The 2007 HBO Comedy Festival: Frank Caliendo steals the show
HBO Comedy Festival

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The HBO Comedy Festival was back in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace with another star-studded lineup, and was more than happy to attend. Headliners included Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, and the four-day festival featured a wide variety of well-known comics along with new talent. Along with Seinfeld and Rock, we saw performances by Frank Caliendo and Artie Lange along with the opening night variety show hosted by Steve Shirripa.

All of the performances were great, but Frank Caliendo stole the show. Caliendo’s hour-long set featured most of his best impressions, with heavy doses of George Bush, Bill Clinton, John Madden, Charles Barkley and Al Pacino. Nobody does a better Bush impression than Caliendo (with the possible exception of Will Ferrell), so Caliendo opened with Bush and kept coming back to our verbally-challenged President throughout the show. Caliendo has the ability to weave numerous impressions into one bit, sometimes moving so fast with different voices and faces that the audience can barely keep up, mostly because everyone is laughing so hard at the last joke. Caliendo would be doing a bit about Madden or Pacino, and then quickly bring in Bush and then Clinton for quick comments. The audience loved him, and he kept the crowd going through the whole hour.

Caliendo’s performance aired on TBS as a comedy special on November 16th (“Frank Caliendo – All Over the Place”) in anticipation of the launch of his new sketch-comedy show on TBS called “Frank TV.” I haven’t seen the new show, but there’s no doubt Caliendo is a rising star. When the special airs again, make sure to catch it.

The festival kicked off with a variety show hosted by Steve Schirripa, who achieved fame for his role as Bobby “Bacala” on “The Sopranos.” Schirripa was a pleasant surprise. He’s not known for his stand-up comedy but he had a great rapport with the audience and he was having a great time. He also had several taped bits from his “Tonight Show” appearances that showed on the big screen and went over well with the crowd, including the “Judgmental Bastard” and a guided tour of Vegas with Ross the Intern from the “Tonight Show.”

Jerry Seinfeld is a legendary comedian, and he didn’t disappoint, though his act was different than I expected. He still builds his act around the same observational humor that made him famous, but his mannerisms during the show were a little different than earlier in his career. He was much more animated and engaged. I remember Seinfeld’s detached demeanor in his earlier shows. Here he often sounded like the Jerry from his TV show when he’d be screaming at George or Kramer. It was still very funny, and frankly it was nice to see something a little different from the routines that made him famous. His material has also changed, with a natural emphasis on married life and life as a father.

While Seinfeld’s delivery has evolved, Chris Rock hasn’t changed a bit, and that’s a good thing. He mentioned in the show that he hasn’t done stand-up in four years, so all the material was new, but the attitude and mannerisms were vintage Chris Rock. Rock still loves to talk about race, and he had plenty of new material to work with following the Imus controversy. Rock was pretty easy on Imus, and he used the episode to explain his perspective on when those in superior positions should speak about those less fortunate. Skinny women shouldn’t say a word about fat women, but fat women should be able to bitch about skinny women all they like. The audience loved it, and Rock had them going through most of the show. Rock is never shy about giving his own take on controversial subjects, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him defend Michael Vick and Barry Bonds. He didn’t necessarily defend their actions, but he mocked what he perceived as an overreaction to their indiscretions. The audience’s reaction was more mixed to these bits. He had some good lines but his take on their situations defied logic so the humor fell a little flat. Overall, it was a great show. Not as good as some of his old HBO specials, but it was nice to have him back doing his thing.

Like Chris Rock, Artie Lange will never change, though Artie’s on the express train to a John Belushi/Chris Farley obituary, and he’s determined to enjoy the ride with plenty of booze and lots of hookers. Artie walked onstage looking like he had been partying in Vegas nonstop for a week, though he had just arrived from New York. That didn’t stop him from giving the audience filled with loud and obnoxious Howard Stern fans exactly what they wanted, a crude and hilarious routine that played up Artie’s wild man persona. Las Vegas was the perfect setting for this act, and Artie played it to the hilt. Artie also sucked down a full glass of Jack Daniels through a straw about halfway through the show, and yet he didn’t miss a beat. I guess you can handle anything when you used to have a $10,000 per week coke habit.

There’s not much better than traveling to Sin City to catch a bunch of great comics while enjoying the gambling and the booze, so hats off to the organizers of this year’s Comedy Festival.

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