Ask comedian J. J. Ramirez who his favorite comics are, his idols, and he will ll tell you names like Freddie Prinze, David Letterman, Robert Klein, and Richard Pryor. But Don Rickles, the mouthy octogenarian who just put out a book about his life , “Rickles’ Book: A Memoir,” is the funnyman whom Ramirez admires most of all.
“He is the king,” Ramirez says in a phone interview from his home in Howard Beach, Queens. “I have always admired the way he dealt with the ethnic humor, the in-your-face insults. People would get mad at him — Mr. Warmth. The man used to have me crying.”
He’s quick to relay a classic Rickles story about an encounter between Rickles and Frank Sinatra at a restaurant at the Sands in Las Vegas more than 40 years ago. “He was there with a woman, and wanted to impress her, and he asked Frank to come over in about 10 minutes. So Frank comes over, `Hi Don, how you doin?’ And Rickles looks at him and says, ‘Don’t bother me now, Frank. Can’t you see I’m busy?’” Yup. J.J. Ramirez knows his Rickles.
Ramirez says his style is definitely inspired by Rickles but “not as focused. Although I really enjoy written material, my forte is audience participation.”
Ramirez, who says only that he is “40-something,” has been a working comedian for close to 26 years. Ramirez will perform Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9, at Catch a Rising Star at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton.
“Princeton. A nice, boring, Ivy League town,” Ramirez says with a combination of irony and admiration — he loves to go to libraries and hang out in college towns, which he does often because he performs a lot in those environments.
Although he is the only one of four siblings who didn’t attend college, “I’m the only one you can see on TV,” Ramirez says. He is on the road so much he can’t even estimate how many gigs he does per year, but “it keeps my bills paid, my taxes paid, and my mortgage paid.” Just in the past few weeks, Ramirez has worked in Pittsburgh; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Albany; and San Antonio. He has worked across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
In every venue Ramirez has to adapt his comedy style to his audience. “The mark of a good comedian is his ability to accommodate and acclimate,” he says. “I’ve worked all-black crowds, white crowds, and Latin crowds.”
I ask him about the name J.J. “My name should be John Joseph, or Juan Jose in Spanish,” he says. “But my actual name is Johnny Joe Ramirez. I feel like a Puerto Rican hillbilly. My mom was watching I don’t know what on TV. Her with the Spanish accent. That’s why J.J. will suffice.”
Ramirez grew up in the 1970s in different parts of New York, chiefly the Bronx and Brooklyn. His parents both came from Puerto Rico. Ramirez’s father was a jack-of-all-trades — plumber, painter, business owner — and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. “She was a tough little lady who didn’t speak a word of English. She raised us with a tough, Christian hand,” Ramirez says. “When she died four years ago, it broke my heart.”
Ramirez was always a huge fan of comedy — he used to stay up late at night just to watch Johnny Carson — and as a child he developed a gift for voices and characters. When he was a teenager Ramirez says “I used to do characters with hats, stuff like `Why aren’t there any Latinos on the Mickey Mouse Club?’ and a lot of takeoffs on the Guardian Angels.”
He also enjoys the craft of writing. Ramirez takes much of his humor from the funny — and not-so-funny — things that happen from day to day. He is also plugged into the news, loves the History Channel and the Learning Channel, and is a voracious reader of books, newspapers, and magazines. Jokes and routines come to him all the time, he says.
‘I could be sleeping. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night because I’m thinking up stuff in my dreams,” he says. “I have to force myself to get up and write it down, because if I don’t, I’ll be mad later for forgetting something good.”
Ramirez’s first true comedy gig came at a small New York club called the Good Times. “It was owned by this guy named Rico. If he liked you, he’d punch you. The more he liked you, the more you got hit. He beat the hell out of me. If you didn’t have any bruises, you didn’t get any time.”
Ramirez started out doing five-minute gigs, and his career built slowly until he was a headliner. During his quarter-century of work he has opened for, and been warmed up by, comics such as Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Martin Lawrence. Ramirez remembers when the three funnymen were just starting out. “Now I’d like to open up for any of them,” he says.
He has sacrificed a family life for his career but not just because he is always on the road. “I came close twice — once to a nice Italian girl and once to a nice Jewish girl — but then I came to my senses.”
That’s probably a good thing for all involved. Ramirez says he just loves the ladies. “I’m a handsome man,” he says. “Something about the freedom of the road. Comics like to dabble. When you come off stage sometimes, ladies like to buy you drinks. Sometimes one thing leads to another.”
He understands that his lifestyle isn’t without its drawbacks. “Do I get lonely sometimes? Sure. I can’t deny that. I’ve let a lot of potentially great relationships slip through my fingers.”
Ramirez also worked as a writer for comic John Leguizamo’s short-lived TV show “House of Buggin.’” At first, he worked as the comic that warmed up the audience before the show taped. But then veteran actor Luis Guzman, a member of the cast, encouraged Leguizamo to put Ramirez on the writing team.
A trend of comics performing in groups, usually based on sex or ethnicity, started or restarted by impresario Walter Latham’s “Kings of Comedy” tour in the late 1990s, resulted in several shows featuring Latino comedians. The most famous, the “Original Latin Kings of Comedy,” from 2002, featured, among others, Cheech Marin, Paul Rodriguez, and George Lopez.
The following year, Ramirez appeared in a documentary called “The Latin Legends of Comedy.” “It was a movie about the lives of some of the earliest Latin comedians. We were here first — we laid the foundation,” Ramirez says. “It did really well. We took it to film festivals.”
He is anxiously awaiting another film, “The Cat Experiment,” which just debuted at the Long Island Film Festival. Ramirez is “one of 40 intruders in the home of honeymooning cat owners.” “It shows all kinds of crazy things that happen through the eyes of the cat,” he says.
JJ Ramirez, Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Catch a Rising Star, Hyatt Regency, 102 Carnegie Center. Reservation. $17.50 to $20. 609-987-8018.