He’s the guy who made the line "what exit" the classic New Jersey joke, a comedian who made a career out of skewering the Garden State and impersonating notables like Frank Sinatra and David Letterman on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980s. He was the "The Sports Guy" and "Doug Whiner" and made his mark in television, film, nightclubs, and theatrer. He starred in such smash hit movies as "Wise Guys" with Danny DeVito and "Johnny Dangerously" with Michael Keaton. He was the disc jockey, Vince Fontaine, in "Grease" on Broadway.
But Joe Piscopo, affectionately known as Jersey Joe, has now, like a fine wine, mellowed with time, and considers his most important roles as a father and role model for young people. "I had actually made a chemical joke about the town of Piscataway and got in trouble with the mayor. I wrote those jokes 20 years ago, and they’re still coming back, so now I’m trying to put a positive spin on things. When I was younger I poked fun at New Jersey; now as I get older I try to show all the good of the state."
Audiences can hear his distinctive brand of humor when he plays at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick Thursday through Saturday, June 9 to 11. He keeps his roots in comedy and acting, although he recently turned down a request to toss his hat into the ring for New Jersey governor. In fact, the actor, a self-described Kennedy Democrat and lifelong champion of the party, has such high name recognition and affection throughout the state that he actually gave a run some serious thought. Just a couple of months ago, he even sounded like a politician when asked about a potential bid in another interview. "In Jersey, we are so proud of the state. Not just because the great Bruce Springsteen is from there, and Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Willis, and Jack Nicholson, and Danny DeVito, and Shaquille O’Neal, who was born in Newark. I mean, we have so much to offer in this state. We deal with adversity every day in New Jersey. We are considered second-class citizens, sandwiched between the great cities of New York and Philadelphia, so we can deal with any adversity."
He said he was sorely tempted to add politician to his resume because of the issues, including the highest property taxes in the country and skyrocketing car insurance rates. As a conservative Democrat, high on pro-life and defense and low on taxes, Piscopo thought he could do some good.
A grassroots group called "Run Joe Run" backed Piscopo all the way, saying the state sorely needed "someone who will stand up for what’s right and who is not beholden to special interest groups and their money that have a stranglehold on the state, someone who is not trying to buy their way through the political process but someone who will listen to and represent the values of the average New Jersey citizen."
It was only earlier this month that Piscopo declined, citing the demands of his independent projects and young family that includes his wife, a six-year-old daughter, two-and-a-half-year-old, and baby. "It would be a privilege and honor to serve the state," Piscopo says. "I know the issues and love the people, and if we get into dire straits I would reconsider the situation but for now I’ve got to get these movies out and spend time with my kids. I want to stay home, stay in New Jersey, and raise my family. It’s the most important thing. After we die, no one cares about anything else."
Piscopo also has another son from his first marriage, 26-year-old Joey Piscopo, a classically trained theater actor and the subject of a heated custody battle when his parents divorced in 1988. "He’s actually Joey the Third, it’s family tradition, something we’re really big on," Piscopo says. Family tradition is something Piscopo knows plenty about, as the grandson of Italian immigrants who left the province of Avellino to come to America in search of a better life. Piscopo’s production company, Avellino Productions, is in fact named for his family’s Italian hometown.
His grandparents settled in Essex County, laying down deep roots, plunging into the American labor force with a work ethic typical of the immigrant striving to succeed in a foreign land. His grandfather ran an elevator but his sons got an education and made their mark in society. Piscopo’s father became a lawyer who championed the rights of non-English speaking, blue-collar workers who needed an advocate. Piscopo says: "He represented Polish and Italian workers if they were hurt on the job. There was so much disrespect and prejudice they faced back then if they didn’t speak English and were new. But this is America. It’s a melting pot. This country would not be on the map if not for immigrants." Piscopo’s uncle became a chemical engineer who worked with Enrico Fermi, one of the leaders of the team of physicists on the Manhattan Project for the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.
Piscopo the comedian was born in Passaic, grew up in Essex County, and attended West Essex High School where he was the self-described "class pain in the neck". "I was the guy you didn’t want in class. I didn’t even get voted class clown. Now when I think about it, I ask myself what was I thinking? My father and grandparents worked so hard and here I was messing around. That’s why I try to make up for it now, especially with all the charity work I do."
He graduated from Jones College in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1973, with a B.S. in broadcast management, a feat he considers amazing, having been in what he describes as a "catatonic stupor" for much of the time. After hanging out for a while, he decided to make his way back to New Jersey and settled down in the Fox Run apartments in Plainsboro, where he lived from 1976 to 1978. He sounds like a spokesman for the local chamber of commerce when he waxes poetic about those salad days before he became famous. "Places like Cranbury and Allentown, how beautiful," he says. "When I lived in Plainsboro it was still mostly farms. It’s a glorious little town, an absolutely spectacular part of the state. I loved the backroads down by the rivers." Piscopo also loved the easy access into and out of New York from exit 8A off the New Jersey Turnpike.
In fact, he says he got his first big break in comedy while he was still living in Plainsboro. "I would drive to the clubs in New York. I remember the first time I went I saw all the people who came out. I drove around 44th Street all night and never auditioned. There would be as many as 200 people at audition night. The next week I got the courage to go back and try again and I did."
His father died three years ago but his mother still lives in Essex County. "She is 80 years old, but she’ll still drive down to the shore and down Route 1 to visit my sister," Piscopo says. Carol is his older sister ("You can say she’s older than I am but make sure you say she still looks a lot younger than I do," Piscopo implores) who lives in Princeton and is married to Dr. Olaf Haroldson, an otolaryngologist on staff at the Medical Center at Princeton.
That family connection would prove to be important because it was his brother-in-law who found a tumor in Piscopo’s throat in 1981. The tumor turned out to be a symptom of medulary thyroid cancer, an uncommon and more difficult form of thyroid cancer to treat. But Piscopo was lucky. Since the cancer was discovered early, it was treatable, and now, among his many other roles in life, he also wears the hat of a cancer survivor and counts his blessings. He has a younger brother, Richie, who, after earning a masters in philosophy from Drew University, became a social worker in the tough areas like Newark.
"He saw the vision and led the way," says Piscopo. His brother’s example has resulted in Piscopo’s passionate commitment to such organizations as Big Brothers Big Sisters. Also close to his heart is Jersey Joe’s Gyms, a Newark-based program that brings together the city’s police department and the Boys and Girls Club to give inner city kids a safe place to have fun and embrace drug and violence-free behavior. In 1997 he started his own foundation called "The Positive Impact Foundation, which seeks to focus on the accomplishments of at-risk youth, instead of perpetuating the negative publicity that often leads newscasts. The project includes the syndicated television show for teens, "Positive Impact TV," which mixes education and entertainment to reinforce positive behavior and lifestyles among young people.
Piscopo is adamant about the power of positive role models. "I want kids to say, ‘Hey, if other kids can do that, so can I.’ As a state we have to support these kids, and that’s why I try to reach out to them. We work with pre-teen and young teens in places like Camden and New Brunswick. So many of these kids are born into situations that are disgraceful. But it’s not just the city kids who are at risk. There are lots of at-risk kids in the suburbs – rich kids, kids of CEOs and big executives who can get into trouble too – and that’s why we try to go in and help them."
Piscopo finds himself steering toward projects that have greater depth and social impact. "I believe in being grassroots. I’m a homegrown guy. I only have a couple of partners and I try to keep things close to the breast." His big project right now is an independent feature film called "Bloomfield Avenue," named for the thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Essex County. "We recently rewrote the script and hope to shoot it within the year," says Piscopo. The heroes of "Bloomfield Avenue" are a white Italian and a black grandmother against the backdrop of the Newark riots of 1967.
Says Piscopo: "We don’t sweeten it up. We want to show the strength of the immigrants and their families. It’s historical drama, and it’s a hard sell because no one wants to hear the rugged part of it. But Newark is one of the great American cities." His other big project these days is a script called "Joey Benefit." "It’s about a guy who can’t say no to charities and that’s me," Piscopo laughs. "Norman Steinberg, my friend, is the writer-director. I’ll be starring in that script, which is due June 15, and I’d love it to hit the streets by fall."
Piscopo says despite his passion for film projects, nothing compares to performing live in front of a club audience. He makes sure to have live gigs every couple of years in clubs across the country and right here at home in New Jersey because it helps keep him grounded as a person and as a performer. "You can never replace getting out live in front of people in a club. You feel the pulse of the people, you see how the generations change in what they like. It gives me a chance to throw everything out there, be myself, and have fun."
Joe Piscopo, Thursday through Saturday, June 9 to 11, 8 p.m., the Stress Factory, 90 Church Street, New Brunswick. $25. 732-545-4242.