Say you’re at a party and some guy comes up to you. “Hey,” he says, “I do a great Jerry Seinfeld impression!” He does it; it’s excellent; you smile appreciatively. Then he tells you he does a great Jack Nicholson and proceeds to demonstrate; it’s great too, but this time your smile is a bit more strained. Then he tells you he does a great John Madden — at which point you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom.
JOHN MADDEN: Caliendo’s range and accuracy are impressive, but only great writing can overcome the Rich Little Effect.
This dynamic — call it the Rich Little Effect — is the big problem facing Frank TV, a half-hour sketch-comedy series that made its debut this week (TBS, Tuesdays at 11). Frank Caliendo, the show’s star, is a stunningly talented mimic. But as he barrages viewers with eerily accurate impression after eerily accurate impression, it becomes harder and harder to appreciate his skill. Instead, you start to think about hitting the head, or finding something else to watch, or maybe just reading a book.
Consider the debut episode. In roughly 20 minutes of viewing time, Caliendo does Madden, Robin Williams, the entire cast of Seinfeld, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Charles Barkley. The Madden bit, which involves the preparation and consumption of a turducken, is absurdist genius. But despite their spooky verisimilitude, the other skits tend, too often, to generate silence or awkward laughter instead of full-on guffaws. A lack of cleverness is one issue: when Caliendo tries to transcend simple mimicry, the premises (“Clinton” gives a tour of his sex-focused presidential library; “Cheney” gives Jenna Bush a wedding-night pep talk) generally disappoint. Caliendo’s physiognomy is another: with his stocky build and strangely plump cheeks, he’s a tough sell as, say, Michael Richards, even if he nails every vocal and physical tic (and he does). But the biggest liability is the impression fatigue that sets in about halfway through — with a vengeance.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give Caliendo and Frank TV a chance. Strange as it seems today, Seinfeld itself took a few years to hit its stride. And there’s reason to think Caliendo is already getting smarter: in the second episode, his Donald Trump bit, which mocks Trump’s reinvention as a financial-advice guru, couples a dead-on impression with serious satire.
Still, it’s hard not to be pessimistic. Caliendo is very good at sounding and looking exactly like a whole bunch of people. But as two of the best impressionistic skits in recent memory — Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford and Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra — demonstrate, there’s no strong correlation between accuracy and levity. What’s necessary is great writing and native comic talent. Note, too, that Chase’s Ford and Hartman’s Sinatra wouldn’t have been nearly as funny if they’d been preceded by five other impressions.
Despite a few talented next-generation exceptions (seen on Letterman’s recent “Ventriloquist Week”), ventriloquism all but died with Charlie McCarthy, and mime (I hope) with Marcel Marceau. Caliendo’s efforts notwithstanding, impressionism may do the same when Little leaves this mortal coil. And that would probably be okay.