We can make fun of ourselves. Just don’t let anyone else try it.
Joe Conklin came from a family of voices. People who could sing. And still do. Yet at first, his goal wasn’t to become another Rich Little. The guys he looked up to were timeless media giants like John Facenda (NFL Films), Harry Kalas (Phillies) and Bill Campbell (who called just about everything in his career).
For decades now, Conklin has been making his mark impersonating those heroes. And many of the athletes/personalities they covered.
“I wanted to be a radio announcer,” Conklin said, who’s now in his early 50s. “I didn’t want to imitate (Kalas). I could do Zink (famed Sixers public-address man Dave Zinkoff). But I probably wasn’t the only one. I was always funny. I was the clown, getting in trouble that way. But I had a serious side too.
“I got straight B’s. I only applied to one (college). I couldn’t get into Temple now.”
He was the second-youngest of seven children (four sisters). His father was a trained classical singer who sang at funerals as a side gig, when he wasn’t working as a SEPTA dispatcher. At some point Joe could “do” Howard Cosell. So he “performed” for relatives, teachers and neighbors. He soon found out that he had the ability to make people laugh.
“That’s when I guess I got my sense of worth,” he acknowledged. “You know, you matter because you can do this.
“And I could do THIS …
“I was like a toy. I used to get paraded around. The great thing was they would give me candy. I loved it. For some reason, it was more impactful to impress people who were older than me. I wanted to fit in, and be counted, with an older audience.”
But like most things in life, it doesn’t just happen. In fact, it almost never does. Even if it was, as he puts it, in his genes.
“I’ve always been able to find a sound, a note, a tone,” he explained. “It’s an ear to mouth thing, like hand to eye. I can’t explain it. I can hear it. I’ve got a good ear. And I can re-create it.
“I always talk to myself. Doesn’t everybody? In the car, definitely in the house, all day long. Sometimes even when I’m walking down the street.
“Whatever you want to call it, it put me on the stage in the seventh grade. Catholic Charities Appeal was putting on a show. They wanted to know if anyone had some talent. I swear. And my friend put his hand up and said, ‘You can do those Wizard of Oz voices.’ I did the Good Witch, the Munchkins, some Alfred Hitchcock. It was like a two-minute routine. They said, ‘You’re in.’ And I rocked it. I was locked in.”
Still, it’s a long way from that to where he’s taken it. As an eighth-grader he handled the PA, without a microphone, for the CYO basketball team at St. Helena’s.
“Me and a buddy did the book and clock,” he recalled. “And I started yelling (crap) out. Through a Dixie Cup.”
Judging by the accompanying laugh, we can only assume the last part was a joke.
Eventually, he was doing the same at the varsity games for Cardinal Dougherty, which at the time was the biggest Catholic high school in the country but is no longer around.
“I felt empowered, but it was pretty damn intimidating,” Conklin said. “You need to have a certain level of confidence, and at first, when I was a freshman and a sophomore, I didn’t have the stones. I’ve grown to have that confidence, with some of my success, but you’re always struggling with that to some degree …
“I just wanted to get into Philadelphia radio. Because that was big time. That was it. And I thought I could accomplish that. I saw that map at an early age.”
He went to Temple, where the first thing a teacher told him was that 10 people out of 1,000 were going to get jobs in their chosen profession. So naturally Conklin wondered who the other nine were. Seriously.
“I had a gimmick,” he said. “I knew I had to evolve. I had to be an impersonator who could become a comedian (too). Just doing somebody’s voice wasn’t enough. I had to be funny.”
He is. Maybe not every single time, but much more often than not. You think it’s easy being funny every time you open your mouth? Think again. But it’s clear that he gives the audience what they want, because that’s what they expect, whether it’s on his weekday morning WIP job as part of the popular Angelo Cataldi show, or entertaining a crowded ballroom at the annual Philadelphia Sports Writers awards banquet, performing at his own show or with WIP’s Big Daddy Graham. And on and on.
He does Andy Reid, which didn’t always go over well with Reid or the Eagles. But one of the highlights at a PSWA dinner back in the day was Reid going right back at Conklin. And getting just as big of a laugh. Touche. Bald joke tops fat joke.
He does Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Brett Brown, Larry Brown, Cole Hamels, Joel Embiid, Charlie Manuel, Merrill Reese and too many others to properly account for. Oops, can’t leave out Mike Quick. Or Bobby Clarke. Especially when he’s calling Eric Lindros a big baby. My favorite was Rich Kotite doing the traffic report from a helicopter. Priceless. Then again, so are the rest. That’s why he is who he is. And Philly can’t get enough.
“My family had a really good work ethic,” Conklin said. “I had a gimmick. I just had to find a place to get my break. On camera, behind the microphone, whatever.”
That turned out to be WCAU-FM, where he got a one-day trial internship that went well enough to get him a return engagement. When they needed someone to be a “sidekick” to Morning Maniac Terry Young, it was exactly what he was looking for. And off he went, like it was all meant to be.
“As a comedian I have a cakewalk,” Conklin said. “I have such a great forum. I’m on one of the top shows in the market, and a lot of people listen to my stuff. Angelo drives it. When people show up to see me (somewhere else), they already like me. If you go 50-75 miles from here, I’m in trouble. But I’m OK with it. They want to see what they hear on radio.
“If I really want to challenge myself, I could try to go on the road and do this somewhere else. Would I make it in Tampa? And if you’re that guy, you’ve got to prove it every night. I walk into a stacked deck. I’m not unaware of that, if you know what I mean. I have a great advantage.”
He always has, because in his hometown he’s the gold standard. And there’s not even a close second.
“I grew up in a house where everyone did voices to one extent or another,” Conklin said. “My father used to imitate Bishop Graham. I always get that question, how do you do it? The best thing I can say is I was born with it.”
But there’s always some guys that for whatever reasons he just can’t get.
“I couldn’t do John Madden forever,” he shrugged. “Then (Frank) Caliendo broke the code. That’s the way it goes. I could never do (Howard) Eskin. It’s frustrating a little bit. I just work around it. I can rip him in other ways.”
For better or worse, he can do me. Even though sometimes there are only a few listeners who appreciate it.
“You’re the radio logo for a Philadelphia accent,” Conklin tells me, which I suppose is like an ultimate compliment.
“He doesn’t get enough credit,” Conklin duly noted. “I don’t even want to think about doing it without him. He’s brilliant. I can’t think of everything. I can’t just do voices. I’ve got to be edgy. Angelo demands that. He’s a taskmaster. I have to stay on top of my game. I’ve been trained to pump out new stuff. I have to have jokes every time. Voices without jokes is only a voice. At some point I had a pad out at my brother’s house watching the Eagles. I’d get jokes off anybody.
“Philadelphia does not tolerate soft-pedaling. You have to go for the jugular. Angelo taught me that. I’ll bring in a script and he’ll go, ‘Not enough teeth. You have to be more vicious.’ There’s a line that you straddle.”
And so it goes. There’s always a new voice to go with the standards. I mean, how can you ever go wrong with Allen or Charles? Not in Philly. Or even beyond. But whatever happens during the rest of Conklin’s distinct journey, he will remain first and foremost all ours. Something to be said for that. It means he’s left his mark, for us to admire and enjoy. And he’s done it in his own style. At heart he’s just another guy from the neighborhood. Like Chip Snapper, one of his classic characters. Don’t ask.
“The only thing I think of is, is it funny,” Conklin insists. “That’s the first requirement. I know how it’s going to hit someone. Then I have to weigh, is it worth it? Like, can I make this jump or am I going to fall?
“And the audience is like go, go, go. They want it.”
And they know where to get their Knucklehead fix. Or maybe Practice.
How can that stuff ever get old?
Me, I want to know what kind of updates Richie has to get me through rush-hour on the Schuylkill.