Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)
Before Carrot Top and before Dane Cook, Joe Piscopo was a comedy snob’s favorite punch line. But he wasn’t always such an easy, musclebound target. From 1981 to 1985, he was one of Saturday Night Live’s biggest stars, Eddie Murphy’s straight man and the creator of several great characters in his own right, among them a deeply reverent version of Sinatra. He had a couple of HBO specials before making a series of decisions running from the lucrative (a series of Miller Lite commercials) to the unlucky (Johnny Dangerously) to the seemingly inexplicable (the Lou Ferrigno look, the “Kimberly” serenade to his fiancée on Channel 9). Upon the recent opening of his own Club Piscopo at Atlantic City’s Resorts Casino (and a series of co-headlining dates with Father Guido Sarducci), we caught up with Joe, 60, for a virtually unedited Vulture Transcript, grilling the perennially upbeat and very old-school performer on his career highs and lows. Because, as they once said about Ol’ Blue Eyes, when you’ve lived and loved the way Joe has, you really know what life’s about.
How did the shows go for opening weekend?
Pretty wild, pretty wild. I tell you what, it’s been such a dream and a mission for me to have a club like this. I just feel like this is what I was born to do. [I’m a] blue collar entertainer and my calling is the live stage and just sweating every night in front of some audience across North America, you know. So having a home base, we went in and darn it, they’ve been great, they’re coming out! I just got through with the show about an hour ago, and Don Novello, you know, Sarducci, came in, and man, people came out in droves! We were all but sold out last night. Tonight we had almost a full house on a Sunday freaking night.
Are your parents still in Jersey?
Yeah, my mom is, god bless her. 86! She drives down the Garden State Parkway, down the shore. She’s so funny, so I’m banging out these shows and she’s the quintessential Italian mom. She goes, “Oh, you should’ve come up for dinner!” You know, drive two hours to dinner and then drive two hours to the show and then drive back … And all my relatives, my cousins and my children are here. So it’s all about the roots in my mind. It’s about staying rooted down.
Did you grow up in an entertainment family?
I’ll tell ya this, I come from an educated family. My father was an attorney representing blue collar workers, and my uncle was a chemical engineer … on my mom’s side, all my uncles were engineers, all ten of them.
And you went to college?
Yeah, I graduated from Jones College, man, in Jacksonville, Florida, baby! I couldn’t get in anywhere else, man. I was the worst student ever. I couldn’t get in anywhere else. My father insisted I go to college, so I graduated, made the dean’s list and everything. So I have a degree in broadcast management, figure it out, man! It’s a degree in radio and television is what it is. And when I got out, I should’ve gone to law school, really, and followed in my dad’s footsteps, but I’m not a student, man. You know, ugh. I appreciate you being a writer, and working on that stuff, but it’s a lot of cerebral energy. You know, because you have a wide stream and you have to start somewhere, you have to structure it. I’m more like a let’s-just-do-it kind of guy. I couldn’t do the law thing, and I still have guilt about that. But I wanted to do what I’m doing now, so I went to comedy clubs because they were hot at the time.
So you started in the mid-seventies?
God, I was in a catatonic stupor for a couple years. How old are you, if I may ask?
Yeah, man, so you’re right there. So you go to college and you go, “Aw, what am I doing?” So then you go to law school … And my first wife was great. Great gal, she was kind of supporting us, and I was doing odd jobs: I was a delivery guy, I worked for a moving van, I worked in a warehouse, and I’m like, “God, what am I doing?” My father is an attorney for crying out loud, and I probably should’ve just gone, “Well, I’ll go to Rutgers, you know, and then we’ll be partners.” But I just had to give this thing inside of me a shot. So I went to the Improvisation “audition night” in New York City, on 44th and 9th. Right in Hell’s Kitchen. So that was when Robin [Williams] was coming up, and Rodney was hot as ever, Billy Crystal just started out. Freddie Prinze, man! And I’m looking at all these cats going, “Wow, man.” I knew I wasn’t a comedian — because those guys are funny comedians, I’m not like that but I could do characters. “So maybe I’ll just work as an entertainer,” I really felt like that. So I got in my car and I went to audition night. And comedy then was hotter than ever, it was like the hottest thing. It was like rock and roll. So I remember I drove through the Lincoln Tunnel through Jersey, and then I went to 44th and Ninth Avenue, and there must have been 300 people waiting to get in, I mean like literally, 300 people, waiting to audition! Bought tickets! So I looked out my car window and I just kept on going back to the Lincoln Tunnel and I went back home.
So you got scared?
Yeah, man! So the next week, I said, okay, now if I’m going to do this … So I never wanted to be a star, I just wanted to work, but if I don’t try, it will gnaw at me forever. One of those deals, you know? So I went back next week … we got there at twelve noon, and there were still three or four of us. And one of the guys was Larry David. And it was like Alan Colmes, from Hannity and Colmes, was there. Alan was a comic. And we used to jockey for numbers. You didn’t want to be No. 1, because that was too early. But you know when the numbers were given out? 6:30 p.m.! 6:30 at night, man. So we waited all day. We waited, like, all day. Literally, in the car, and we would talk, and we would get something to eat. But we would register with the club that we were there. And you would want Nos. 3, 4, 5, or maybe 6. Long story short, I did that for a couple months, and it kind of went like this: It was a full house, and it was check spot [when the waitresses start handing out checks] — and you hate the check spot, no one wants to go in for it because when somebody gets a $400 bill, nothing’s funny. But it’s check spot, and they go, “Piscopo, you’re up.” Like that. And I go, “Oh, God, check spot!” Full house. Audition night. So I went up, and I tell you what, I just started improvising. I didn’t even do material, I just went off the crowd. “What are you doin’? Nice shirt. I wouldn’t pay for that if I were you.” I just had to do it because it was tough. And it worked! And [Improv manager] Chris Albrecht, who went on to legendary television status [as head of HBO and now Starz], he pointed his finger at me, and said, “You’re a regular now.” I go, “Great.” And that just meant I hung around til two o’clock in the morning to play to three drunk people. But I stayed there. I was there. And then little by little I started to emcee. And then I started to work almost immediately doing commercials, ‘cause I had this character “Face Man.” So they booked me in commercials. I starred in Dr. Pepper commercials and Buick ads. Agents would come in and cast me from that stage. I was making a lot of money, and you know, I had a baby, and we had a great fraternity. Jerry Seinfeld was coming up; we used to play baseball every Thursday in the Broadway Show League. It’s among my fondest memories, working the Improv for about four and a half, five years.
Did Budd Friedman like you?
You know, Budd went Hollywood by that time, man. So he was out of there. But Silver, his wife, was an ally. Silver was very helpful to me. I have to give her credit for being very nurturing, but it was Chris Albrecht who took it home. It was Albrecht who brought me in, and brought Larry David in, and then he went to become an agent at ICM and he took us all with him. And he was absolutely instrumental in any success I may have had.
You were likable and you had great energy and characters, but then you started to get very serious about impressions. Is it more important for an impression to be funny or to be accurate?
That’s a brilliant question, man. Might be the best question I’ve ever got. God bless you, man. I’ll tell you: more accurate. When I watch somebody, I want to be impressed. I want them to do something that I can’t do. So when you watch Larry David, I saw Larry do a good set one time. And everybody will tell you the same thing: He never got a laugh. He would fight with the audience.
He would intentionally bomb, right?
All the time! And it was like, you would be in the back of the house going, “Oh my God, the guy’s a genius.” Where is he conceptually coming up with that thought process? And when I did something, I’d rather do a performance piece that was accurate and spot-on. More of an acting piece. I felt more comfortable doing that. You know, if I had the gift of Jerry Seinfeld, of Bill Cosby, of Lewis Black, these instinctively brilliant comic minds, then you go that route! But you gotta know your limitations. I’m more of an actor, more of a process guy. I did Tom Snyder, just as Danny Aykroyd did on SNL, I did it in the club. Then I started doing a Sinatra-esque character. And then I would watch Andy Kaufman and, talk about brilliant. He would take you into some kind of zone somewhere in the universe that had nothing to do with reality. And your jaw dropped. That was impressive to me. And cut to, when I was a kid, growing up in Jersey, and I would watch Ed Sullivan. The guys that immediately drew my attention were the guys who did characterization. And then there was a guy, you gotta Google it, because he was a local guy, Guy Marks. He did like trick songs, and he did bits. Not the Allen Kings or the Woody Allens, but more like the guys who did pieces. I was just so enthralled with that. Wow! They could hold you for a while, you know. That’s something I always liked about Crystal when Billy started out: He really never went for the joke, he always did something like “there’s a character here.” And I always appreciated that and that’s where my mind-set was at, even in the clubs.
Your big break came when you were 29, SNL. And Albrecht, I imagine, was instrumental in that.
Yeah, man, I think I was 28. I don’t want to bore you or anything, but they did a sweep of the comedy clubs. It was great, because Danny Aykroyd, who I idolized — Aykroyd is a the best example of somebody who was a huge influence on me, so esoteric. [He did] Rod Serling? Rod freaking Serling? He was somebody I looked up to. So they did a sweep of the clubs, and nobody got picked. And the funniest guys at the club you never heard from again. Never got called. No one got called. And then I had a friend, John DeBellis, who got hired as a writer for the new Saturday Night Live and he said he convinced Jean Doumanian [who had taken over the show in 1980 after Lorne Michaels and the original cast left] to see me because they needed a utility guy to do the characters. So I bypassed maybe 1,000 auditions, and I went in to the seventeenth floor, hit it off with Jean, she goes, “What do you do?” And I did the Sinatra stuff, I did the Tom Snyder stuff, I did some characters. She said, “Yeah, you can go on to the audition.” So there were like 1,000 auditions to go, but I went into what was Conan’s old studio, Jimmy Fallon’s studio there, and I did the audition right there.
So when did you meet Eddie Murphy?
So check this out, Albrecht goes, you know what, they want you on the show and they want to pay you three grand a week. I was making more than that doing commercials. And remember, back then, that was a lot of money. And I’m making more than my dad at that point, doing commercials. I said, “Chris, I love you, man” — we used to call Chris “the General,” you know, because he was like the boss of all of us — I said, “General, I can’t. I’m making too much money.” And he goes, “Joe, you’re doing the show.” Like that. And I go, “But Chris, you can’t replace Father Sarducci and Danny Aykroyd and Chevy Chase.” And he says, “You’re doing it.” And then I went ahead and did it, you know. So I’m up there and we’re part of this disjointed cast, and we’re in there, and then, in walks this kid. He’s from Long Island. He has two managers at the time. And some people you meet, you shake his hand, and instant likability. But not just with me, with everybody. You can just see it. You walk into a room, and you’re either there or you’re not, and as soon as Eddie was there, I knew it. So they had us read the Richard Pryor–Chevy Chase piece, the word association piece, one of the classic Saturday Night Live sketches. So I played the Chevy role, and Eddie played the Pryor role, and Pryor was one of Eddie’s idols forever, so Eddie nailed it. And you know what they did then? They made him a “featured player.” A featured player! And we’re going, “Guys, this guy is the next Pryor! This guy … look at this guy!” And we had to talk to the network. So Eddie, if you look at the first early ten episodes, Eddie was just like hanging around in the background. And I’m like, “Oh, man!” But we became friends, and we hit it off, and we would hang. And then [Dick Ebersol] came in [at the end of the critically despised season], and they brought him back as the consigliere, you know, and that’s when they kept Eddie and I and fired everybody. Oh man. It was a bloodbath. And Eddie and I were just like these comics. I was from the Improv, he was from Long Island. We could care less. I wanted to go back doing commercials, and Eddie wanted to go back to the clubs. And Ebersol calls us into his office and they’d already fired Gilbert Gottfried and all these guys, and everybody is crying, and me and Eddie had been going, “So what are we doing after this, man?” “Yeah, come hang out.” We were making plans. And Dick calls us in: “We’ve decided to keep you.” And we’re like, “Great, all right, we’ll see you Monday, but we gotta go now.” I love how cocky we were. But we carried that right on the air. And Ebersol saw that it was working.
Ebersol loved his stars. I read in Tom Shales’s SNL oral history Live From New York that it was a heated competition to pitch Piscopo and Murphy sketches the best stuff every week.
I don’t know. It’s a good question, because Dick and I had an, um — and I have immense respect for Dick Ebersol, one of the greatest producers ever — but it always was competitive between he and I. People always say it was competitive with the cast … but it wasn’t. It was the cast against the producers. That was our adversary: We had to convince him … But nobody handed Eddie anything. Nobody handed me anything. We wrote it ourselves or we aligned ourselves with [writers] Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield. Those were our go-to guys and they were great. But Murphy! Again! He was 19 years old. Nineteen years old. This is funny: I remember he wrote a sketch, he goes, I’m doing a sketch, I want to play a basketball player about to go into the pros, and I want to complain that there should be no white people playing basketball, all black people. So I sit with Sheffield, “Let’s make it a sports piece.” And we’ll put Eddie on phone books and I’ll say, “What’s the story, Jamal?” So before we stepped on the air, and we’re just out of the range of cameras, and we’re about to go to the “Weekend Update” set, and I hear Eddie whisper to himself, “The kids at Roosevelt High will never believe this.” Think about that, man! The kid’s out of high school. And Eddie’s going, “Hey, my high school friends are gonna dig this.” I was just blessed to work with the genius of Eddie Murphy. When we went on the air, we had all those millions of viewers back then, and there was no tape delay. No delay. We could do whatever we wanted, and I fed off Eddie’s reckless abandon. And they used to use me as the workhorse to get us back to commercial slots because Eddie would be all over the place, you know! And it was one of the greatest thrills of my life, working with Murphy when he could not care less about nothing, working live. It was like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.
So you developed Sinatra out of the clubs, but it hit in ‘81.
Sinatra started out as a “Sinatra-esque” character, then it evolved into actually doing Sinatra. Can you explain what Sinatra meant to Italians in Jersey back then?
Well, he was like a god to anybody Italian in North Jersey. He was like the God. I talk about this all onstage in my act: For my father, it was Joe DiMaggio and then it was suddenly Frank Sinatra. The joke I do, which is true: When we walked into a barber shop, there were pictures of the Pope and Frank Sinatra, in my Italian neighborhood, except it was Frank Sinatra on top. So I go in with my Sinatra-esque impression from the Improv and then I did it at my audition for SNL. And then they started hammering me, “You gotta do the impression on the show.” And I fought it. So I wrote Mr. S a letter, and this is the way it is verbatim, because there have been so many misnomers and mistakes and people taking poetic license, and not just Tom Shales’s book. But the way it happened is that I wrote Mr. S a letter out of respect. Not out of fear. It was all about respect. I’m a North Jersey Italian-American and that’s the single most important thing in a relationship: respect. And character and loyalty. If I’m going to do something on my father’s hero, it’s gonna be right. And I protected the brand, I protected the Sinatra brand because they’re like royalty to me. He’s got beautiful children, Nancy and Tina, the original Mrs. Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra from Hoboken; I didn’t want to disrespect that. So I fought it and fought it and fought it, but you know, I always rewrote it every week just to make sure it was respectful.
You got shit in Shales’s book for rejecting sketches by saying, “Frank wouldn’t do that.”
There was a sketch, it was with Danny DeVito, “What would Frank Do?” I remember I had a problem with that. And then “Ebony and Ivory,” check this out. I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but Johnny Cash hosted that show. So he’s at the read-through, and Blaustein and Sheffield said let’s do “Ebony and Ivory.” Eddie and I came up with the idea of singing as Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra. So Blaustein and Sheffield put together this script and in my mind it was way too edgy for the old man. I can’t remember exactly what it was, I just remember it wasn’t comfortable because I felt Frank Sinatra wouldn’t be comfortable with it. And I was probably a pain in the ass. I didn’t mean to be difficult, but it was all about protecting the Sinatra brand. I really took that seriously.
Did you know Sinatra personally by “Ebony and Ivory”?
No. Not at all. So Johnny Cash is hosting the show, and I remember after the read-through I’m like, “Gosh, I can’t do it like this. I just can’t.” And Johnny Cash goes, [Cash impression] “What’s wrong with Joe?” And I said, “Johnny, you’re a legend, and I love ya, and you’re the Man in Black, but this is Sinatra.” Ugh, God. You think back … and so I went in with Blaustein-Sheffield and we rewrote the whole thing and I softened it a little bit. You can still see how this was hard. For me to say as the Old Man, “You’re my amigo, negro, let’s not fight!” It’s like, I’m thinking, here the old man fought to get blacks into Las Vegas. And I didn’t want it to be racist! I was cognizant of all that. Also, as an aside, I have to tell ya, I never wanted to be a star. It was an anomaly that I was on SNL at all, and to take the ride with Eddie Murphy right out of the box — it was one of the thrills of my life. But during “Ebony and Ivory,” it was the one and only time that I ever upstaged him! “Blind as a bat and I have sight.” It was the only time!
That’s the one skit that makes every SNL retrospective, the only real Joe and Eddie sketch that makes it. But you had the Whiners and a bunch of other characters. Do you ever feel snubbed as part of a non-Lorne cast?
Yeah, this is very true. For all of us. When we go back for the reunions we’re in the bleacher seats, you know. The nosebleeds of Studio 8H, man! But you know what, I totally understand it because it’s Lorne’s show. I have immense respect for Lorne. Lorne is, as they say in The Honeymooners, the grand high exalted mystic ruler. Lorne is the creator. And I am indebted to Lorne Michaels. To this day, I go up to his office, and he was very helpful to me in developing some television this year. Just helping me. I can’t have enough respect for him. He gave us all careers! He allowed us to work! To wear that badge from SNL, I take it as seriously as if I played for the New York Yankees. I regard it with such humility and such respect and it all comes from Lorne Michaels. But being hired … [starts laughing] being hired in that weird time when Lorne wasn’t there … Yeah, there were a couple bumpy years, man … And maybe it was well deserved: not being part of the group that Lorne actually hired himself.
You did an HBO special in 1984, which I just watched today. And there isn’t a joke for the first seven minutes of the show because you’re doing Sinatra! Not one joke!
[Laughs.] Yeah, man.
You’re doing the details correctly, down to how he smokes a cigarette. It’s obvious that it’s a tribute more than a satire. It’s obvious how much respect you have for him.
I wanted it like that. Now don’t forget, everyone was doing HBO specials. Stand up, shoot it, put it on the air, and that’s it. I wanted to do a virtual film of characterizations and make a movie out of it. So when we went in, you know, you’re watching it and you’re like, “What is this?” But the long and the short of it is Chris Albrecht believed in it, we put it on the air, and it changed the tone of how people did specials. And we won what was the ACE awards back then — like the Emmys for cable TV. I got it for performance and we got it for directing and best special or something like that. But they understood it. I must say, in retrospect it was a very bold move. Because I wanted to go up without any stand-up. Between you and I, I am not a stand-up comic! I don’t like doing just jokes. Now, I like watching comics. But it’s not me. Now, I wanted to do this whole film, but I did twenty minutes of stand-up as a trade-off.
And the “Thriller” parody where you turn into Jerry Lewis instead of a zombie was so experimental — it felt like a Kids in the Hall or a Mr. Show thing.
It was experimental. That’s what I wanted to do. At that point, I had left the show, and Eddie had left the show. I loved Timmy Kazurinsky, and the cast was great, but once Eddie left, and I knew Billy Crystal was coming in and Christopher Guest and Marty Short, they didn’t need me. And you get tired on that show, man. You get tired. Coming up every week with something. And then I said, now it’s time to move. And I wanted to move in that direction. Someone I always idolized was Peter Sellers. What he did in Dr. Strangelove. It wasn’t, “Let’s put some makeup on and be funny,” it was so esoteric. Like Alec Guinness in Ladykillers. Just incredible! These guys, that’s where I wanted my career to go. And Albrecht was right behind me. And I brought him Catch Me If You Can, all those years ago. And I brought him Ocean’s 11. I was like, we gotta redo this. And I just didn’t have the star power or the interest in Hollywood, man, to get these things done. Exactly what I did in that special, that’s the kind of actor I wanted to be if I was going to do films and television shows like that. But you know what, whether it was something they just didn’t understand or whether it was ahead of its time, whatever it was, I got caught in that gap there, so that’s why I ended up on the live stage.
And watching you as Eddie Murphy’s surfing buddy in a sketch in the middle of that show, and watching you as zombie Jerry Lewis later, and then knowing how your careers went after the show … Did you ever feel like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis?
Interesting reference! But remember they counted Dean Martin out, and Jerry Lewis blew up right away.
Yes, but Jerry always missed the cool dude Dean. And I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but it was also a complicated comedic partnership that came to an end.
Yeah, I don’t know. I gotta tell ya, and I don’t know how to make it more plain, because it’s hard to tell people this sometimes …
Well, yeah, outsiders like us kind of fit famous people into our own narratives of how we thought it all went.
Yeah and you’re incredibly hip on this, and I appreciate it. But people will ask me about the Eddie thing, and it’s as simple as this: I didn’t want to go on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t want to be a star. It was an anomaly. I happened to hook up with one of the comic geniuses of the twentieth century and what a ride it was. And I’m so grateful to be a part of it, that I never wanted to be like a star. So when I left, what would’ve been nice in retrospect, is if people had listened to Albrecht. Because he fought for me, man. And it was like, “Hey, put Joe in this, let him do his little esoteric part in a film.” I should’ve just stayed under the radar doing character roles. That’s what I think I was meant to do. And wanted to do! And that’s what I did in the first special. But it was nothing with Eddie. When you hook up with someone like that, and you go for the ride with something like that, that’s just icing on the cake, brother. And you’re grateful for the ride. You’re sure of your talent, but, bam, you gotta be ready. It used to kill me, people would get so upset with Eddie. Because he would show up late, he would drive other people crazy. But that’s what drew me to him, the reckless abandon. If you’re that freaking great, in my mind you can do anything you want. He would tick people off, but I would be doubled over laughing, you know? Because when the camera went on and he had to step up, there was nobody better. And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? So with me, I was just grateful for the ride and didn’t really look like, am I with Eddie, am I not with Eddie. And this is my theory, if you can dig this: In a nutshell, I think because I had thyroid cancer in ’81 and I think it really kind of smacked me by the head, but when we die, nobody gives a shit. I mean, when we die, no one cares. You get a crawl on Fox News. Johnny Carson, the legendary television performer, how can you be more iconic than Johnny Carson in television? He got a weekend on CNN. And then we’re on to Conan and Jay. No one cares except your children, man. I don’t have that hunger, that thirst to be immortal. I just know we’re put here on the planet, and we’re gonna move on, and really no one cares, so let’s dig it while we’re here and just work hard at what you’re doin’ and just be happy. Probably I should be obsessed with it, the fact that I’m not is probably to my detriment, but I never was.
Do you think that’s why there’s so much shit talking out there? Because you were lucky enough to be by Eddie? There was that awful line in the Shales book, “Eddie Murphy’s success went to Piscopo’s head.”
[Laughs.] I know, I know. My favorite, I don’t think it was the Shales book, but whoever said it said it absolutely erroneously: When Nick Nolte fell out [as host in 1982] because he had his little falling out or whatever, Ebersol, to his credit, asks Eddie to host the show [when he was still a cast member]. And I’m going, yes! Because I’m a team player and you always want your ace in the hole, and to me Murphy was our ace in the hole. And then somebody writes, “Oh, Piscopo wants to host the whole show as Sinatra.” That was my single most favorite thing that anybody ever wrote. Because how stupid could I have possibly been to want to host the show like that? You couldn’t even get through the monologue! As the Old Man for the whole thing? How many sketches could you do? They make these things up. You know why? My theory is people are frustrated with themselves a lot of the time. They put their questions to you the way they feel about something. It tells me more about the person asking the question then about the way I really feel. Maybe I’m just too stupid; maybe I’m not bright enough. I was just grateful for the ride, never felt competitive with Eddie or anybody else for that matter. Even now, cut to tonight, and I do my 40 minutes or whatever and I do what I do, I play the musical instruments …
Hey, is it true you play the flute in your act?
You’re young, man, but when I was in high school it was Jethro Tull. I started to play the flute, so I put it in the act. And you know what, again, it goes back to when I was a kid: Let me do something that they don’t do so they go, “Wow! I’m getting my money’s worth here.” But I’m actually setting the audience up for Don Novello, who is a billion times funnier than I am, brighter than I am, a comic genius that I’m just happy to be around. And that was my role at the Improvisation: I would bring up Rodney Dangerfield and Robin Williams and Cyrstal. I’d bring up all these great guys. There are times when I wish I had the thirst. I guess you have to have the envy. I don’t have any of that. It makes me a very happy, docile individual. I’m grateful to be around the kids. I hope I’m getting my mind-set across.
One role of yours that people still quote was Danny Vermin in Johnny Dangerously.
Oh, thank you. There’s a good example: I loved that. I loved that character. Michael Keaton was the guy, and I was in the supporting role with that character, and nailing it. But then the film comes out, and it doesn’t do bad, but it does marginal, it doesn’t do great. So everybody has their little field day with that. And then I go to Wise Guys with Danny DeVito and I play more of myself, where I should’ve probably played a developed character. That’s what I do best. If I’m not in front of a live crowd ingratiating them where my full strength is … I can play a character, and I should’ve probably done that with Wise Guys.
You get teased on The Simpsons what seems like every other week about your career — and I’m sure you love that — but why do you think that happens? Is it the Jersey thing? Is it the GNC bodybuilder thing?
[Laughs.] Exactly! If I may, if you can follow this line, I left the show, the special is very well received, and I had the best management. I had the best publicists. And then Ron Howard and Brian Grazer come to me and say, “We want to do a TV show with you off of Saturday Night Live.” And I say, “Great!” So this is the anomaly that people don’t understand: I got Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, they want to package a television show starring me, whatever it is. And I go to CAA at the time, “Sure, run with it. I love Ron.” And I get a call a month or two later: quote-unquote, not enough interest from the network. Now when people say, “Oh, you were hot!” Or, “You were this!” Or, “In your day!” I never freakin’ had “my day”! People don’t understand it: I never broke. I mean, to me the best is yet to come. I’m a slow freakin’ learner! I mean, I had Catch Me If You Can in my hands with Chris Albrecht, an up-and-coming superstar executive. “Chris, I can do this role.” Now I couldn’t do it as well as DiCaprio and Spielberg did it, but hey, this is the film! Couldn’t move it for nothing. Nothing. I wanted to do Ocean’s 11: That’s a great idea, we’ll take all the stars and we’ll put ‘em all together and we’ll do this whole thing … nothing. A Ladykillers remake? Nothing. I couldn’t move anything. I think to my detriment, I never got into the Hollywood loop. I never played the game. It was my Jersey attitude, “This is who I am. And if you wanna dig it, so … ” But I couldn’t move it. There was a point there where I looked at myself and I said, “You know what? Screw this. I’m gonna do what I want.” And this is the turning point that you’re talking about. So I had the cancer and they told me that I should work out. So I started working out. I started looking at Springsteen, he was working out. Sly Stallone was getting ripped. And I’m going, “I can do that.” So I do a little bit. And then the Muscle and Fitness people come to me and say, “Hey, you wanna be on the cover?” And I’m going, “Sure, man.” Not thinking anyone would see it. So I go on the cover of Muscle and Fitness and I’m leading with my chin, there. Listen, I’m the guy from SNL and we took shots at everybody. So whether it’s The Simpsons or whoever it is, man, the shots are warranted. David Letterman had the best line when I started doing the Miller Lite commercials. [Letterman impression]: “I hear Joe Piscopo’s commercials were disqualified from the Summer Olympics: illegal use of steroids.” Great joke. Great joke. And you have to laugh. And for the record, I never did drugs. Never did steroids on principle. I’m very anti-drug. Never tried cocaine.
Letterman had you on a few years ago for his “Impressionist Week” and you did your impression of him. Were you surprised that he had you on?
I did him a million years ago, but I never wanted to bust his chops, because I would go down when he did the show on the sixth floor at NBC, and I would study him. And I wrote him a note, too. To me, Letterman is the last of the great broadcasters. Talk about comic geniuses. I wish the younger generation was hip to how great David Letterman really is. So when I’m around him, I’m in awe of him. So I was just grateful to be there. When [booker] Eddie Brill called and asked and then when he introduced me as “the great Joe Piscopo” — ah, it’s nice. It’s nice to be appreciated. Like, people your age are my core casino audience. You guys are coming into your own, you got some money to drop at the tables, and I can’t tell you what a lovefest it is. There’s an elite group in the world of comedy, kind of overeducated snobby liberal upper crust of comedy, and I’m not that. And I don’t like that. And they don’t like me. Those worlds will never meet. I am what I am and I ain’t changing.
It sounds to me like you’re a fan, and you do impressions out of love. I get that. So what didn’t you like about Phil Hartman’s Sinatra impression? I don’t get why you hate that so much.
Because they portrayed the Sinatra character kind of like a bully. And it was inappropriate, a lot of the things that they did. The writing was inappropriate. And I always felt … when I was on SNL, they asked me to do Tom Snyder. And I said, “How could you possibly do Tom Snyder after Danny Aykroyd made it a legendary characterization?” So I changed it and I made it a Spanish Tom Snyder. So they still pushed it and I always felt like it was a lower-grade Tom Snyder. That was Danny’s thing, man. So I always felt like my Sinatra thing was respectful. And Hartman’s bothered me, and I believe it bothered the Sinatra family, because it was just too much of a bully and too clichéd.
So you felt like “I killed that one, why follow me”?
I guess it was curious that they would do it after me. It would be like, I’ve said this before — it’d be like somebody trying to do Mr. Robinson or something. Something like that. It was interesting. And if you can’t do it the way the original guy did it, you have to have a take on it, and unfortunately they took it down a harder, more mean-spirited route.
One more awkward topic: Your New York Channel 9 special, in which you wrote and sang the Springsteen-like “Kimberly” for your kids’ former nanny and your future wife (and now ex-wife). Howard Stern would go on to dissect it and crush it. Was that a real song? Or an homage to Springsteen?
That son of a bitch [Howard was the one who] told me to marry her! Me and Kimberly were in his studio one time, and the mike goes off, and Howard and I are buddies of buddies, and he goes, “You gotta marry her. This is the one you marry.” And I’m not saying — we had almost twenty years together — but boy! The way it turned out now [they had an ugly divorce in 2007, with both accusing each other of domestic abuse], every time I see Howard I’m like, “Thanks, guy. Thanks, buddy.” You know what I mean? “Yeah, Joe, you run off with the babysitter. That’s a great idea.” And again, I admired Howard. It was like, “Oh okay, is it a good idea? You think she’s okay, Howard?” “Yeah, she’s great! She’ll never turn on you!” But what happened with that song: When I did Muscle and Fitness, I thought nobody was watching. And I was having fun with it. And there was a Channel 9 special. And again, it was a stupid thing on my part. It was my 40th birthday, I was in love, and I said, “I wrote a song for Kimberly.” So I sing it on the air. Hey, there’s a smart move, huh?
That Channel 9 is a powerful station. And now what I realize is that everybody is watching all the time. Never thought about it … So it was fun, but I wasn’t thinking. Because what am I doing posing with my shirt off? And what the freak am I doing singing a song to my freaking fiancée? What the freak am I thinking? And I look back now and that’s what I think: What was I thinking? And all of the shots, all of the jokes, when Fred Norris does the impression of me on Howard it’s absolutely hysterical, absolutely warranted. I deserve every second of it.
You know what — I think you might have too much Jersey humility going on here. And then I think you need to get some revenge on these fuckers! On a reality show or something.
[Laughs.] You know, it’s so funny, I don’t have any vengeance, I don’t have any anger. Something’s wrong with me, man, I don’t know. I don’t have any of that. If someone’s mean to me or someone disrespects me, I have that old Italian thing where I just shut ‘em off. It must be a defense mechanism. I don’t feel like, “Oh, lemme get this sunuvabitch!” Like Howard, when he started out, as a rule, he was like a madman! If a disc jockey started creeping up on him in the ratings, whoa! He would go crazy, you know?
Yeah, it was. And I’ll tell you what, maybe that’s what I lack. And if you’re in a career like entertainment, you know, I guess you need that. But they do wanna do a reality show now. Some astute producers in Hollywood are about to close a deal on a pilot — we shot the sizzle reel, which will be done Wednesday, and then I guess they’ll take it and try to sell it. But I’m very protective of my kids. But the kids, they’re all going …
Yeah, exactly! Hey, can I use that onstage? It’s a funny line. But I gotta be careful. So they want to do that on the build-out of the show in Club Piscopo. So I’m in this property with all these gay divas walking around upstairs and the circus, it’s perfect for a reality show, but I don’t know if I’ll get back at anybody, get any revenge. It’s like The Simpsons. I don’t let my children watch The Simpsons. You know, I’ll tell you this: For me, that show was the original dumbing-down of America. Oh my God! Are we that stupid? You know what I mean? And I don’t let my children watch it, man.
See! That’s a great start. Let’s go after The Simpsons first. Thanks a lot for your time, Joe.
Well, I appreciate your intelligent take on everything, man. And if you get a chance to come to Atlantic City, come hang at the club, we’ll have a blast. Are you married, if I may ask?
Nope. I’m single.
Oh, c’mon! We’ll get broads, man! Fuhgeddaboudit! I’m like a maniac! I don’t know how you can gingerly put it, but I’m single and I’m having a great time. But I’m telling you, the girls down there, they’re like beautiful and I’m like this old guy. You know, I have to pick younger women with father issues, but listen, I’ll take what I can get. I’ll be your wing man down there.