Joe Piscopo rose to fame in the early 1980s when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and began delivering his spot-on impersonations of Frank Sinatra, David Letterman, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lewis, Andy Rooney and many more celebrities.
Now he’s a morning host for AM 970 The Answer, a news and talk radio station based in New York, and a roving entertainer. He brings his mix of comedy and music to Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater on June 20.
Speaking from his Manhattan radio studio, Piscopo explains his stage show is inspired by 1960s Las Vegas and the performances of Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack and Louis Prima, who became known as “The King of Swing.”
“Those guys really just electrified Vegas back then…” Piscopo says. “Louis Prima actually invented that whole genre of just getting crazy on stage.”
Joe Muccioli, a conductor and the artistic director of Red Bank’s Jazz Arts Project, will back Piscopo up with a big band. Piscopo will also play instruments and sing original comedy songs, a parody of “Sweet Caroline,” and what he calls “schtick kind of tunes” in the style of Sinatra and other singers he admires.
“It’s G-rated,” Piscopo notes. ”Anybody can come to the show and it’s just something that I think is safe to say you don’t see out there anymore.”
When he was developing his Sinatra impression for Saturday Night Live, he was worried that the real Sinatra—who Piscopo affectionately calls “the Old Man”—wouldn’t like it. SNL’s talent coordinator Neil Levy has said Piscopo was terrified Sinatra would have him whacked. But Piscopo says his worry wasn’t out of fear—it was out of respect for Sinatra, for his own father and for the whole Greatest Generation. “That was a generation that we will never see the likes of again,” Piscopo says.
Not only did Sinatra approve, he bestowed upon Piscopo the title “Vice Chairman of the Board.”
Piscopo recently reprised the impression at Studio 8H for SNL’s 40th anniversary special. “I was honored that Lorne Michaels thought I should perform,” he says. Being back there for rehearsal, he was appreciative of how meticulous everyone at SNL still is—from the tuxedo he wore, to where “Sinatra” would put out his cigarette.
“I looked at these guys and said, ‘Do you realize we’re the only guys in the world that would understand what we’re doing here?’” Piscopo recalls. “It was so revealing to me of how much I learned from that show.” He says it was only then that he realized why he is so meticulous in preparing for his own performances today: He picked it up from the brilliant people at SNL.
Piscopo was a cast member from 1980 to 1984. He often shared the stage with Eddie Murphy. He and Murphy were the only two cast members that producer Jean Doumanian hired in SNL’s tumultuous sixth season who lasted more than a year. After SNL, Piscopo acted in a number of films. He starred opposite Danny DeVito in Wise Guys, with Treat Williams in Dead Heat and with Michael Keaton in Johnny Dangerously.
His comedy and characters often derive from his heritage and home state: He’s an Italian-American from New Jersey. He admits that when it comes to Jersey, a lot of jokes write themselves.
“I still live in Jersey,” he says. “I live there, I’ll die there. I love Jersey, it’s my home and I love the people there. But if you’re from Jersey, you can make the jokes. It’s like I always say, ‘If you’re Italian you can make the jokes about the Italians, but if you’re not Italian—don’t even think about it.'”
Joe Piscopo performs at Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead, at 8 p.m. on June 20. Doors opens at 6:30 p.m. for dinner and drinks. Tickets are $47. Call 631-727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com.