By Jon Hart
Imitating sports personalities could be a sport on to itself. Of course, Comedian Billy Crystal performed hilarious impressions of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. More recently, comic Frank Caliendo imitated NFL coach Jon Gruden. When U.S. Open champ Novak Djokovic retires from the court, he could headline a Las Vegas variety show, as he has imitated everyone from John McEnroe to Rafael Nadal.
Then there’s the case of the soft-spoken, relatively unknown Art Kelly. In the age of Instagram, Art Kelly wasn’t looking to impersonate anyone – or be on television for that matter. Television, well, it found Art Kelly.
No, Jersey City, New Jersey native Art Kelly isn’t a name you’ll recognize, at least not yet. However, if you’re a fan of the Late Show with David Letterman, you’ve seen his work. In the “Coach’s Corner” segment, he imitated NFL coach Mike Singletary and fielded questions from Mr. Letterman himself, whom he often appeared on a split screen with.
Art’s journey to the small screen started in the year 2000 when he was working as a long-term, temporary receptionist at a well-known financial firm. When Art concluded that the position wasn’t going to turn permanent, he sent out feelers, and an employment agency notified him that a company called Worldwide Pants was interested in interviewing him to be their receptionist. Art wasn’t enthused. “I was thinking I’m really not interested in working in the garment industry,” recalls Art. After getting a few more details about the position, Art took the interview, said the right things and got the job, which some of his colleagues described as “the worst job in television,” as it involved listening to a near constant concert of complaints. In fact, Art enjoyed being the receptionist as he was able to get “a temperature” on the public’s reaction to the show.
About eight years into his tenure, a staffer – Art isn’t quite sure exactly who – noticed that Art resembled Singletary, the wild-eyed, eccentric coach, who was known to moon his players at half-time. Mr. Letterman concurred. Subsequently, comedic juices flowed and the bit, “Coach’s Corner,” was born, despite the fact that Art had never heard of Singletary. Art, who had no prior acting experience besides a part in a kindergarten play and a cameo as a beer-swilling, mail-burning mail carrier on the Late Show, was given video of Singletary to study, and he rehearsed, albeit briefly, with a Late Show writer. Then, it was showtime. The Late Show made it appear as if Art were on location. “I was extremely nervous because I never acted before, so it was my first rodeo,” recalls Art.
Art was not pleased with his debut, to say the least. “I thought this might not fly,” Art recalls. He was pleasantly surprised when the Late Show asked him to reprise the role. Gradually, Art found his groove, and the Late Show improved the segment’s production value, including a fun introduction with music. As far as his performance, Mr. Letterman was always supportive of Art, particularly after one specific appearance. “He said, ‘ you saved the show.” I’m like, really, are you talking about me?”
Art did “Coach’s Corner” about ten times. Of course, he was saddened when the Late Show took its final bow in 2015. But Art hasn’t given up on show business. When he’s not at his current receptionist position, Art, who still resides in Jersey City, is sending out feelers about potential acting work. “Any success I should have in this business, I’ll always attribute it to Mr. Letterman,” says Art. “He put me on this journey.”
You can follow Jon Hart at @ManVersusBall