Joe Piscopo on His New Jersey Governor Bid, What He Learned From Al Franken (Q&A)
The funnyman famous for impressions of Sinatra and Letterman now sees himself as a viable candidate to replace an outgoing Chris Christie and run the Garden State: "The people are not represented."
Joe Piscopo, the former Saturday Night Live star who has reinvented himself as a talk-radio host serving the New York metropolitan area, is currently mulling a bid to become New Jersey's next governor. Were he to win, he'd be replacing the outgoing Chris Christie, who has held the post since 2010. (State rules allow no more than two consecutive terms.) It's a decision Piscopo, 65, will have to make by June 6. The Hollywood Reporter recently picked his brain about the potential campaign, about Donald Trump (whom he supported in the presidential election) and about his days cracking up a then-19-year-old Eddie Murphy at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
I don't follow New Jersey politics that closely. What's going on exactly?
Well, the governorship is up in November 2017. Christie's obviously out, so it's time for a new governor for the great state of New Jersey. And I do a radio show on AM 970. My listeners said, "Joe, you should run. You should rip it up." And I'm going, like, "Wow, who would want this job, really, right?" I started doing a tour last April of the state. The property taxes are through the roof and the Jersey folks just aren't happy. But the Democratic Party is all set, so there's no room for any outsiders.
Who's their candidate?
A guy named Phil Murphy. And he's a Goldman Sachs guy. He's a very nice guy, but people just want a regular person running for politics. So I looked at the Republican side. I had a great time meeting some great Conservatives throughout the state and I just got a lay of the land. But then I would have to go through a primary with a couple other candidates.
Who is the GOP establishment pushing for right now?
Nobody. That's why there was a big opening for me, I think. But it's very tough for the Republicans to win in the State of New Jersey. So the other day I say on my radio show, "The two-party system doesn't work for me." It's all wired up anyway. I'm not like a billionaire or anything like that. I'm a blue-collar entertainer, man. So I figure I'll go as an Independent.
And Christie had some strong opinions about that.
The Republicans came after me and they went, "You can't say all Republicans are bad." All I meant is that we always vote the opposite way. It's what we do historically. Chris Christie, a Republican, has been in office for two terms. It's going to be almost impossible to win because of that. But not because of any candidate. You follow me on that?
So what's next?
If I say I'm running, then the election laws will kick in place and I have to quit the job on the radio, I have to form a political action committee. Who wants to do this, you know? But I have such an overwhelming feeling of responsibility because the people are not being represented. I have till about early June to decide.
You were a lifelong Democrat but supported Trump in this election. Why?
I wanted somebody out of the box. I've known Donald 25 years. I'm not a friend, but I'm an acquaintance. I just thought that was the choice to make at this time.
How are you feeling about his job so far?
You know what? I'm more concerned — and this is the answer to that question — what's going to lower property tax in New Jersey. That's what I worry about.
Really, though, what specifically about Trump's platform appealed to you?
The reason I voted for Trump is because he said two words I've never heard a politician utter in my life. Two words: "Inner-city." I'm a spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Club in New Jersey. I've walked the inner-city 25 years. My mission in life has been at-risk children. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Where do you fall on social issues that are traditionally conservative?
I'm a blue-dog Democrat. So what am I? A moderate conservative? I don't even know what I am. All I know is when it comes to jobs, I'm a union guy. I'm a member of three unions: SAG, AFTRA, Writers Guild.
So what's your stance on abortion?
Pro-life. I'm an Italian Catholic pro-lifer, but I will do the caveat of saying, "Does the government have any right to intrude into a life of a woman?" I will do a caveat on that. OK. What about same-sex marriage? Thank you for even bringing that up. Shall we just move on here, please? I am a proponent and a supporter and an admirer of the gay community. I don't care who you marry. Stop. It's out of control.
What about these transgender bathroom bills?
I have a 6-year-old daughter. And because it's the girls room I'll stay outside. You can't go in. Now, what if someone comes in — a guy comes in and goes to walk in there? Follow me on this? And he goes, "Hey, I'm a girl and I can use the room." That guy's not using the room that my little daughter is in. I would not allow that to happen.
Don't most dads just take their daughter into the men's room with them?
No, no, you can't. Do you? Do you have kids?
No. But I've seen that countless times and I never think twice about it.
Have you seen that? But then you look creepy, man. Then you're like a creeper.
No you aren't. You're just a dad with your little kid and you're helping her go to the bathroom.
You should call on my show tomorrow morning. We should talk about this. No, really, this is great. I am a dinosaur in that regard. I am old-fashioned.
You and Al Franken overlapped on Saturday Night Live, right?
Al! Al Franken, man! Oh, Al. I have such respect for Al — excuse me, for Senator Franken, because you know, he started the show with Lorne Michaels, man. You have to respect Al Franken, because he didn't like what he saw in Washington so he put his money where his mouth is. I don't agree with him politically, but I have immense respect for him.
Did you ever have any inkling that he wanted to get into politics eventually?
I did not. He was just very whip-smart and incredibly smart.
Is it true Frank Sinatra did not like your impression of him? Or once confronted you about it?
No, he loved it. He used to refer to me as the "Vice-Chairman of the Board." He couldn't have been more gracious.
What about David Letterman? Did he ever respond to your impression of him?
Dave was great. When we were both at NBC, I sent him an NBC memo: "This was done with respect. I think you're the greatest." He had no problem with it at all. But, I mean, I wasn't a regular on his show — I'll tell you that.
And do you ever speak to Eddie Murphy?
I saw him for the first time [in a long time] a few years ago at the SNL 40. And we saw each other and then we did like a little private inside joke. We gave a hug and we started to laugh hysterically like we always did. I was always like the older brother to this young, comic genius and this great, great guy. Eddie Murphy is one of the great souls on the planet, man.
I remember when you went through your serious bodybuilding phase.
Oh boy. Under the career title, "What Was I Thinking?"
Why do you say that?
I had cancer. I was drinking and I wasn't eating right. My doctors said, "You've got to start eating right." So I started working out. This was when Bruce Springsteen started getting into working out, too. Then I saw Sylvester Stallone and I got to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger and I'm thinking, "Wow, this is cool." So I kind of got into it.
You became a major competitor.
When they said to me, "Do you want to be on the cover of Muscle & Fitness?" I went, "Whoa, that sounds like a mighty fine idea." I was thinking that no one is going to be seeing this thing, right? Of course, 20 million readers later, oh my gracious me. I really thought I could just have a little niche fun bodybuilding hobby, no one's watching.
And it affected your career? People only saw you as a bodybuilder, not as a funnyman?
I was actually getting paid by like Bally's Fitness and GNC and that sort of thing. But I wasn't really doing film after film and I didn't have a TV series [at that point in my career]. I would probably have made room for them at the time.
How big were you at your peak?
I was ripped so I wasn't that weighty. I was 190 or something. And no drugs by the way — never any steroids, ever. But I knew how to stay ripped. I talked to Stallone and said, "How do you stay so ripped like that?" And he goes, "[Imitating Stallone:] Fish and rice. Fish and rice."
Didn't he take human growth hormone, though?
I don't know. He didn't tell me. He didn't say "fish and rice and growth hormones." He said "fish and rice."
What did Arnold advise you?
I said, "You know, I'm going to try to look big but I'm not big physically like you." And he says to me — I swear to God — "[Imitating Schwarzenegger:] Overhead light. Overhead light." I go, "What? What?" He meant, go under a light, look overhead and then you could pose and the shadows would make you look bigger.