Impersonating good television

Last November, TBS premiered one of its few original series, a sketch comedy show called Frank TV. For only five episodes, master impressionist Frank Caliendo was supposed to work his magic and show cable TV watchers that, yes, TBS is indeed “very funny.” Though not many people caught the show, it fared fairly successfully in the world of late night original cable TV shows, bringing in an average of 2.1 million viewers and even an Emmy for outstanding costume design. After the first season was cut short (most likely due to the writers’ strike), TBS renewed the show for a second run of eight more episodes, which will run Tuesdays at 11 p.m., starting Oct. 21. All of the ratings and hype may make Frank TV sound fairly decent; after all, TBS is also home to the cute comedy series My Boys, but it also decided to air the absolutely ridiculous shows House of Payne and 10 Items or Less.

So which way does Frank TV go? Well, The Tartan received a preview of the first three episodes before they air over the next month. It was not impressive. Frank TV is an amalgamation of many of Caliendo’s impressions, smushed into random sketches and put into a half-hour show. Unlike other popular sketch comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and MADtv, the show does not have very many cast members in its sketches. In fact, it revolves around one main cast member: Caliendo. It’s not uncommon for Caliendo to play more than one cast member. If he can, he plays all the parts in a sketch. The show is taped in front of a live audience where they play the sketches on a video screen after being cheesily introduced by — guess who? — Caliendo! Why yes, when they say “Frank TV,” they really do mean TV where all you see is Frank, Frank, Frank.

There is no doubt that Caliendo, a former cast member of MADtv, is great at the art of mimcry. He’s got a pretty accurate impression of George Bush, which earned him an invitation to the 2007 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The third episode, which airs Election Day, is entirely hosted by “George Bush,” instead of the normal Caliendo. He also can pretty accurately imitate John Madden, the sports commentator, and James Gandolfini of The Sopranos. Other impressions that show up this season are Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Yoda, and John McCain.

Unfortunately, it takes more than a good impression to make a decent TV show. So what’s wrong? You can tell a guy isn’t creative when he can’t think of an original name for his show and has to steal it from his old one (Come on: MADtv, Frank TV? No real difference except now there’s only one egotisitical comedian). Many of his sketch ideas are worse than stuff that can be found on YouTube. His jokes and satire can be sort of funny, but not the hilarious “how can they think this up” kind of funny. Basically, the skits on Frank TV depict the person that says what everyone is thinking but isn’t going to bother saying because it’s too stupid. The low point comes when “James Gandolfini” introduces a bunch of dogs, and they bleep out the “sh*t” in shih tzu. Really? That joke was made in the third grade. No one laughed then, and no one should be laughing now.

Frank TV’s writing is on the level of idiotic mediocrity, nowhere close to the writing of MADtv or The Office. It’s stuff that should only be watched when the midnight infomercials about Magic Bullet Blenders and bareMinerals makeup are on. Perhaps some of its faults come from the fact that it’s taped way in advance, so that topical sketches, like those based on the current elections, aren’t actually topical. Frank TV can’t be as edgy as SNL or MADtv, because it simply doesn’t know what will be going on when the episode airs months after it’s taped. Instead, it goes for jokes that will hopefully appeal to all audiences at any time. In reality, they fall flat of eliciting any reaction from their viewers at all.

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Study instead.