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Joe Piscopo: Still the Vice-Chairman of the Board (Interview)

Written by: Ed Rampell

Joe Piscopo, the comic known for his musical impressions who rocketed to fame in the early 1980s with Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, is back.

Joe Piscopo

Piscopo is starring in the movie How Sweet It Is, a musical comedy about a washed up Broadway director who is given a second chance at the big time by theater-loving gangster Big Mike (Paul Sorvino).

In this candid conversation with Rock Cellar Magazine, the SNL alum opens up about his new lead role in How Sweet It Is, the comedy club scene, Saturday Night Live, mastering his impression of Frank Sinatra, the art of acting, Law and Order and director Brian De Palma – and he also names his musical influences and favorite rockers.

The so-called “Vice-Chairman of the Board” also discusses how singer Frank Sinatra and the Great American Author Herman Melville are similar – in that they both did it their way.

Rock Cellar Magazine: How did you get involved with How Sweet It Is?  

Joe Piscopo: I got a call from the producers. I was on the ball field with my little boy doing the Little League, last spring. They said, “You’re the only guy that can play this role. It’s a down and out director, it’s a musical comedy.” They described it to me. And I went “oh, pretty cool.” But I was booked most of the spring and they wanted me out pretty quickly. You know what I did? I read the script, I talked with Brian Herzlinger, the director, who’s great. It was absolutely like a lovefest. So I cancelled everything and ran out to Beverly Hills and shot the movie, man!

…They wanted it shot out there. I’m an East Coast guy, I stay here and everything. We shot in the Valley. The crew was great, the cinematography by Akis Konstantakopoulos was great, and Brian. I just saw it in Jersey and it looks great on the big screen. What they can do for these low budget pictures now!

Joe and co-star Paul Sorvino.

Joe and co-star Paul Sorvino.

RCM: What drew you to the role of Jack Cosmo?  

JP: [Laughs.] You could sing and dance. That was fun.  I did the musical Grease and I was on Broadway with great talents on the Great White Way there, so I felt comfortable doing that. They also said you’re going to have to dig up some acting jobs, you’re gonna have to do some serious acting in this. That really was enticing for me, to play the down and out guy, down on his luck. To be able to take my time on camera and to draw from within myself and bring out all the angst you draw from as actors. So it was fun to go there and to play that range, from musical comedy to down and out.

RCM: You’ve actually played straight dramatic parts before, for example on Law and Order.

JP: I’m trained in theater first. In high school — I say this with the greatest of humility — they give me the Lincoln Center Student Arts award… and I got to go see Lee J. Cobb do King Lear, man. It was pretty awesome stuff. I should have followed up on it then — but I got sidetracked by getting a college degree.

RCM: Where did you go to college, Joe?

JP: Jones College in Jacksonville, Florida. Thank you for asking. It was a broadcasting, radio television school. So I must say I got a great education, I learned all about media, all about radio and television, and after college, like a lot of us do, I went into a catatonic stupor. You know what I’m saying, Ed? I said, “what am I doing?” I should have been in law school, because my father was a lawyer. I should go to Rutgers, I should do something. And you know what?

I just got the bug to go be an entertainer. You’ve gotta get it out of your system or you’ll be miserable the rest of your life if you don’t try this thing.

That’s where my head was at.

And indeed, that was my impetus. I went to the Improvisation comedy club in New York City on audition night. That’s where I cut my teeth, doing comedy clubs, four and a half years. Right from there I went to Saturday Night Live, so it was relatively quick. But it was not by any means easy.

RCM: So you didn’t go to the Actors Studio or the American Academy of Dramatic Arts after Jones?

JP: Great question, my friend. I should have — you know, I must say I think about it. I feel more comfortable — I’m an entertainer. Onstage I’m in my zone when I’m doing that, whether we’re doing music onstage or just an entertainer. Not a comedian per se. When I really feel in the wheelhouse anymore — and probably because I got my ass kicked so much in my real life, in the ups and downs we go through as human beings — I feel really in the comfort zone doing that. So I do question myself sometimes, saying, “Jesus, you know, maybe I should have done exactly what you said and gone to one of those acting schools and really concentrated.”

Edde and Joe. (Photo: Piscopo's website).

Edde and Joe, SNL era. (Photo: Piscopo’s website).

But I have to say, Ed — when I see real talent, like Pacino or De Niro, they’re older than I am but they were around in New York when I was starting out. Dustin Hoffman — how impossible it is to break through that whole acting — auditions, and going in, hundreds of people. Once I went in there and saw that world — I chose comedy route because I thought I could showcase myself better.

I have such respect for those actors — I don’t know if I could have handled that, to tell you the truth.

RCM: One could say that appearing on SNL is almost as great a training ground as any Actors Studio. I’m sure one learns the trade, the craft, the art more, doing that than one might at some institute or academy.

JP: That’s a good point. I cut my teeth at the clubs, shooting from the hip, in the middle of the roughest crowd in the country right at 44th and ninth at Hell’s Kitchen, people were murdered down the road, before Giuliani cleaned New York up. It was tough and rough and you really had to fight to survive. To your very astute point — that’s exactly right. Then I went right from that training ground, the Improvisation — we were all there. Larry David, that’s where Seinfeld came up, Eddie Murphy came to the clubs, so going to Saturday Night Live was a logical progression. Being on that live stage, being in the live arena of SNL, you really couldn’t beat that as a training ground. That’s for sure, man. Because it was trial by fire. You had to do it — or else you were off the air.

RCM: From 1980 to 1985 you were not only in front of a live audience every week, but in front of a huge audience out there in TV-land. Now you’re not in the public eye like you were when you were on a weekly TV show. Were you able to relate to Jack Cosmo, as a director of musical theater, whose career is up and down, up and down?

JP: Yes. That’s exactly right. I really think so. Because when they wrote it, and I think probably why they offered me the role — in the movie, Paul Sorvino and says to me, “Where have you been?” Like that, you know. I gotta tell you: You could be on Broadway, I was doing Grease, you have 2,700 people in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and you get a standing ovation… And you walk out of that theater — it’s stage, not television, where you’re right in the face of the people and invariably, you’re walking down the street with this great comfort zone, satisfied that I’m an entertainer, not only that but an entertainer on Broadway, somebody will always walk up to you and say: “Hey Joe, what are you doing now?” …You know what, people don’t know, unless you’re in their face on television. So yes, that totally prepared me for the role of Jack Cosmo. It’s not devious or malicious… so you live with that every day.

RCM: A big part of your act in How Sweet It Is is your music, which you said is one of the things that drew you to the movie and you do perform some great numbers in it. Can you tell us about your rock ’n’ roll influences?

JP: To this day the best rock ’n’ roll is from the sixties, when I was a kid.

I locked into immediately the British invasion, but it wasn’t the Beatles — I’m going to date myself… it was the Dave Clark 5.

How hip this group was. That attracted me as a kid in junior high and high school. You had a keyboard, a saxophone, a bass — it wasn’t just a guitar.

And check out Eric Burdon from the Animals. That I locked into. I was enthralled, addicted to, so compelled, by Eric, Alan Price, Dave Rowberry, Chas Chandler, went on to manage another historical figure, Jimi Hendrix. These guys were like the Stones — they were very similar, but Burdon’s voice cut through, to this day. He’s going back out on tour. When I watch the great Bruce Springsteen today — probably, in my mind, and arguably the greatest rock ’n’ roller on any stage anywhere is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — I see a lot of Eric Burdon in Bruce Springsteen.

Then, check this out, here I’m watching Dean Martin on his television show, man, and we all idolized Frank Sinatra, but it was Jimi Hendrix who was the guy, it was Hendrix back in the sixties. And here we were kids — I wasn’t a druggie at all, I never found any solace in it, but Hendrix was our guy. Every lick, every song — to this day. Just the week before last, I was at a great club, Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret — where you do your standards — in Denver. Beautiful little club. Doing the Reserve Casino the night before, running to Lannie’s the next night. What do I do onstage? Hey Joe, Where You Going With That Gun in Your Hand? I just started it, I had pop standard great musicians behind me.

Joe as Frank

Joe as Frank

We were doing all the Frank Sinatra stuff, I was doing my comedy stuff. Then I just started [Piscopo scats the opening guitar licks of Hey Joe]. And don’t you know they all knew it. Then the guitar player who’s playing the Frank Sinatra chart, nails the Hendrix solo. It was awesome.

I learned to play the drums from rock ’n’ roll. Don’t get me started, Ed. Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix’s drummer — they all talk about Ginger Baker; Ringo Starr was a great drummer, keeping time.

But it was Mitch Mitchell, when there are three guys onstage — a guitar, bass and drums — you listen to the jazz riffs he was playing.

 

He was so far ahead of his time.

To this day! You get Nick Menza from Megadeth, another spectacular drummer…. But it was Mitch Mitchell that’s how I learned to play the drums. Buddy Rich on the standards side, Mitch Mitchell on the rock ’n’ roll. The licks that I do in my solo today are Buddy Rich and Mitch Mitchell. I can only tell you that because sometimes that knows the Sinatra stuff, they’re not going to be hip to how great, complex and textured the rock ’n’ roll of the sixties is.

RCM: You’re almost best known for your impression of Sinatra and you’ve earned the nickname “Vice-Chairman of the Board.”

JP: [Laughs.] Yeah. Again, you rock ’n’ rollers, you gotta dig the old man, who I refer to as “Mr. S.” This guy, I tell ya, he was so… Don’t forget, I’m a rock ’n’ roller at heart because I was brought on it… But when I went on SNL they wanted me to do the Frank Sinatra character because Mr. S was so in the news with Ronald Reagan and everything, so we went ahead and we did the Frank Sinatra stuff, and it caught on, and he loved it. Then — I have to tell you, it was backwards. I kind of… started doing the Frank Sinatra impressions and by doing research on the old man, that’s where I really got enthralled by him. That’s how I really started studying him. Don’t forget, I’m like 27, 28 years old, but way after the fact — I knew who he was, we idolized him as Italian- Americans in New Jersey, but when they said you have to do the Frank Sinatra impression, I said okay and started studying that and getting into that music.

I’m always proud to be affiliated with Frank Sinatra and the Sinatra family. It’s like royalty in America.

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