Saturday Night’s Children: Joe Piscopo (1980-1984)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Of the new SNL cast hired during the infamous Jean Doumanian season in 1980-1981, only Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo were asked back the following year. Murphy was a young and unstoppable new force in the comedy world, and Piscopo was a sturdy utility player, straight-man foil to Murphy, and famously protective impersonator, most notably for his take on Frank Sinatra (for which he carefully got Sinatra’s OK beforehand). In January 1983, People Magazine described Piscopo as “a friendly, jocky, and unassuming kid from the suburbs who’s still slightly dazed by his success, rather than a high-powered cutup in the Belushi-Robin Williams mold.” NBC producer Dick Ebersol similarly described him as “everybody’s big brother on SNL,” and the title fits him well.
Piscopo was born in Passaic, New Jersey and was encouraged to go to law school like his father, but he instead pursued stand-up and improv in New York City in the 1970s until he was hired as a repertory player for SNL‘s sixth season in 1980. Piscopo was 28 years old when he joined SNL and found a partner in 19-year-old Long Island native Eddie Murphy. Many of Piscopo’s most popular recurring characters were duos with Murphy, like their gay hairdresser team, their New York barroom bits with Piscopo as a Tom Waits-style piano player Pudge and Murphy as the rambling old man Solomon, and most notably his Frank Sinatra impression, which he played alongside Murphy as Stevie Wonder in the immortal-level sketch of “Life is an Eskimo Pie, Why Don’t We Take a Bite” sung to the tune of the then-popular “Ebony and Ivory.” Piscopo developed his Sinatra impression while on the comedy club circuit in his twenties, and he treated his lampooning more as a respectful tribute than a bastardization of character. In Live from New York, Piscopo said:
Other Piscopo characters include Mr. Wonderful of the Interesting Four, Mr. Blunt, Froggy from Little Rascals, and the annoying New Jersey stereotype Paulie Herman (“You from Jersey? What exit?”). Included in his arsenal of impressions were Ronald Reagan, David Letterman, Joan Rivers, Jesse Jackson, Ted Koppel, Phil Donahue, Jimmy Carter, Dan Rather, Ed McMahon, Tom Snyder, and Candid Camera host Alan Funt. He also had a Weekend Update segment (then called SNL Newsbreak) called “SNL Sports.”
The Sinatra stuff was early on, and they had to talk me into that too, because I didn’t want to disrespect my hero. When I first started doing him, I wrote him a letter and I sent him an album through his attorney — we put out this “I Love Rock and Roll, Sinatra Sings the Rock Tunes” kind of thing. I was a North Jersey Italian American just like the Old Man, as we affectionately referred to Mr. S, and he couldn’t have been nicer. Matter of fact, he sent out cease-and-desist letters to anybody who’d even think of doing him and he never sent me a letter.
In 1984, Piscopo left SNL and starred with Michael Keaton in Johnny Dangerously, followed by Wise Guys with Danny DeVito in 1986. He also had three (NBC?) TV specials — The Joe Piscopo Special (1984), The Joe Piscopo New Jersey Special (1986), and Joe Piscopo Live! (1988) — and went on to appear and/or voice in Dead Heat, Star Trek: The Next Generation (where he played a hologram comedian named Mr. Comic who teaches Data about humor), the Batman animated series, Law & Order, and a string of popular Miller Lite ads in the 1980s.
After over twenty years of performing in Atlantic City, Piscopo opened up his own joint Club Piscopo last year, where fellow former SNLers Don Novello and Victoria Jackson have both appeared. Aside from performing at his own club, Piscopo continues to tour as both a comedian and Frank Sinatra tribute act, and he still lives in New Jersey, telling Vulture last year that “it’s all about the roots in my mind. It’s about staying rooted down.” It’s hard to match Piscopo when it comes to roots — he’s the quintessential New Jersey Italian-American nightclub personality-slash-comedian who has never traded in his blue-collar legitimacy for bigger fame: “I’m a North Jersey Italian-American, and that’s the single most important thing in a relationship: respect. And character and loyalty.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.