Photo by Jim Wu
The first thing that strikes a listener to Joe Piscopo’s radio show is that he’s a pretty good pitchman.
Even with radio titans like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, you could always tell when they were reading a piece of paper. When Piscopo tells you about a restaurant in Brooklyn, he makes it personal, telling a story about how it has the same ambiance and superb food that he remembers when he went to Italian restaurants as a kid. If you own a business in New Jersey, you could do worse than have Joe Piscopo tell people about it.
“When somebody is kind enough to step on my show, they are family,” the veteran of show biz shares. “I go there, I know them. It’s more than just a sponsorship, it’s part of the radio family.”
If you’re in your forties or older, you probably remember Piscopo’s years on the screen, as a Saturday Night Live star, a co-star in several movies, playing goofy characters in Miller Lite commercials, even in a couple of Law & Order appearances.
Today he is the morning drive host on AM 970 The Answer. The Joe Piscopo Show streams nationwide and has listeners everywhere, but even broadcasting from the unforgiving New York market, he’s done well enough to stay on the air for eight years and counting. He marvels today at how it all started.
“They lost their morning man. Jerry Crowley, legendary programmer at the radio station, I went to him and said, ‘Hey, Jerry, you know what? I love radio, man. That’s what I went to school for. Why don’t we put me on the air? If it doesn’t work, we’d just do a guest shot. If it works, we’ll talk.
“That was eight years ago.”
Like most hosts of politically driven talk shows, Piscopo sounds like a right-winger. But Mark Levin or Sean Hannity he’s definitely not. His show, while unafraid to tackle pressing issues of the day, isn’t a fire and brimstone indictment of all things left. Even if you were a proud Democrat, as he once was, you wouldn’t be annoyed with his tone. You’d probably even find yourself agreeing with him fairly often.
“I like to think we are grounded, middle of the road, maybe right of center. A common-sense voice in morning radio. I’m proud to tell you, we have the best guests on any radio or television show, by the way. We work very hard at that.
“It’s the most intimate medium. It doesn’t matter, online, social media, stage, television, film, there’s no more intimate medium than radio. You’re talking right to that person. People say to me, ‘Joe, I feel like you’re talking right to me.’
“And I go, ‘You know what? I am, I’m talking right to you.’”
Ever since Chevy Chase left the show…back in 1976…there’s been a prevailing sentiment that Saturday Night Live today is nothing like its once glorious past.
But there was a time after the entire original cast departed when the show truly was teetering on the edge of extinction. Piscopo doesn’t take credit, but he was a key player in helping to save the show. He was one of just two carryovers from a new cast that was being savaged in reviews.
The other? Eddie Murphy, an obvious choice…it would seem.
Unlike the overwhelming sentiment at the time, Piscopo considered the ill-fated second cast “very talented”. He praises Gilbert Gottfried, Denny Dillon, and Gail Matthius, who he credits with inventing the “Valley Girl” routine popularly attributed to Frank Zappa and his daughter. He believes, probably rightly, that they had an impossible standard to live up to following Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner.
Piscopo also deserves some credit for seeing Eddie Murphy’s brilliance before the show’s producers did. Unimaginable as it may seem to anyone who remembers Murphy on SNL, the network needed some convincing.
“NBC thought Eddie was too caustic and too ‘edgy,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘This is the next Pryor! I’m telling you this is a superstar waiting to happen. They put him in as a featured player, then Eddie and I got together, and we started.
“Then they said, ‘We gotta change the show.’ They fired everybody. Everybody, getting whacked one after another. Then they call us in. So (executive producer Dick) Ebersol, big, tall guy, he sits Eddie and me down and they go, ‘Well, we let everybody go, but we decided to keep the two of you.’
“I remember distinctly Eddie and I going, ‘Great, Dick. That’s great. Look, we got a couple sets at the comedy club. Do you mind if we leave?’ I didn’t think about it then, we were just so flippant and cocky. Probably why we got kept on.”
“Then I hook up on Saturday Night Live and I see the comedy genius of Eddie Murphy. I can never describe to you how exhilarating it was to be on live television, with virtually no delay. You got your floor director going, ‘We gotta go to the station break!’ and Eddie was flying and brilliant.
“I cherish those moments. I told him this about 4-5 years ago, when he did the Mark Twain Prize. I got up and said, ‘Eddie, thank you. Thank you for one of the greatest rides I ever had in my life.’
“Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, two of the most brilliant guys I know. When you worked with Robin on stage, as manic as he was, he always stepped back to allow you to do your thing. Eddie was the same way, Eddie always gave. That is a true sign of a brilliant performer.”
He’s been a cast member of one of the longest-running shows on television, starred in hit movies and ad campaigns, made the cover of a bodybuilding magazine twice, and today hosts two radio shows…on Sunday nights, Piscopo does the popular “Sunday with Sinatra” show on WABC in New York, a weekly tribute to one of his heroes.
But when he reflects on his life, other than his five children, Piscopo is the proudest of things he’s done to help in inner cities.
“I’ve gotta tell you a story,” he says when asked about it. “I’m in the Newark detention center. I said to the Newark police, ‘I’d like to give back to Newark a little bit.’ They said, ‘Joe, we’re gonna take you around town.’
“I saw a kid shackled, his ankles shackled with the handcuffs. He recognized me. ‘Hey, Mr. Piscopo, how are you?’ I say, ‘What are you in here for, if you don’t mind me asking?’ He says, ‘homicide.’ He said ‘homicide’ like you and I would say, ‘I got into a fight at school.’ He’s 15 years old!
“So, I made it a mission, because there but for the grace of God go all of us, to help out the at-risk community. Walking the streets of Camden, to help out with Robert and Wanda Dickerson, who had an organization called Unity Community, I’d take the kids off the streets in Camden. Working with the Boys & Girls Clubs, putting in Jersey Joe’s Gym at the Boys & Girls Club in Newark.
“I’m so proud of my work with the at-risk community because I just felt ‘there but for the grace of God, go I.’”
When this writer searched the interview transcript for that quote, the words “grace of God” showed up six times. Piscopo is unquestionably thankful for his blessings.
He is a busy man, living a calendar filled with two radio shows, charity appearances, gym ownership, and live performances. Running for governor of New Jersey, which he considered in 2017, would have been difficult.
He isn’t the easiest person to nail down for an interview, but it’s worth it. Throughout speaking with him, he’s never the slightest bit embarrassed to let an almost goofy, infectious mirth show in his demeanor. He breaks into laughter easily, wears a ubiquitous friendly smile, and he makes anyone speaking to him feel as though they’re the celebrity.
Piscopo treats everyone in his own congenial way, and he speaks ill of no one…even though, after a lifetime in show business and discussing politics on the air, he probably easily could.
Endless geniality and childlike mirth might seem un-Jersey qualities to outsiders. But to a Garden State native, it makes total sense. A life spent in our state teaches anyone that they can’t put on airs or smoke people. His Italian mother taught him to be outgoing and friendly, so that’s what he is.
And it doesn’t get more New Jersey than that.