Joe Piscopo on Frank Sinatra and Saturday Night Live

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Joe Piscopo joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1980, after honing his stand-up chops at New York's Improv; he stayed with the show until 1985. During his SNL stint, he became known for such original characters as the Sports Guy, as well as celebrity impersonations of David Letterman and Frank Sinatra.

Piscopo will be in Denver this weekend for shows at Lannie's tomorrow, August 10, and Sunday, August 12. We recently caught up with Piscopo to talk about what fans can expect at those shows, as well ssd Sinatra, working on SNL, playing multiple instruments and his forthcoming musical comedy, How Sweet It Is.

Westword: You're going to be doing comedy, impressions and singing at your shows at Lannie's...what else can fans expect? Joe Piscopo: I got out with a live band, which you don't really see much of anymore when it's a comedy kind of show. We do the music in a big way. It's kind of a retro-style from Vegas that I was kind of brought up on. I've always wanted to do a show like this, so I accidentally reinvented myself and just got into this. I get to work with these really great musicians and do a lot of the Frank Sinatra music.

I do the comedy stuff. I do everybody from Dave Letterman to Rodney Dangerfield and James Brown. We just have a blast on stage. You can pour it all on stage. It's something different at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret that you're not going to see anywhere else. And Lannie's is so intimate. That's what I dig because I'm always playing casinos. We just did a casino out there, The Reserve. That was great up there because they kept that intimate for me because I always prefer those intimate audiences so I can just wail on the instruments, do some jokes and just have a blast.

I knew you were a singer, but I was surprised to find out that you play guitar, tenor sax, keyboards, flute and drums as well.

I know. I'm a frustrated rock-and-roller from the early days. I studied piano formally and then when the Beatles and the Stones came in, a great era of rock and roll came in, I was just totally smitten with that. Of course, I picked up the guitar. And then I listened to the drums and I tried to emulate the classic drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. I also dug the riffs of Mitch Mitchell who played for Jimi Hendrix. There are great drummers now -- Nick Menza's a great drummer from Megadeth -- but Mitch Mitchell just filled in. People don't understand that as brilliant as Hendrix was on guitar, Mitch Mitchell is on the drums. I really heard that. I could hear that when I listened to all those rock tunes. Now I just kind of jump on stage and make a living of living out my fantasies a little bit -- well, not all my fantasies, but almost all of them.

I heard that you were a big Jethro Tull fan in high school, which is one of the reason you started playing the flute.

There it is. Baby, that was it. That's so funny. Ian Anderson... You know what, I listened to that and thought, "How creative is that?" The '60s, man, I'm telling you, they had the greatest music of all time. It was just the base of rock and roll. After Elvis did his thing and all the great rock and rollers did their thing early on, those monster rock groups like Jethro Tull... Flute, a freakin' flute? I said, "What, are you kidding me?" I went down to the music store and said, "Gimme the flute." I learned that Blood, Sweat and Tears did a great song called "Flute Thing," which was based on a classical music piece by Satie. I learned that and I put that on that. We do it in a comedy way. It's always with a comedy riff to it.

I tell you what, man, there was some great stuff out there and I was fortunate enough to be part of a generation that had this great eclectic mix of great rock and roll, but always true to the standards because people want to hear the Frank Sinatra stuff. Speaking of Frank, there were rumors going around that when you first started impersonating him on SNL, you were scared because of his mafia ties. But I also read that you wrote him a letter and said you were going to do it out of respect, right?

Yeah, it's true. We have all these heroes as we're growing up. I was also told, being an Italian kid from Jersey, that Frank Sinatra was the guy. So what I did was I wrote him a letter. He was also something special to me. And I tell you what, I look into the audience and I'll see got twenty-somethings that have thin ties from the '60s -- kind of like Bill Maher's outfit. They kind of catch that era and they come in and they dig the music and they know the music. Very interesting, the legacy that Frank Sinatra has left on any level. It's kind of like an Elvis thing or a Jimi Hendrix thing. And there are probably really only a handful where the legacy really survives. Frank Sinatra is certainly one of them.

Did you ever hear back from Sinatra about your impression of him on SNL?

Yeah. We became like friends. It wasn't like I was on the inside. We didn't go get broads together, you know what I mean? It was never like that. That would have been cool. But I was always on the outside and he invited me to his birthday parties, and he was always so respectful. And to this day, I always protect the Sinatra name with regards to his family and his children. It was really kind of cool. It was a thrill just to be a part of it because I was in such awe of him. You know when you meet somebody famous and you can't get it together, that's how I was around Frank Sinatra. I could never get the words out.

Who are some of the other people you'll be doing impression of?

Johnny Cash is a man I admire so much. I'm not a country guy, but this guy was the best. I mean, how awesome is freakin' Johnny Cash. I say onstage, "If you're doing country music, I love you, but don't even show up around Johnny Cash." You know what I'm saying? I mean, he wrote the book... I don't care what generation you're from, he was the man. The way he attacked the song. His lyrics, he was just great. So we do a whole Johnny Cash thing. We do a whole country thing, too. I'm not really a country guy but we play along the southern United States so you got to have country. Country is so huge now.

So we'll do Johnny Cash and James Brown and Dave Letterman and bring all those guys to light and just have some fun. Rodney Dangerfield. And not to date myself, Rodney, to this day, was one of the great comics of all time. And I tell the stories about when I met these people. Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, we joke about it and about Arnold, he was a great guy but my babysitter was a lot better looking than Arnold's. Just sayin'.

And you know what the beauty of it, too, is that I can talk about Saturday Night Live. I always respect the show. You know, it's still this iconic place that I can't believe I came from. I'm very fortunate. So, we tell the inside story of Eddie Murphy and Frank Sinatra and what he thought of me on the show, and of working with John Belushi and Danny Aykroyd. And I talk directly to the audience, too. We chat back and forth. It's a different kind of show. It's a show that's clean and fun, but still we power through with the music. I'm proud of what we do on stage.

Speaking of SNL, are there things you learned on the show that you still use today? That's a good question. Thank you. I came from comedy clubs in New York. I played Hell's Kitchen. It was the worst part of New York City. I played the Improvisation comedy club where everybody was coming up, like Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and all these great comics. I cut my teeth there in a very rough area of New York. I got my nose broken, fights... you think it's easy, but it was New York and the late '70s. And I learned from there and I took that street smarts from the clubs of New York and we went straight to Saturday Night Live in a relatively short time. The street smarts and the Improv taught me the rough and tumble of do or die in a live situation.

But then on SNL you really learned how to refine it. You had to write your material, man. Monday and Tuesday were your days. You had to think of bits you wanted to do. If you didn't write for yourself you weren't on the air, so Monday and Tuesday were your days. I remember Eddie Murphy and I would just hang out and sleep on the couches in our offices and then we'd have to wrangle ideas. And Wednesday was the read-through, then Thursday and Friday were the rehearsals, and then we were on the air. It was an intense, crazy schedule. So once you do that, then you can do anything.

What I enjoy doing most is live. You can't compare. Doing it live and being on live with Murphy and Robin Williams and greats like Don Rickles and Jerry Lewis, who were from another generation. These icons came on to the show. It was just a gas. It's like when you go to Lannie's, it's like, "Man, this is what I learned. Check it out. Watch the old guy on stage. This is what we do." I was talking to Lannie Garrett about it and it's kind of like educating the audience a little bit. So it's fun, but you learn how to refine in a very high-pressure type of situation from Saturday Night Live, and I'm always grateful to that show for that. You've got a new movie coming out, right? How Sweet It Is.

It's a musical comedy, man. It's got Erika Christensen from Parenthood, and Paul Sorvino and Eddie Griffin. It's a musical comedy so I sing and it's about a down-and-out director and he's got to put a show on or he's going to get whacked by the mob. I go, "I can't really do it." They say, "Then we're going to have to kill you," and I say, "Okay, when do we start." It's like that kind of stuff. That's the premise. I play this character named Jack Cosmo and I'm with this great cast and this great script, and great music by the way. It's kind of like a Glee thing and this musical theater thing happening. It's sold internationally already and we'll see where it lands in America. I just shot that in May, actually.

Any idea when it will be released?

I just heard yesterday they're doing the premiere on October 7, so you never know... And the beauty of being in the business now is that content distribution is pretty awesome. So you get the limited release in theaters in select cities and then once it's on Showtime... like I have a Showtime special coming out in a couple months. It's me in concert at my club in Atlantic City. Once you have all those viewers on a show like that, you make sure when you do a project that everybody's going to see it.

Some of the projects you don't want people to see. I've done some that were like, "Oh, man, I thought that went away." And it's back on TV on some obscure channel, the bad movie channel or whatever. And my kids are saying, "Daddy, why did you do that?" I'd say, "Well, you know, they were paying me... I really don't know." But this was a good one. I'll squeeze into the great films. You look for that because that's going to be fun.

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