John Madden is not a big fan of mine, so he never comes anywhere near me. I just met Karl Rove last week. I was doing an event in Sacramento and I saw him. He came running over to me and said, "Frank, how are you, buddy?" He said, "The president thinks you're very funny." That's surreal. I'm guessing I would have been audited if he didn't like it.

Q: Do you research to get your impressions down?

A: I kind of guess nowadays. I used to do a lot of research. Now I can pick up the mannerisms quickly. Driving is usually when I come up with it. I've been working on McCain. And Barack Obama talks (imitating the senator's cadence) somewhere in here.

It's always different, sometimes I get their voice, sometimes I get their mannerisms first. It depends on what seems to be easier at the time. There is no one set way. The Bush impression took me years to get. My job is to practice, I go on stage, and each time I go on, I practice more.

Q: Besides "Frank TV," you've been a part of "MAD TV" and do "Fox NFL Sunday." How are those performance styles different?

A: Each thing is different. The NFL is making jokes all about the NFL. Basically, it's about ripping people. It's different than the rest of my comedy, which is just goofy. We've gotten good at it, but it wasn't my forte at the beginning. "MAD TV" was a different kind of humor that I did, really. So I didn't have too many great moments. "Frank TV" is the most like my stand-up, the most like me.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?

A: I think I always liked comedy. I always liked sketch comedy as a kid. I'd watch Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Damon Wayans. I was like most kids. I thought, "I could do that." Then I got into that world and saw how hard it was.