From the Wednesday, June 18, 2008 issue of The Star-Ledger
These are no ordinary Joes
Like his aptly named alter ego, comic Piscopo is always there to bring a smile
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Written by Mark DiIonno firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Piscopopo is shopping a new movie script called "Joey Benefit."
It's about a guy named Joey Beneficio, a Newark-born comic and singer, who has always been a few steps away from the periphery of fame. He does every charity event and chicken dinner gig he can -- doing his stand-up and song shtick -- hoping someone somewhere out there will see it.
"He's optimistic his big break is coming," Piscopo says, "but the years are going by."
Joey Benefit is not Joe Piscopo. Not entirely.
"He's a sad guy, and I'm not. I'm happy. He never got the big break. I did. He's not a has-been, he's a never-was."
Joe Piscopo is not as big as he was in his "Saturday Night Live" days, but he still works at a frenetic pace. There is demand for him in clubs and casinos. Tomorrow night at a Friars Club roast of Frankie Vallie, for instance, he's doing his Frank Sinatra bit.
"It's Frank sings Frankie. We got some funny lyrics . Walk like a man, not like a broad ...," Piscopo says, snapping his fingers. "You know, the way the old man would do it."
Next week, he's with a big band at the Montreal Jazz Festival. He just did a club opening in Chicago and a "Saturday Night Live" revival in Palm Springs.
New York, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Comedy, singing, playing "the old man," which is what Piscopo calls Sinatra. In all those places, he is still Joe Piscopo, the star, not Joey Benefit.
Most times, though, Piscopo is Joey Benefit. In the past three months, he has done more than 20 benefits, some paid, most free.
They run the gamut from a black-tie gala to a park picnic, from emcee of the American Heart Association at the Waldorf-Astoria, to celebrity guest of the N.J. Bocce Invitational in Franklin Township to raise money for gifts for the troops.
He was honored by the Columbia Association, a charity arm of the NYPD. He was master of ceremonies for the Chabad of Hunterdon Gala. He did a show for the WW II Memorial Fund in Atlantic City. He handed out the Count Basie Theatre Awards for Monmouth County's best high school productions.
"He has a big heart, and it's in the right place," said Connie Ludwin, the director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of New Jersey. Piscopo is spokesman for the clubs.
Last week, he donated $80,000 from his Positive Impact Foundation to the clubs, along with enough weightlifting equipment to open a Gold's Gym.
Piscopo did this in front of 100 kids, seated on the club's gym floor, who cheered and chanted his name. They sang "Happy Birthday" to him and gave him a cake. By his side was his daughter, Alexandra, who later mingled and played for more than an hour with the Lodi kids.
"You kids are the superstars," said Piscopo, who turns 57 this week. "You're going to grow up to be presidents! And governors! And own your own companies!"
It was a 100-degree day at the North Hunterdon Little League picnic last week. Piscopo was there to pull raffle tickets for a Mustang, a Harley, say a few words, tell a few jokes.
He was being a "dork dad," as he calls himself, with his three young kids and second ex-wife. He moved through the inflated jumping toys and ball-toss games -- the only guy wearing long pants -- not unnoticed, but unbothered, because his son plays for the league's Muckdogs and Piscopo is always around.
As he moved around the field, he kept looking at his watch. He was emceeing an NYU neurology research center gala that night and had to get to New York.
For every Joey Benefit moment, at least one other Joey Benefit moment is born. During the Monmouth high school awards last month, Piscopo was handed the wrong name of the winner. The kids from Raritan High in Hazlet jumped up, only to have Piscopo say, "Oh, no. I got it wrong."
"I felt so bad, I promised them, right on the spot, I'd come down and make it up to them."
A week later, he did, and gave them the Joe Piscopo Award. "You are winners, because I said so," the glass plaque said.
Piscopo told them stories about how he got started at New York open mikes, stories about Dangerfield's and the Improv, stories about Eddie Murphy. He did a 20-minute improvisational sketch with a funny kid named Nick Messina, then promised to help find him work. He stayed for close to two hours.
The night of the Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year Award dinner at the Trenton Marriott, Piscopo gave a funny and warm speech and told all the kids how great they were and how they were the future of America. He was sincere to the point of being loving. If it was an act, then Joe Piscopo has no business being Joey Benefit. He should be Robert De Niro.
At the end of the ceremony, he posed for every picture, signed every autograph, finished every conversation.
Now it was late, and Piscopo was in the hotel lounge with some of the event organizers and other adult participants. It was a Joey Benefit moment. Stories. Laughter. A little sambuca.
The group dwindled, and Piscopo's assistant reminded him they had a driver waiting. He began making long goodbyes, promising more appearances.
And across the lobby, he saw a grand piano. He sat down and began to play, and Joe Piscopo plays like a concert pianist. Who knew? The music reverberated around the nearly empty lobby. Piscopo didn't do "the old man." Instead, he played a song he wrote for his daughter, singing in Italian. "Alexandra, bambina bella, grazie Dio, benedezione ..."
The audience of a few tired business travelers, two night-desk clerks, and slightly impatient assistant, were all smiling. So was Piscopo. Because whether he is being Frank Sinatra or Joey Benefit, whether he is front of an audience in gems or in gyms, Joe Piscopo loves being Joe Piscopo.
Mark DiIonno can be reached at (973) 392-1728 or email@example.com