The Portentousness of Piscopo

I saw a sad, but not surprising thing on the internet recently — a clip of ’80s era comedian Joe Piscopo (b. 1951) performing at some Trump rally organized by My Pillow guy Mike Lindell. Sad, not in the sense of sorrow, but in the sense of pathetic, for the wackadoodle far right is where show business professionals go to die, your Victoria Jacksons, your Scott Baios, your Randy Quaids (ha, why plurals? It’s not like there are multiples of these people. They make hen’s teeth seem like kudzu). No, I wasn’t surprised, though maybe I should have been. For Atlantic City is a Piscopo town, he even operated a night club there bearing his name, and of course the Former Guy reamed A.C. up the backside in a major way, ruined the town like everything he touches. If I had a stake in Atlantic City, I’d hate Donald Trump like Ahab hates Moby Dick. But Trumpism is a cult. Everyone with open eyes ought to have a problem with him and the things he actually does; but some people are susceptible to his line of talk. They find common ground in the things he puts down. Piscopo didn’t put his chips on the GOP ’til the 2016 election. I see things in common between the comedian and the real estate pornographer. For example, technically, Trump was a Democrat for a lot of years, for reasons of showbiz. The big stars are all Democrats, and a conservative at a Hollywood social event is like a bucket of cold water, but Trump had been an open racist for decades before becoming a Republican. I would not presume to call Piscopo a racist (the immediate retort would be, “Ay! Eddie Murphy“) But, as with 45, I do associate him with cultural conservatism.

How could I not? Piscopo’s years of peak success coincide ENTIRELY with the years of the Reagan Revolution, and come to think of it I need to retract the word “coincide”. For he was a cultural bellwether. Hired by Jean Doumanian in 1980 for the disastrous Season Six of Saturday Night Live, Piscopo, along with Murphy, was one of only two cast members retained for the Dick Ebersol years, through 1984. The pair were joined by Robin Duke, Christine Ebersole, Mary Gross, Tim Kazurinsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Tony Rosato. This was a pretty strong cast of comic actors, though the writing was no longer what it had been. The countercultural voice was now gone, nor was it satirical any more. I’d also add that it wasn’t as funny, to me at any rate, though other kids liked it more than I did (I was in high school at the time). It was almost as though sketch comedy had returned to the 1950s. It was kind of silly and toothless and apolitical. And, second only to Murphy, Piscopo was the break-out star of this whatever-it-was.

Piscopo’s identity was that he was a boorish, macho guy from Jersey (he, along with Springsteen, would make the Garden State a kind of cultural touchstone during that decade). Piscopo worked out, he was buff, which was unusual, and frankly somewhat unwelcome in a comedian. (Bullies are buff; the comedian is the little guy the muscular bully picks on. That’s Comedy 101.) Piscopo’s best remembered impression is Frank Sinatra, which was more of a tribute than a take-down. (Now, at 70, Piscopo is as old as the Sinatra he was playing back then). He did a yelling sportscaster on Weekend Update. He did a sketch with Robin Duke called “The Whiners” which was that era’s successor to the Coneheads or the Nerds. You know who really hates whiners and complainers? Oh, I dunno, gym coaches? Drill sergeants? Nazis? I’ll never forget an “act” performed by Piscopo at Comic Relief. All the country’s best comedians came on these charity concerts and did killer sets. At this stage, Piscopo still rated an invitation. He was introduced as a “rock drummer”, and came on and played the drums for a while (patently to show us that he could play the drums), then he chugged some whiskey and fell down. It was the sort of comedy routine an eight year old might cook up for the babysitter.

After he left SNL, Piscopo briefly had a pretty decent movie career, with good roles in the major films Johnny Dangerously (1984), Wise Guys (1986) and Dead Heat (1988). And then, almost as though he were spiritually tethered to the Reagan administration, he faded from mainstream pop culture. There have been a handful of additional films: Sidekicks (1992) with Chuck Norris, Two Bits and Pepper (1995) with Dennis Weaver, Bartleby (2001) with Crispin Glover, and How Sweet It Is (2013) with Paul Sorvino, among others. He has done cartoon voice-overs, guest shots on shows like Law and Order, and lots of live performance. And of course talk radio. Oh that talk radio — it’s like stepping onto the top of a greasy slide. Should have seen this coming. All the signs were there.

For more on variety arts history, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,