Imagine replacing the remaining original players of late-night TV's greatest ensemble cast. Then, a year later, every new cast member except you and a future superstar are sent packing.
That's what happened to Joe Piscopo, who in 1981 survived a purge at "Saturday Night Live" along with Eddie Murphy and built the foundation for an enduring stage act. Piscopo, now 61, brings his band and signature impersonations to Dix Hills Saturday night.
He's been in films and on Broadway since "SNL," but clubs are where Piscopo makes his living these days. The proud New Jerseyan recently chatted about his highs and lows.
What kind of show is "Jersey Joe" bringing to Long Island?
I got live musicians, and some of the guys that we take on the road are Long Islanders. I always loved doing [David] Letterman, and we'll probably do a top five or 10 reasons to live on Long Island. Aside from the great Bruce Springsteen, you will never see anybody work harder for you on that stage, in a venue like that.
Only you and Eddie survived the cast purge when Dick Ebersol took over "SNL" in '81. You've said you had "fisticuff moments" with Ebersol.
Through great comedy comes, I think, adversity. I always liken it to Billy Martin in those tumultuous Yankee years. It wasn't really "fisticuffs." I think I was just being dramatic, but it was the cast against the producers. We were all so tight -- Timmy Kazurinsky and Mary Gross and all that great cast, and suddenly Eddie. When they would ask you to do sketches you didn't want to do, it was a problem because you knew your chops were gonna get busted by your buddies on Monday morning. But they had to film 90 minutes, man! So it was like, "Get Joe -- he'll do it!" I was like the "Mikey" of "SNL." I'm a good soldier, but sometimes you'd have to fight for your rights to be funny.
It's been said you rewrote lyrics for a Sinatra sketch because of Frank's ties to organized crime.
So Johnny Cash is hosting the show. Eddie and I come up with the idea of parodying Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder on "Ebony and Ivory." "You do Stevie Wonder, I'll do Frank Sinatra." The writers write the sketch, and it's very edgy, and I'm not happy about it. I had to go to the executive producer and say, "Dick, I can't do this. It's disrespectful to Frank Sinatra." That's all that it was about. "Don't disrespect Frank Sinatra." And all I remember is Johnny Cash saying, "What's wrong with Joe?" I went to the wall and would have lost that job just to protect the Sinatra name. All those lines, I cleaned it and made it funnier as opposed to mean.
How did you meet Sinatra?
I met the old man at the Friars Club, and he brought me up to the dais and gave me accolades. "Here's a talented kid, great kid, he's an Italian guy." And I started doing the old man, right there at the Friars Club. No one had done it, and who had the nerve to do it? And he looked up at me at the podium and said, "That's pretty good." It was just great. I turned to him and said, "Hey, can I call you Frank?" And he said, "No." It got the biggest laugh of the night.
How'd you get the "Let's Go Mets" music video gig in '86?
I'm a baseball fan, a Yankees fan, so when the Mets won, they said, "Would you drop by and do a video?" So I said, "Well, can I take my son?" He was like 8 at the time. I said, "Can I bring him on the field?" They said, "Oh, yeah, sure, Joe." And I was like, "Hey, this is great!" So we got to Shea, got to see [Lee] Mazzilli, got to see Darryl Strawberry and Ron Darling and everything, and I'm going, "Whoa, man, this is great!" And then we did the Bobblehead thing with Lee, and we just had a great time, but the caveat for that was that I'm a Yankee fan, and when the Yankees won the World Series and I was in the parade, I was getting heckled by some Long Islanders, saying, "Hey, you're a Mets fan! Get out of there!" And I'm at the top of the truck going, "No, I'm a Yankee fan!"
You've taken your share of hits in the media over the years. How much flak do you still get for, as has been said, running off and marrying the baby-sitter, Kimberly, who you later split with?
Well, you make your own journey, man. You make your own journey, my friend. I still have to pay out millions of dollars. It is time that someone stop this insanity in the family court system. I'll tell you that for the record. It's insane, it's insidious, it's wrong, it's vile. That's the point I want to make. And it's not against my ex, or anything like that. The system is so broken. Omigod, it's so wrong. And when they print that stuff, I'm gonna answer it. When they say lies in the paper, I'm gonna answer it. I'm not gonna keep my mouth shut. And I'm not done yet. You may do this interview in a couple of months, and I may be in an orange jumpsuit in the county jail. I ain't going down! Remember the words of Bruce Springsteen: "Trust none of what you hear. And less of what you see." And that's what you've got to live by, brother.
Let's find out a few of your favorite things. Favorite band?
It's got to be Meryl Streep.
I go between "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Lost in Translation." I love the small films. Right now it's gotta be "Lost in Translation." How great can Bill Murray possibly be in that film? That's my life story, I swear to God.
Favorite TV show.
I'm a news junkie. "The CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley." Omigod, that's like an old guy's answer.
There's a book by the Pope John Paul II called "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." I'm a great admirer of that guy. He was a pretty interesting cat.
JoePiscopo.com. Come on, what else am I going to say?
OK, second favorite.
Besides news websites, Amazon.com
It's got to be my mother's lasagna.
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dix Hills Performing Arts Center, 310 N. Service Rd.
INFO Tickets $35-$60, dhpac.org, 631-656-2148