Archive for November, 2013

By W.G. Ramirez

I admit it, when I was a kid I used to have my portable Panasonic cassette player and while watching Monday Night Football would record myself calling the game in Howard Cosell’s voice.

I played Pop Warner football, but also loved the idea of broadcasting. Ask me what I wanted to do back then and the answer is easy: I wanted to play in the NFL. Nevertheless, here I am a 26-year veteran of writing sports. I’ve also done television and plenty of radio.

Never, though, have I revisited those days of impersonating arguably the greatest big mouth in sports broadcasting, rest his soul. So you’ll have to excuse me if I get a little giddy when I watch comedian Frank Caliendo impersonate not just one, but at least a dozen sportscaster personalities from time to time on ESPN.

Seriously, can you imagine an all-star sports-casting roster that would include John Madden, Jim Rome, Colin Cowherd, Stephen A. Smith, Adam Schefter, Mel Kiper, Chris Berman, Jon Gruden, Mike Ditka, Charles Barkley, Bill Walton and Shaquille O’Neal?

Caliendo_Gruden

Frank Caliendo impersonates Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden on ESPN.

Catch him during an interview on ESPN’s Mike and Mike, and Caliendo might provide you with every last one of them, and then some, leaving you in tears of laughter when it’s all said and done.

The stand-up comic, who will be appearing in Las Vegas at the Orleans Hotel on Friday and Saturday, has successfully carved a niche into the sports world, by slicing his brand of comedy and impersonation into pre-game shows on Fox and ESPN the past 13 years. After doing his famed-Madden on Fox NFL Sunday during the 2000 season, Caliendo was invited back as a semi-regular guest the next two years before joining Fox’s pre-game show as a prognosticator in 2003. That lasted until 2012, when his tenure came to an end, and a new one began on ESPN.

Since signing a contract with ESPN, Caliendo has not only expanded his arsenal of characters, but has grown his popularity among even more diehard sports fans while portraying some of the most lovable characters on the entertainment and sports network.

“The people who watch ESPN are a different group than that watch Fox overall,” said Caliendo, during a phone interview on Tuesday. “I think ESPN people tend to watch a lot of ESPN and know everyone on ESPN. … Some of these guys, it plays way better to do it on ESPN than it would anywhere else cause you’re playing for the right audience.

“They see it, and they go crazy.”

FRANKLY SPEAKING

A regular guest every so often on the Mike and Mike show, Caliendo was announced as a newcomer to ESPN’s pre-game show by Berman, and the comic immediately broke into an impersonation of the host, explaining how the panelists each take their turn at frustrating “Boomer.”

But it wasn’t until his Gruden impersonation took off, and later his Kiper bit, when viewers normally interested in whether or not quarterbacks were available for their fantasy teams or just interested in updated news on their teams, were tuning in to see who Caliendo would portray next.

Caliendo_Kiper

Frank Caliendo, l, appears as Mel Kiper in a bit alongside analyst Todd McShay.

“The one thing about the football sketches is you have one shot every week,” the 39-year-old veteran comedian said. “If you’re on Saturday Night Live, there’s eight sketches, there’s a cast. If two of ’em are great, if two of ’em are good and the rest aren’t very good at all, people think it’s a great show. If I go on and do one, and it stinks, people remember for it a month. You’re trying to do new stuff, you’re trying to play it safe. It’s a difficult thing.”

Other than the Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, a short-lived sports comedy series, Caliendo said he can’t remember anyone that’s been able to sustain a calling for sports comedy. In fact, he said, there were times while at Fox he felt his time to leave was overdue, simply because there were some weeks he felt out of place.

“Fox is like a magazine; nice pictures, a layout, a Bacardi insert you can sniff,” he said. “You go to ESPN, it’s like a newsroom. Everybody’s in cubicles, there’s stats everywhere … it’s just a completely different feel. Not to say one is better than the other, it’s just a very different type of thing.

“What I like about ESPN (is) we kind of do stuff when I have an idea, or when they have an idea they think I can do. Usually the stuff for me parodies ESPN and that’s what I found really works there. It’s a very different kind of feel from Fox to ESPN.”

It also make it easier that the targeted audience is the right demographic, one that already watches the network daily and understands the nuances and smallest details of the people Caliendo is poking fun at with his bits. Throw in the fact the sports anchors and personalities at the network have no problem being a part of the skits, and Caliendo says there’s legitimate feeling that allows for an element of surprise that not only makes his job easier, but also a bit more fun.

“At ESPN, they let me have way more creative freedom in terms of the sketches,” he said. “At Fox, it really just became a formula of ‘we’re going to take topical jokes and try and do ’em with whatever character.’ At ESPN, it’s really making more fun of ESPN than anything. The fact that ESPN is doing that themselves, I think you can’t beat that, because (they’re) in on the joke.

“It creatively, especially last year, was one of the most fun times I’ve had because I got hungry again to do something different.”

QUITE FRANKLY

ESPN wanted him to do even more this year, but Caliendo said he didn’t have the ideas to support the networks plans, and so rather than be tied to a contract he couldn’t honor – basically not biting off more than he can chew – he has spaced his appearances out and plans on returning to the pre-game show as the playoffs approach. He revealed he’s working on several personalities, including former Philadelphia Eagle and football analyst Ron Jaworski, but also said there a couple of things that don’t include impressions.

Caliendo said he’s also had plenty of opportunities to tackle other new projects, but above all things, he said he remains focused on what he calls his No. 1 priority: being a father.

“My career is kind of second,” Caliendo said. “I’ve got two little kids, and most of the time I’m more worried about them and helping them with homework and stuff like that than anything else.”

And while long-term projects take a backseat to his children – because at the present time they’re at the point in their lives “they still like me,” he joked – short jaunts to Las Vegas, like this weekend, he doesn’t mind.

“The great thing about the city is, there’s pretty good food there,” he said, laughingly. “There’s always stuff going on. The entertainment, the amount of different things you can go see, even in one night, is amazing.”

But don’t expect to see his ESPN characters while he’s on stage at the Orleans, where you’re more likely to be entertained by his George Bush, Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams, Morgan Freeman and of course the always-popular John Madden impersonations. Sure, he’ll probably throw Charles Barkley and/or Shaquille O’Neal in there, but it’s all a matter of finding a groove with the audience he’s performing for at the time.

“It may vary a little bit from city to city, but with Vegas I generally have to keep it pretty broad,” he said. “You kind of just feel it out to see what you might spend a little more time on than something else. That’s the weird thing about a Vegas … you might have somebody from Baltimore, sitting next to somebody from Mississippi, sitting nextΒ  to somebody from Los Angeles. They’re going to laugh at different things. It’s not a cohesive group. I just try to hit a little bit of everything and whatever people like I stick with a little bit more and maybe improvise a little off of that.”

Who knows, maybe he’ll even throw in a little Cosell for yours truly.