"Uncle” Floyd Vivino is very much an old-school entertainer, so do not let his goofy-looking costume fool you. He is a consummate professional and has spent many hours honing his comedy and musical routines to a finely crafted, well orchestrated show.
While thoroughly modern in subject matter, Floyd Vivino’s comedy harks back to those days of classic 1950s and 1960s R&B. That is because Vivino brings a dignity to the stage as well: his humor is always clean, and he rarely pokes fun at ethnic groups — except his own Italian-American heritage. And he is constantly working up new material, new jokes, and story-telling routines. As a bonus he also plays piano or guitar and sings at many of his live shows.
Vivino, 62, lives in Wayne, not far from Paterson, where he spent most of his formative years. Though he never graduated from high school, he is a fountain of knowledge and stories on people and places around New Jersey. He performs at the Record Collector in Bordentown on Wednesday, December 26, at 7:30 p.m.
Many New Jerseyans know Vivino through his long-running TV show, “The Uncle Floyd Show.” Broadcast on one of the state’s first cable companies and taped in West Orange, the show began airing on January 29, 1974, and continued into the 1990s. Its fans included the Ramones, John Lennon, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, and New Jersey’s own Jon Bon Jovi, who would visit Vivino during his nightclub years — years that affected the comedy artist’s personal and professional life.
Vivino has six kids from two marriages, but he never talks about them. “I’m three times married,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t talk about it in public. It’s brutal in show business.”
“You simply can’t have everything in life: it’s always every entertainer’s dream to have a little house with a white picket fence and a wife who bakes him an apple pie at night, but the reality is show business is brutal on marriages, the worst. But what it boils down to is, I talk with all my wives, I talk with all my children.” In show business, he explains, “We’re not normal people, we work on Friday and Saturday nights. I’m on the road a lot.
“I never talk to the audience about my personal life; I never have,” he continues. “I’m an old-school entertainer. I can’t stand these entertainers who say, ‘Oh, I worked very hard on this movie.’ They don’t know what work is! Let ’em work on a UPS truck for a couple days. Let ’em be with real people, that’s why I don’t hang around with these movie people.”
Vivino’s deceased father and his mother, who lives near the performer’s brother, Jerry, in the Los Angeles area, raised three phenomenally talented sons.
In addition to Floyd, saxophonist Jerry is a respected jazz and blues musician who has a lengthy discography and sessionography. Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimmy is part of a popular Beatles tribute band, leads a variety of blues and roots-rock bands, and recently signed with Blind Pig Records, a premier blues and roots-rock record company. Both Jerry and Jimmy also became a part of the “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” band and moved with it the when the ill-fated TV host moved to southern California to take over Jay Leno’s time slot.
The interest in music came naturally. Vivino’s father played trumpet in the Army band in 1945 and 1946. “He was a very fine trumpet player. The problem was when I was born and my brothers were born the whole music scene changed. Big orchestras were going into oblivion. So he went into construction to support his family.” Vivino adds that his mother’s side of the family was also involved in show business, going back to their descendants in Italy.
“My mother’s father did acting in an Italian-troupe that traveled around, and it was really like being raised on a farm. We didn’t know anything else and we loved it, and that’s the thing: you have to love it. I wanted to be a million things when I was a kid. Originally I wanted to be a circus clown, because in the 1950s the circus was still quite big. But I remember at age 16, my father got me an ABC card so I could go out and start playing in clubs,” he recalls. “Nowadays, they would call that child abuse.”
Vivino made his debut as a professional musician with his cousin, Alan Barone, who had a rock band. The group played the Cootie Lodge in Irvington. He says it was “kind of an African-American Elks club, if you will. We played old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll, ‘Wipeout,’ and ‘Pipeline,’ and I must have been 14 or 15 at the time. At 16 I became a professional at Gaslight Village in upstate New York. I played accordion, trumpet, and keyboards up there and just loved the atmosphere up there.”
Vivino began with piano lessons as a six-year-old, “and my parents didn’t really insist on it, when you come from a line of artistic people, this is what you want to do. Most show people come from other show people to a degree,” he adds. Vivino says he never considered himself a stand-up comic or comedian until much later in life.
“I always considered myself a variety performer. I worked with burlesque shows. There was a circuit of clubs and we worked all the time, in an old-fashioned burlesque show, not like they have today. We had a chorus line, a band, and comedians. That’s where my Uncle Floyd costume came from,” he explains.
For a performer who has enjoyed multimedia success through a successful TV show, the “Wise Guys” program on Sirius/XM Satellite radio, and a long-running Italian-music show on an FM station in New Rochelle, New York, Vivino is surprisingly anti-technology. His home has no TV or computer — no E-mail and no Internet.
“I’d rather cook, go for a walk in the woods, or sit in a bar and talk to a drunk. I have my family life,” he explains. “I have my circle of close friends. How many things can you do? The only thing that relaxes me is cooking, and I’m a sick reader, I sometimes read two or three books at a time.”
Perhaps because he never graduated from high school, he’s a big believer in education and a voracious reader. He loves educational documentaries, the kind like Ken Burns’ “Civil War” and “World War II” that air on public TV, and finds used video and DVD copies at his library. Vivino loves to cook for his friends and family, and said “that’s the only thing that truly relaxes me, is cooking.”
For professional musicians like Vivino’s talented brothers, it’s all about songwriting. For Uncle Floyd, it’s all about thinking up new routines and jokes.
“You can’t sit down at two o’clock and say, ‘Now I’m going to write a routine.’ Usually, what happens is something kicks the nerve and you ‘bring it to life,’ as they call it. It’s like a birth coming. People like me, we have magical dreams, constantly,” he says. “It happens to writers, anybody involved in what we call the creative process.” To that end, Vivino keeps a pad by his bed at night and sometimes wakes up laughing, then jots his ideas and jokes down.
While his glory days may have been in the 1970s, when he had the TV show and he would sell out Club Bene in Sayreville or the Bottom Line nightclub in lower Manhattan, Vivino presses on. And like any artist, he keeps growing and reinventing himself and his routines, in a sense, getting better as he ages.
“Hey, I work every day,” he says. “You try to break new routines in front of an audience in what is called ‘unimportant’ shows. Right now, I’m looking at a bunch of routines I just can’t jump start. It’s always like that. You work every night. It doesn’t end. It never ends.”
Uncle Floyd, The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Wednesday, December 26, 7:30 p.m. $16 advance, $20 at door. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.
Sarcasm Comedy Club, 2349 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill. Monday, December 31, 8 and 10:30 p.m. $30-$40. 856-382-6253 or sarcasmcomedy.com.