Big impression: Frank Caliendo finds his comedic voices

Comic impressionist Frank Caliendo performs his stand-up routine.

People knew him as the Madden guy, the Bush guy and the Barkley guy.

Finally, after launching his own television variety show called “Frank TV,” folks began to recognize him as Frank Caliendo.

The Wisconsin native has effectively usurped the throne vacated years ago by Rich Little as the go-to impressionist of his generation. Caliendo first came to prominence on “MADtv” and later “NFL on Fox,” delivering startlingly on-point clones of John Madden, Robert De Niro, Jason Alexander, Dr. Phil and James Gandolfini.

Now the Emmy-nominated performer seems to be displaying his talents everywhere there’s a slot available.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be an impressionist,” Caliendo says during a phone conversation while dropping off one of his kids at school near their Phoenix-area home.

“All I ever wanted to do my whole career was be a guest on a talk show. I didn’t even want to have a talk show, I just wanted to be a guy who came on and was funny. When I go on with Leno and he lets me do (an impression of him) the whole time, that makes things easy.”

Audiences won’t have to wait until the next late-night TV booking to marvel at his comedic mimicry, as Caliendo will bring his stand-up act to Kansas City this weekend.

Q: What’s the most misunderstood aspect about being a comedian?

A: It’s that you only work one hour a day. … The other misunderstanding is that all comedians are unhappy. I’m pretty happy right now. The problem is that when comedians are only worried about comedy, that’s when they’re unhappy. If something goes wrong in your career, that’s all you have. One of the most important things for me was getting married, having a family. There’s ups and downs in the entertainment world because it’s like you’re a salesperson, but you’re always selling yourself. If somebody doesn’t want the product, you take it personally because you’re the product. As soon as you realize none of that really matters, you’re fine.

Q: When is the last time an impression has gone horribly wrong for you?

A: I’m still working on the Obama. As I say in the act, I don’t have the voice down yet, so I’m going to rely mostly on my physical resemblance. I met with some executives who are like, “Well, YOU can do ANYTHING.” No I can’t. I’m just a human being like anybody else. Some stuff takes a lot of work. Sometimes you work very hard and you don’t get it. There are tons of voices I can’t do. The most difficult thing about being me is if I don’t “nail an impression,” people are like, “Ehh. He’s not that good.”

Q: There’s a phrase that Hollywood animators use called the “uncanny valley,” where if they create a human that looks too lifelike, it stops being impressive and is instead regarded as creepy. Is there an uncanny valley for impressionists?

A: I don’t think it ever becomes creepy; it becomes less funny and more like, “Oh my.” I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t think it can ever reach that level. When it’s human becoming human, that’s more looked at as a talent. But I will say it might creep somebody out if it’s a male doing an impression of a female, or a female an impression of a male — but I don’t have that ability.

Q: Do people in the industry view doing impressions as a lower form of comedy than, say, a standup comedian or sitcom star?

A: I don’t think so. I’ve had people come to me — like network people — that want me to do big hosting things because I can throw these voices in. I think it’s become more of a positive deal — especially because on the Internet it’s become such a big thing. Nobody cares anymore about those things if it makes somebody money. The biggest comedy act in the entire country right now is Jeff Dunham, and he has puppets.

Q: What’s on tap for the next season of “Frank TV”?

A: We’re not coming back. It hasn’t been announced, but we’re done. The time has come and gone for the show, unfortunately. To me, it’s kind of a mixed thing. It was a lot to do. We needed probably two more people on the show. But the amount of work that went into it was killing me. I was wondering how I was going to do it for a third season. But the (ratings) really settled. We were on during election night, and we tanked. We never really came back hard after that. But I signed two more years for the “NFL on Fox,” and I really don’t want to do anything else right now.

Q: What was your last day job before going full time in the industry?

A: I worked at a golf course in the grounds crew when I was going to college. I graduated in 1996 (from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) with a broadcast journalism degree. I worked there and at an indoor baseball/softball place doing odd jobs like giving away tokens to the batting cages.

Q: So you’ve always had a connection to sports?

A: Yes. My dad was a minor league baseball player for the White Sox. We grew up playing Junior Olympic baseball. I don’t know more than the casual sports fan. I’m not a sports analyst or anything. People get that confused. They think my act is going to be all about sports. It’s really not — just John Madden and a couple others I throw in there.

Q: Is there a double-standard for doing impressions of someone who is from another race?

A: There has been to some people. I know the first time I ever did an impression wearing makeup as an African-American person, I asked J.B. (Fox sports anchor James Brown) if it was OK. He said, “If you’re going to do an impression of all the guys, you’ve got to do me.” I think that opened me up to be able to do that. … Once I started doing that Charles Barkley impression in full makeup, that brought me to a whole other audience — and a much more diverse audience. … I do understand the history. But we’re not putting on a minstrel show with super-dark makeup. In this century, people look at it differently. They look at the person who is doing it and the context of it. I mean, look at what Robert Downey Jr. did (in “Tropic Thunder”). That’s an Oscar-nominated character.

Q: Did you actually get to perform as George Bush when invited to the White House?

A: I did the impressions in my act with Dick Cheney sitting right next to me. President Bush was supposed to be there, but he was “in Cancun for a summit.” Really. … It was surreal because I started doing the Bush voice and I heard Lynne Cheney from the side going, “Oh my God.”