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Frank Caliendo brings ESPN characters to Huntington's Paramount

Frank Caliendo vs. Jon Gruden

Frank Caliendo impersonates ESPN's Jon Gruden in an episode of "Gruden's QB Camp."

There is a world outside of sports for Frank Caliendo, full of memorable characters with important jobs, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But for an impressionist who has made sports a career-defining specialty, what could be better than being at ESPN, his primary TV and radio home the past two years?

Nothing, it turns out.

"ESPN has so many characters, it's like 'The Simpsons,' " he said in an interview conducted by email to preserve a balky voice in advance of three metropolitan-area standup shows, including at The Paramount in Huntington Friday night.

"There's a world of people who may exist as pretty big names, but on ESPN they're superstars. They're brands, and they're super-identifiable to those who watch ESPN."

Caliendo, 40, had his own show on TBS, "Frank TV," in 2007-08, but he became best known among sports fans for nearly a decade on "Fox NFL Sunday," especially for his impression of John Madden.

Before the 2012 season he left Fox and that October joined the Worldwide Leader.

"I'm 100 times happier at ESPN," he said. "I was very stale at Fox. Much of it was my own fault. I was lazy and didn't fight for things I wanted to do at other times.

"Most of my stuff consisted of setup/punchline jokes to the camera -- a very old-school approach. I was part of the establishment, I guess. Now at ESPN I kind of make fun of the establishment."

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Caliendo added, "ESPN takes itself very seriously, but for some reason I'm allowed to be the court jester."

He pops up on a variety of ESPN platforms, including "Sunday NFL Countdown" and the "Mike & Mike" morning radio show, where he has appeared in an NFL picks segment with the real Stephen A. Smith as "Stephen B. Smith."

His most attention-grabbing sports impression of the moment is one of Madden's "Monday Night Football" analyst successors: Jon Gruden. (He listed Gruden, Ron Jaworski and Mel Kiper Jr. as his favorite current sports-related impressions.)

"My stuff is a lot more conceptual on ESPN," Caliendo said. "For example, the Richard Sherman '30 for 30' is like four minutes long, but it only really has a punch line or two.

"The rest is just playing with the concept of talking heads telling a story and creating hype and taking that hype to an insane level."

In that Sherman mockumentary earlier this year, Caliendo portrayed the likes of Gruden, Jaworski, Kiper, Adam Schefter, Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Chris Berman, Mike Ditka and Jim Harbaugh.

Those are familiar figures to avid sports fans. But how does he strike a balance before an audience such as the one in Huntington that presumably will include many non-sports fans?

Caliendo said the trick is to "mix it up" and also to provide a setup that works for non-fans, too.

"For example: Gruden, with his positive attitude when talking about players," he said. "It's, 'I love this guy, man,' and then showing how he can love something ironically. 'These are the best bad refs I've ever seen, man!'

"It works, even if you don't know who he is. However, if you do, it works 100 times better."

Caliendo tries to limit his Madden impression on TV these days because "it's old now," but he knows fans expect it, and for live shows he delivers.

"For people coming to see me, paying for a ticket? I'd be a jerk not to do it," he said. "Yes, they do really still like it."

He added: "I don't think it's the same as it used to be, but maybe that's because I don't love doing it as much as I did when it was new. I'm not sure."

Fortunately ESPN's ever-evolving "own little world of characters" means never having to run dry of fresh subjects, and its specialized audience means everyone will appreciate the references.

"ESPN jokes can get much more in depth on players, etc.; it's a much more sports-specific audience than Fox was for me," he said. "So it gives me a whole new world of material."

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