They grew up on Jefferson Avenue and Hungry Harbor Road. They were Newsday paperboys and hung out at Green Acres Mall. They performed in skit night, musicals and concerts at their high schools.
Their razor-sharp one-liners, spot-on impressions and kooky characters were born in Valley Stream. And now, they’re performing all over the world.
Some of today’s most successful actors and comedians hail from Valley Stream, including Jim Breuer, Larry Miller, Fred Armisen, Thomas Dale, and Steve Buscemi. All but one of them attended Valley Stream Central High School (Miller graduated from Valley Stream South) and caught the acting bug as teens.
Breuer, Miller and Dale had a common goal growing up: To make people laugh. But what’s so funny about Valley Stream? The comedians reflected on their childhoods and revealed how Long Island audiences helped them hit it big.
FROM SKIT NIGHT TO ‘SNL’
For Jim Breuer, it all started at Valley Stream Central High School’s annual skit night. He remembers his best friend at the time wanted him to perform one of his impressions on stage for their peers: Eddie Murphy. No sweat; Breuer had it down pat. He was a bit of a fan.
“I had his albums. I went to see him at Westbury Music Fair when he was only about 18 or 19,” Breuer said. “It was before he came out with his comedy specials. The fact that he was almost the same age as me was so inspiring.”
Breuer, 50, hadn’t performed too much at his high school until then. “I didn’t want anything to do with plays because I thought it was too corny,” he said. But he agreed to get in the spotlight at skit night. He stepped out on stage and played Eddie Murphy . . . as Noah. The biblical figure.
“I became the most popular kid overnight,” he said. “And that — that changed my whole life.”
Growing up, Breuer delivered Newsday in his neighborhood. He said he wasn’t exactly stellar at the job — “There are people still that owe me at least nine weeks of delivery,” he said with a laugh.
He graduated from Central in 1985 with fellow “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen, who had a mohawk back then, Breuer said. “He scared me senior year. Nobody had mohawks then. That was the craziest thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
Breuer said Valley Stream offers a good foundation for comedians because of the diversity in its residents’ backgrounds.
“It’s a very blue-collar and very hands-on neighborhood,” he said. “And it also came from descendants of Brooklyn. You had very rich, in culture, Italian, Irish and Jewish community, all mixed in one.”
But he said despite the indefatigable work ethic of the community members, there wasn’t “a whole lot of optimism to go extremely far.”
“I think that mentality of busting chops and being funny — for guys like me and Freddie [Armisen] and Larry Miller, we had the attitude of, ‘Our shot is to go for it,’” he said. “And I went for it.”
Breuer still regularly performs on Long Island. His next show at The Paramount is coming up on Saturday, and his residency there was recently extended with a fifth show to take place in June.
“[Long Island] is one of the most electric places in the whole country for me to play,” he said while looking back on his Paramount performances. “It felt like an after-wedding celebration. Now, it’s just the celebration part.”
LIFE ON HUNGRY HARBOR ROAD
Before his breakout role as a schmoozy shop clerk to Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman,” Larry Miller could be spotted performing in Valley Stream South High School’s production of the classic musical “The Boyfriend.” But he wasn’t on stage — Miller played percussion in the orchestra pit.
But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t steal the show.
“I was never shy,” Miller, 64, said. “I loved adding things if I thought it was funny or if I thought it was interesting.”
So during a scene where he was supposed to briefly play some chimes to signify a doorbell ringing, he stretched out the moment. A lot.
“Even the teachers were laughing and shaking their heads,” he said. He remembers the chairman of the music department at the time approaching him after the show.
“I remember him coming up to me and saying, ‘You know what? That was very funny. Please don’t do it again,’ ” Miller said, laughing. “So that was probably the motto, in a way, of my childhood.”
Miller drew comedic inspiration from the quick wit and biting satire of Long Island-based comedian Alan King. In his home on Hungry Harbor Road, Miller said he would often wake up early just to read King’s books. On one occasion, Miller recalls laughing so hard and not being able to stop, from reading King. Miller later starred in an HBO comedy special titled “Larry Miller . . . Just Words.”
“I’ll never forget that because that was the first time I was ever aware of the joy and power of comedy,” he said. “I still think it has tremendous power. I don’t think even comedians know or the audiences know how strong it is.”
Miller lived in Valley Stream for more than 40 years. As he grew up, he took his life experiences and started crafting them into stories, finding the bits of humor, and driving those points home.
“Every single thing I did, including Little League and paper route, all felt like comedy material to me,” Miller said. “And I didn’t know what that even meant, but every day of my life in Valley Stream, I was banking away stories.”
While living on Long Island, Miller opened for Peter Allen at Westbury Music Fair and Buddy Rich at My Father’s Place in Roslyn. Although stand-up is his favorite way to communicate with an audience, Miller has character actor chops that have also landed him in film and on television. Highlights include his performances as the mouthy doorman in “Seinfeld,” Anne Hathaway’s visionary stylist in “The Princess Diaries,” and the protective father in “10 Things I Hate About You.”
Miller said that as a performer, he feels lucky to have had a positive upbringing.
“There are a lot of comics, great comics, who’ve talked about some of the bad things in their lives in the neighborhoods they grew up in, but it was never that way for me,” he said. “Sure, I started in New York and I’ve worked here and there and all over the country, all over Canada . . . But whenever I’m performing, it all sounds and feels like Valley Stream to me.”
‘LIKE PERFORMING IN MY LIVING ROOM’
Up-and-coming comedian Thomas Dale may be best known for a video that went viral in 2012, titled “[Expletive] Long Island People Say.” While he was working at Morton’s Steakhouse in Great Neck, a friend approached him with the idea, as these types of videos were becoming popular at the time.
“I was like yeah, I would love to but I don’t want to just do it how everyone else is doing it,” Dale said. “I want to do it in characters.”
Dale created characters to deliver each “Long Island saying” in the video, and played all of them. He and some friends filmed it around Valley Stream and Malverne, and the finished product hit YouTube within just 19 hours. The video now has more than 650,000 views, and is a point of pride for Dale.
“After I had this viral video, I wound up getting a strong Long Island fan base,” he said.
Dale attended Valley Stream Central High School and the Nassau BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset. Growing up, he performed in musicals at both schools. In fact, as a senior, Dale said he performed in three productions at the same time: “West Side Story” at BOCES, “Guys and Dolls” at Central, and he was recruited back to Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School to play Fagin in its production of “Oliver!”
“Three very different characters!” Dale said with a laugh.
Governor’s of Levittown and The Brokerage in Bellmore became home to Dale while he was living on Long Island. He performed stand-up in New York for six and a half years before moving to Los Angeles, where he’s been ever since. He still returns to his favorite clubs whenever he can, most recently stepping on the Governor’s stage in December.
“There are a lot of people that have been coming from when I first started comedy, when I needed to do ‘bringer’ shows, where you need to bring people,” Dale said. “Now they see me like I actually know what I’m doing and I have a unique voice, and they love the journey . . . It’s like family; it’s like me performing in my living room for all my favorite aunts and uncles and they’re all strangers but they become aunts and uncles.”
Dale’s identity plays a huge role in what he brings to his live performances. On stage, he talks about what it was like being gay growing up in Valley Stream. He said he’s received positive feedback from Long Island audiences, including regulars who keep coming back to take part in bits he routinely does with the crowd.
“I’ve had men thank me for opening them up to a different lifestyle,” he said, “a perspective they never would have been comfortable with had I not been in this type of personality.”
His next move? Dale will be featured in Comedy Central’s “This Is Not Happening,” where comedians tell live crowds their favorite stories — from embarrassing to poignant and everything in between. Dale is also in the early creative stages of a new series, which he described as a “dramedy” about growing up in an “alpha-dominated environment.”
The star of his show, is of course, Valley Stream.
“Just being a Valley Streamer, I learned to keep it real and just be honest with all the color,” Dale said. “When I’m on stage, I’m me. And Valley Stream is part of me. So that’s how I incorporate it — by just being me.”
- With Erica Brosnan