Transcript of the interview with
Joe Piscopo
best known for his stint as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players
Currently he is in the Broadway hit, GREASE and is touring with the show.
The interview aired on Monday, July 15, 1996 at 7:30pm eastern
with Peter Anthony Holder, the evening open-line talk show host on
CJAD 800 AM, Montreal.

CJAD: Hi Joe.

JOE: Hiya Peter, how are you doing man?

CJAD: I'm doing okay.

JOE: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We're so excited we're coming to Montreal, man.

CJAD: Nice of you to be on the program with us. You've been very busy with this show. You've been doing GREASE for a while now, haven't you?

JOE: You know what was so funny. It was interesting. We started in January. Actually I did a week in Chicago in warm-up, you know. Then January 96, went in. I went onto Broadway with GREASE. You know, when you do Broadway, it's like being knighted, Peter, you know what I mean. Being on Broadway! So, we went in, but I went in when it was the blizzard of 96. The snowstorm of the century. Thank God everybody still trudged through the snow to come and see it. I want to tell you, we did that four months on Broadway and it worked out so well. We now got this big thing on the road now.

CJAD: Was there a lot of apprehension on your part. I mean, for a lot of people you're the guy from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Even though the two theatres might be close in actuality, from Rockefeller Center and where you're playing GREASE in New York, that is very long trip for a lot of people.

JOE: It's an interesting question, Peter, and a lot of people, some friends have said they couldn't do Broadway because of the fear factor. You see, if you're a comedian, and I know Montreal is very comedy savvy with the festival they have and everything....comedians basically work by themselves, you know. They don't work well with other people, unless their great, like a Robin Williams, like an Eddie Murphy or somebody like that. But I'm basically an actor first. That's why I would do all of those characters that I would do because it was kind of an introspective kind of look at the characterization of the person I was portraying, or if it was an original character like Doug Whiner, you know, the whiner guy, it's more of a characterization and acting piece then standup. So I'll tell you what, I went right in and I felt so at home and so comfortable. It was like I was born to do it, man. I can't tell you what an exhilarating feeling it is.

CJAD: Yet on the other hand, to me it was not such a big surprise, because let's face it, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was just that. It was live every Saturday night. What could be closer to Broadway then doing that?

JOE: And you know, it was funny. People kept saying, "Oh you did SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, man, you'll be able to do Broadway", but there are so many safety nets on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, in the sense of you have a big dress rehearsal and then you work on the material. Not that you have a lot of time to prepare, but when you're on camera, when you are live, there's a cue card guy in front of you. You've got the director calling shots. You've got somebody to come to your room to take you to the exact spot. They remind you. There's a million people working, you know? But when you're on Broadway, man, there's no safety nets. And there's no room for error. There's no button that could cut you off the air if something happens. It's you and the audience and that's it and you have to work within the confines of the script, and the music and the choreography. And I'll tell you what, it was twice as challenging certainly, as SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

CJAD: Now were you anticipating that challenge when you first took the role, or were some of these things a surprise to you as you took the role?

JOE: No, I was....there was a mind numbing fear. I'll tell you that. I'm being honest with you (laughter). Because of the perception of "Broadway" you know, it was Broadway man! I went in, and the first thing when I went in on that snowstorm day, I guess it was January 8th 96, New York shut down. No other show was open. We were the only show and the cast was there! They were there ready to rehearse at 3 o'clock in the afternoon prior to the 7:30 curtain that we had. I went in and the first thing I said was "I'm humbled to be here. I'm a little anxious, and I would appreciate your support and help out, but I gotta tell you, it's a thrill to be among the most talented people in the world." It was a love fest right from there. And I want to tell you, the cast...and the cast that we're coming to Montreal with, are so talented! They're so energetic! That God forbid if you did go down, you know what I'm saying, they'd pick you right up!

CJAD: That brings up another point too. You were going into a show that was already established on Broadway.

JOE: Right.

CJAD: Is that a little more difficult then being part of a show that you're all getting to know each other together as opposed to coming in to an established cast.

JOE: Exactly, Rosie O'Donnell kicked it off, then Brooke Shields came in, and I was following John Secada. Now business was great. I mean, it's a major hit on Broadway. I'm going in. You don't want to be known as the guy who closed GREASE on Broadway, (laughter). Geez! It was a lot pressure. We went in and thank God we were one of the top three grossing shows all winter long and we did great. But I mean, only because the show itself of course is a great piece of Americana and the cast, of course, was great. But it was...there are so many facets when you work Broadway, you have to worry about cast moral. You have to be humble. And like I said, you have to be absorbed by the cast and take their lead. You can't go on with an attitude. No attitudes allowed. And then you have to worry about ticket sales. You know, it's a big responsibility.

CJAD: Have you had the opportunity now, in doing this in the last six months's a little different then doing SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. You did a character. You might have done a character several times on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but the script always changes. And you're playing Vince Fontaine, correct?

JOE: Right, exactly, the disc jockey, yeah.

CJAD: Here the script doesn't change. You're basically locked into this character for a period of time. How is that different for you?

JOE: Well the beauty of it is, is that we do a pre-show. What we invite the audience to do is come to the theatre a half hour before the curtain. A half hour before there is a pre-show rock 'n' roll party. The curtain is at 8. Come at 7:30, I will be the first thing you see, for better or for worse, when you walk into the theatre. I'm on stage. I get to talk to the audience. I get to bring people on stage to dance. We have a dance contest. Now let me tell you, as crazy as that sounds, it's a great piece of interactive theatre. It works so well on Broadway. I've had 83-year-old people on stage with me. Kids dancing on stage. Every show for me is different in that sense, because I can play. Of course I'm Vince Fontaine, the "main brain", you know, "the man with the plan", that kind of disc jockey character. But I get to interact with the audience up front, and I want to tell you, every show is different for me. Every town is different. It's very, very exciting.

CJAD: How do audiences differ from city to city? How many city's have you been through besides New York and out West?

JOE: Well, we went to Toronto, and I want to tell you something. In Toronto that's a big theatre at the O'Keefe Centre down there. That's a 3,200 seater and we sold it out for eight performances, and I want to tell you, they were so polite and reserved but very respectful. I want to tell you, the Canadians are so nice! This is what's refreshing about playing Canada. Peter, I gotta tell ya, everybody's so.....if I'm stranded....for example, I'm stranded in Toronto for a three hour lay over on the way back, going out to Winnipeg. You know, people walk over and say, "hey Joe, you need some help? I'll take you over here." You know, I've never experienced anything like that. We love playing Canada. Winnipeg...spectacular! It was just great at the concert hall down there. We played Des Moines, Iowa. They went nuts. It was like a rock 'n' roll festival. They went crazy! Standing ovations. But we never take it for granted. When we come to Montreal, Montreal is a very hip, very savvy city that knows good entertainment. When we perform here we want to make sure that we're at a thousand percent coming out of box flying. We never take the previous shows, although we have been received so well, for granted. You know what I mean?

CJAD: Yeah......have you had an opportunity to do a lot of live play work before as opposed to stand up or sketch work.

JOE: You know, in high school I won the Lincoln Center Student Arts Award. I was going to go into the whole theatre thing, but I got sidetracked into comedy. I'm a big radio freak, actually. That's what's kind of cool to talk to you here on CJAD on the talk station, because I have a degree in broadcast management. Can you believe that?

CJAD: You mean someone can get a degree for management in radio?

JOE: (laughter) It's a B.S. so you take that for what it's worth! But I couldn't get in anywhere else. I was such a bad student. I went to a school in Florida and they had a good radio facility, so I'm a radio freak. I did a little theatre, but I got sidetracked into the comedy thing, but I always wanted to do exactly what I'm doing now, which is just be a working actor. Just kind of get out there and have fun and do this theatre thing. But also, I do a show, like a Joe Piscopo In Concert type show that we go with into the casinos. We play a lot benefits. It's like, I do a lot of music and I kind of sing. It's like a variety kind of show, but the producers, I think.....Barry and Fran Weissler, the producers of GREASE, were hip to the fact that I was singing and stuff, because in this show, in GREASE, man you've got a see me! I actually sing. I actually dance. I do a split. I actually do a split. We open the second act and it's a riot! It's like nothing I've ever done. Worth the price of admission alone!

CJAD: Well that brings up an interesting point. You said you got sidetracked into comedy. How did that happen?

JOE: You know, I wanted to, like I said, just do what I'm doing now. To be an actor. So I went to all those mass cattle calls as an actor, when I first started out in my twenties, man. I said, "I gotta do this." Man, I gotta tell you, it's tough. That's why have such respect for actors who went through all of that, because I said, "how could I be better noticed?" So at that point the comedy scene was coming on real strong, so I went to THE IMPROVISATION. I would watch Robert Klein and Robin Williams work. I would watch all these comedians come in. Richard Pryor....Rodney used to come in....Elaine Boosler and all these wonderful comedians would come through and I would say, "Gee whiz, that would be cool", because you could go on stage, you could do your thing and then you could get work from that. And that's indeed exactly what happened. I went on stage. I was never a standup comic. I was never like a Jerry Seinfeld standup comic. I have such a high regard for those guys because it's a hardest thing to do. I'm more a performer. I would do characters on stage. From THE IMPROVISATION in New York that's how I started doing television commercials and getting little acting pieces. NBC, ironically enough, signed me up for a contract years ago in the late 70's, just to be available for any work that came up, and indeed SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE surfaced and they put me over there.

CJAD: That was in 1980, correct?

JOE: Correct.

CJAD: SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE has a long legacy. Is it difficult, looking back at it now, the fact that everybody who seems to be on that show is constantly being compared as to what they do off of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

JOE: You know, I am so grateful to be from that school. Because, I tell you, without it....being from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, I'm trying to say, allows you so many opportunities. So many opportunities just being from that show. I don't see a downside to it, because I could play.....when we talk, or when I headline GREASE, no matter what city or what country I go to, the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE still has a credibility to it, even though I know it has taken its shots now. It's a family. It's part of a family and you take the better take the good and the bad of that. Certainly in my part, there was more good then bad.

CJAD: At some point, with your career and with a lot of people who were on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, the decision comes along when people decide that they are going to move along. Was that a tough decision to make?

JOE: Nah, because I'll tell you this....and I speak with such respect for that show, because it's a legendary show. It's a tough show to do. I gotta tell ya. Again, I have to treat it with respect, Peter. I'm trying to be as politically correct as I can here, but it's have to write, you have to fight for your pieces on the air. You have to fight! Eddie and I would fight for these pieces to get them on the air. Tim'd have to fight.....Robin Duke, from Toronto. She was Wendy Weiner. One of the most talented ladies that I saw. That poor girl had to fight! Look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus now on SEINFELD show. Julia was buried on the show on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. She'll tell you herself, you know. It's a very tough show for women. And yet it was exhausting, so at the end of my four year run there, Eddie was leaving, and Eddie and I, we had such a nice camaraderie there, I just really had it and I was ready to move on. I'm a life guy. I don't really think career. I think more of my life and it was just something that had to be done at the time.

CJAD: After SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, you did a few movies. You've done all kinds of things. Lately I saw you were doing a commercial where you were doing the voice of Frank Sinatra.

JOE: Oh isn't that wild. Again, let me tell ya, I've had the most interesting career, you know. I mean, I ain't no superstar but I sure am having fun, I'll tell you that. This is what happened. Lipton has a new product called Brisk Tea. I think it's been in Canada for quite awhile. It's a great tea. So they, Lipton, sanctions Tim Burton to do animation, you know, director Tim Burton, to do his type of animation that he does so well of a Frank Sinatra character, right! Now they need a voice to do it. So they call me to do the voice. The first thing I ask them is of course is was it okay with Mr. Sinatra himself? Did the Sinatra family okay it? Which they had. So I was actually honoured. I was very privileged to actually put the voice to Tim Burton animation from a Sinatra sanction concept and I gotta tell you, this commercial is one of the best ones I've ever been a part of, and I've done some great commercials. I've been lucky enough to do some great commercials.

CJAD: You've transformed your career several times through the course of your career, but you've also transformed yourself. You're Mr. Buff now aren't you?

JOE: Man, I'm telling you, I am working too hard now.

CJAD: You're showing up in magazines!

JOE: (laughter) I know, was that the silliest.....Let me tell you what happened. And I tell your listeners. We're on a talk station, we can talk and hopefully the folks will have the patience to listen. But what happened in 81-82, when I was on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, they diagnosed me with thyroid cancer. I don't know if you are aware of that. They took a tumour the size of an egg out of my thyroid. HELLO! And I want to tell you something, everything is going great. You're on TV and you're having fun. Long story short, they found a little encapsulated cancer inside this thyroid. And I have to tell you, to all the wonderful cancer heroes listening to us now, Peter, it's nothing like the serious forms of cancer. Thyroid cancer is indeed the most curable and several years ago I got cured 100%. Everything's okay. They put the iodine in your arm and I get scanned every four to six months just to make sure everything is okay and take blood tests and everything and everything is a 100% okay. But at the time, let me tell you something, no matter what form of cancer it is, when you hear the "C" word, it scares the living hell out of you! I'll tell you right now, I don't care what it is! You think you're indestructible and all of a sudden there is death potentially staring you right in the face. So I go to the doctor's. Now this is twelve, almost fifteen years ago. So the doctors say, "Joe" know I was drinking at the time. Not the greatest lifestyle. No drugs. Never did any drugs or anything like that, but the doctors said, "you have to workout. You have to keep your body fat down. You have to live a better lifestyle, take better care of yourself." So I say, "oh, I've gotta work out." He said, "yes, you've gotta work out, you have to take anti-oxidants." I had no idea what those were. So of course being an obsessive compulsive personality, I took it to the limit and started working out. And from that MILLER BEER wanted me to do their commercials as the karate guy all buffed up and then from that Ballys called and then Joe Weider called from MUSCLE & FITNESS and I said, "sure." And I took it so lightly, not thinking, "hey, this is what I do now, because I have to keep in shape." So that's how I got sidetracked into that whole buff thing. It was an interesting way to get there, but I tell you what. It's a great thing and all the guys and girls listening now that work out, I gotta tell ya, if I wasn't doing that, there is no way I could keep up the energy with the cast of GREASE.

CJAD: And some people who hadn't seen you for awhile, it was quite a surprise.

JOE: Yeah, they thought steroids, right?

CJAD: Or airbrushing! Where did that come from!

JOE: (laughter) Yeah, I wish. I wish! And you know what, all the big boys in the gym would call me puny. I couldn't win. They go, "you're puny!" And all the other people were saying, "oh you're doing steroids." I never did steroids. Never would even attempt it. Just the principle alone, I don't do drugs. I don't believe in it. And you know what we did. I took that whole concept from working out, because it was a tough time in my life. I pulled myself out of the limelight just a little bit, because at that same time I got hit with this custody thing with my son. I went through a divorce, which was fine and amicable, but then a judge in New Jersey awarded custody to my ex-wife, my son's Mother, and she moved him over 2,000 miles away. And I gotta tell you something, at that point, you have to prioritize your life. You gotta go, "well I'm going to be obsessed with my career" and I both know people who are so obsessed with what show they're doing, what sitcom they're doing, what film they're doing, or you have to prioritize your life and concentrate on your family and what indeed is important. And I went the life route and just took a little time out. I'm with my son now and we went through hell. I've been to hell and back, for the tough times. Now he's with me on the road. He's coming to Montreal with me. So far, everything's just been great, you know.

CJAD: It sounds like you're having a great time.

JOE: Yeah, now I am because once I got my life in order...because, we're all going to die, and no one dies one's on their deathbed saying, "oh I wish I would have worked more. Oh gosh, I wish I would have done that movie", or something like that. But you always hear people saying, "I wish I gave more time to my kids. I wish I gave more time to my family." I did. God forbid, I could die tomorrow. I could die of a massive coronary on stage in the middle of a number (laughter), and I would be happy because I took the time to prioritize my life. At the risk of possibly setting myself back career-wise a step or two, I'm just happier in my soul. I'm just happier as a person. And I am indeed having a good time Peter.

CJAD: Well you are certainly very versatile. There are so many things you have done. Is there something you haven't done that you really want to?

JOE: Yes, you know what I want to do? A dream of mine is I want to do a variety show. I just love the form of variety, and I think it's time for television to bring it back. As a matter of fact, what we do in GREASE in the beginning, is almost like talk with people, we dance, it's kind of like that. So what we're doing next year.....I got hooked on this Broadway thing. It's pretty interesting! We're going to go do a variety show on Broadway. I'm talking about the best acts from all around the world. We're already searching for these wild acts like the Cirque du Soleil kind of performer. Everything from that to a Broadway singer to a subway performer to guest stars every night. A non-stop 90-minute fun filled time on stage. We will shoot that as a pilot for television because I want a show that's clicker proof. If I see one more whining couple show on television, I'll vomit! (laughter)

CJAD: Gee a show from New York that shows Broadway and all kinds of acts. Sounds like ED SULLIVAN to me.

JOE: That's it buddy, Ed Sullivan!

CJAD: A couple of weeks ago I had David Bianculli from THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, the television critic. We were talking about that very thing. The fact that there hasn't been a variety show on television for awhile and people are saying it's dead. But my feeling is it's dead because there hasn't been a good one. That's all!

JOE: You know, if you keep it fast paced, I think, and I may be wrong...but if you keep it fast paced and you do a lot of different facets of it, I think that you're safe. Because look at Jay Leno, who is a workhorse, and I guess that he's still beating Dave.

CJAD: Yes, he's still beating Dave.

JOE: Yeah, well Jay's kind of got a variety twist to it and the fact that he's beating Dave, maybe that should tell the television people something, you know. But it's also, Peter, very expensive to do something like that and I know that's prohibitive as well.

CJAD: Well I certainly wish you luck with that show. I'll be rooting for you, because I'd like to see a variety show back on the air again. In the meantime you'll be here in town with GREASE. It sounds like you're having a great time with your life and I'm sure that comes across on stage.

JOE: I want to tell you Adrian Zmed is spectacular as Danny Zuko. Mackenzie Phillips sings her heart out. This cast is so high energy. Come a half hour before the show and we'll rock 'n' roll you. I'll tell you what. It is just the thrill of my life to on this. This is Broadway coming to Montreal. Adrian Zmed originated the Danny Zuko role on Broadway and we have Marilyn Cooper with us who is a Tony Award winning actress, so when we come to Montreal we come with great respect for a great, great city. I'll tell you what, we're going to kick some major butt in rock 'n' roll.

CJAD: And for those who never leave their television set, Adrian Zmed was from TJ HOOKER......

JOE: That's right, that's right!

CJAD: And Mackenzie Phillips was from ONE DAY AT A TIME.

JOE: That's right, that's exactly right.

CJAD: Thanks for talking with us, Joe.

JOE: Peter Anthony Holder. I love your name, man, and I hope to talk to you soon!

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