Being a working performer is all Joe Piscopo ever wanted to do ever since he was a third grader in Glen Ridge, NJ. It was here that he got his first laughs when he volunteered to go onstage to grab a cardboard stand-up donkey that had been forgotten by his teacher Mrs. Gimbel. When the crowd exploded in laughter after he said, ‘Eh, wadda ya doin’?’ to the prop, the budding entertainer was hooked. Fast forward to 2019 and the proud father of five is juggling plenty of opportunities. When he’s not on the radio from 6 to 10 a.m., leading the morning drive for Salem Media’s flagship station, AM 970 The Answer, he’s out on the road with a variety show that hearkens back to the kind of live entertainment you’d find in Las Vegas and/or Atlantic City. It’s the kind of ongoing project that Piscopo is rightfully proud of.
“The show is something I call Retro Piscopo. It’s that kind of a show I learned from all the greats that I had the honor to work with—Frank Sinatra and Sammy. Not to compare myself to those guys, but the whole structure of that program is music and comedy,” he excitedly said. “It’s like a show that’s not around anymore and we go out and do it. It’s funny, because the millennials come out. The grandparents come out with their grandchildren who are 20 and 30 years old. It’s an all-family show, so I’ll do Frank Sinatra and we’ll do music. I’ve got John Colianni, who worked with Lionel Hampton when he was 19, so how about that? He’s the former music director for Mel Torme and is a beast on the piano. So we’ve got a killer band that we call the Piscopo Pops. We have a blast—an all-around, fun time. It’s worth the price of admission alone my friend.”
The influence of Ol’ Blue eyes is no surprise as one of the best-known impressions Piscopo is known for is of Francis Albert Sinatra. It’s one of the many characters he honed during his four years on Saturday Night Live. It was here that he and a then-unknown comic from Long Island named Eddie Murphy helped resurrect a franchise that had just enjoyed a five-year run featuring a cast of Not-Ready-For-Primetime-Players that included Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dan Akyroyd, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin. As a struggling comic taking the stage at the Improv in Hell’s Kitchen, alongside other up-and-comers like Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and Gilbert Gottfried, Piscopo got his SNL break when a friend recommended him to producer Jean Doumanian, who had taken over for show creator Lorne Michaels and was looking for new talent.
“John DiBellis was a writer there. He was hired and told Jean Doumanian that you need a utility guy and Piscopo is a utility guy,” Piscopo recalled. “I didn’t think you could replace that original cast, but I said I’d go up and read when I was asked. I got up, read and did some impressions, including Frank Sinatra. They liked what they saw and told me to come back so they could put me on video. So we go into he studio, which I think was Letterman’s old studio. I do a seven-minute video and they say I’m their utility guy. How did that happen? So there I was…on Saturday Night Live and your whole life changes. The good thing about SNL is that although you get criticism or praise from it, you just seem to keep working because of it.”
When Piscopo was told a Long Island comic named Eddie Murphy was being brought in to be checked out, the Garden State native admitted he had no idea who the potential cast member was. (“Long Island was like Iowa to us back then.”) When the two met, they developed an immediate rapport (“He’s so grounded, regular and down-to-earth that we started laughing immediately.”) It was when Piscopo was asked to read the infamous Chevy Chase/Richard Pryor word association skit with Murphy as part of the latter’s audition that he quickly realized his future friend’s potential.
“I went in and Jean Doumanian was there with the cast of writers and I read the Chevy Chase part and Eddie read the Pryor part. I said to myself, ‘This guy is the next Pryor.’ I saw it right there. But they still weren’t sure,” Piscopo recalled with incredulity. “I went on a campaign with John DiBellis to Jean Doumanian. We already had the cast set but I told her that she had to get the kid because he was going to be the next Pryor. When he started out, I kept thinking, ‘Oh my God. This kid is 19 and right out of high school.’ The rest is history. He smoked it there.”
During the duo’s time together on SNL, they developed an undeniable chemistry that not only gave the show a proverbial creative kick in the pants, but gave viewers memorable skits highlighted by the two impressionists delivering a storied duet between Piscopo’s Sinatra and Murphy’s Stevie Wonder. While not as frequently in contact, the duo maintain a friendship. And while Piscopo marvels at the work they did together, he’s as equally thrilled about his buddy’s comeback.
“One of the glorious joys I’ve had in my life is working with Eddie on live TV, because anything could happen. And we had no delay by the way back then. So anything could happen. All that spontaneity you saw was all natural,” he said. “I consider myself blessed and fortunate to work with such a comic genius. I’m glad he’s coming back. The good thing is, I think it’s needed now because it’s so uptight now. I always say, if you thought Chappelle was great, put your seatbelt on. Wait and see what Eddie is going to do.”
No slouch himself, Piscopo’s radio show and frequent public and corporate gigs are all part of a busy slate that includes plenty of charity work (Boys & Girls Club of New Jersey; St. Francis Food Pantries & Shelters) and work on some independent film projects he’s hoping will see a 2020 release. Humble and overflowing with a joie de vivre, Piscopo is nothing but grateful for everything he’s experienced.
“I’m part of the blue collar of show business baby. I ain’t no big star and I’m sweatin’ on stage,” he said. “As Rodney said, you’re only as good as your last show. When you do live, it’s not on film or television and it doesn’t have any longevity. You’ve got to do it all over again and it’s gotta be in your blood. And apparently it is.”
Joe Piscopo will be appearing on Nov. 2 at the Madison Theatre at Molloy College, 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre. To find out more information, visit www.madisontheatreny.org or call 516-323-4444.