Joe Piscopo’s impersonation of Frank Sinatra was a hit on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s.
On Saturday, Dec. 12, Piscopo will reprise his impression in a show at theSands Bethlehem Event Center, held on Sinatra’s 100th birthday.
Piscopo, who lives not far away in Hunterdon County, will mix comedy and music with a 17-piece orchestra in a Vegas-style show that he’s still assembling.
“The question is this,” Piscopo says during a recent interview. “Do I put the Sinatra wig on and come out? Do I come out and do him for 20 minutes or so? That makes me laugh. Where are the broads? Walking out and just having fun and celebrating the legacy that he so deserves. I can’t decide.”
Hard to believe, but it’s been more than 30 years since Piscopo delighted audiences with his impression of Ol’ Blue Eyes.
He joined “Saturday Night Live” in 1980 with the tall order of replacing cast titans such as Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A season of bad reviews followed.
“You couldn’t match the satirical wit of the original “Saturday Night Live,'” said Piscopo, 64. “It was as brilliant as it got.
“You couldn’t replace it and you knew you couldn’t replace it. I was right about that for the first 10 shows,” he said.
“But then we got on our feet and once it went, we were off. Now it’s a badge of honor. Once you’re on the show, you’re always working.”
Piscopo — he along with Eddie Murphy were the show’s top talents in the early 1980s — left SNL in 1984. He portrayed an array of recurring characters, including Doug (with Wendy) Whiner, gay hairstylist Blaire and Sinatra.
His Sinatra impersonation actually had its roots in a lounge singer bit he did as a young comic at the Improv in New York. He adapted that into a Sinatra impression for his SNL audition.
Once he joined the cast, producers persuaded him to do Sinatra in a sketch, but that wasn’t without apprehension.
“Frank Sinatra was my father’s hero,” said Piscopo, who grew up in Bloomfield, N.J. “He was the epitome of Italian-Americans, going through prejudice and his career. His is a great story and it’s a great story of anybody with any ethnicity in the U.S. I wasn’t about to poke fun of him like we were doing with the politicians.
“Finally, I decided I’ll do it and do it my way, so to speak, and with respect,” he said.
Piscopo said he wrote the sketches and oversaw them — all with the goal of respectfully jabbing one of America’s greatest entertainers.
Sinatra loved it.
“He called me the Vice Chairman of the Board,” said Piscopo, whose late father was an attorney. “He knew my father was a big fan. To this day, it’s always with much respect and affection that we do a tribute to the Old Man.”
‘Little bit of everything’
Folks who catch the Dec. 12 show in Bethlehem can expect variety.
“It’s a little bit of everything, like a retro Vegas-type of show,” Piscopo said. “When people come out, we want to do something special.”
Sinatra was born Dec. 12, 1915, in Hoboken, N.J., and died May 14, 1998, at age 82.
“I pay respect to the great music,” Piscopo said. “You can never equal what the Old Man was. You channel it through with respect to him and to his family. He was probably the greatest entertainer of all time.
“He was always so nice to me — just a very special person and I was so nervous when I first met him. I talk about it all in the show.”
Besides impersonating Sinatra, Piscopo will share stories about being on the SNL set and show video clips from his time on the show.
“It’s going to be a big celebration,” he said. “I love doing it.
I like people as they leave to say ‘Wow, I got my money’s worth.’ It’s the old-school type of show — old show business mentality of blood, sweat and tears on the stage.”
Life in Jersey
Piscopo appeared in a number of movies but never achieved the commercial success of some other SNL players. That’s OK with him, he says.
He does a live show most weekends and is in demand for corporate gigs. He’s on the radio every weekday, too. His “Piscopo in the Morning” runs from 6 to 9 a.m. on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Piscopo has lived the past 20 years in the Clinton area.
“I never left Jersey. It’s something that’s in your blood, I guess,” he said.
“Where I am now, it’s just the open space and all. I love it, except I have to walk my garbage to the end of the driveway. The schools are good, the kids are good and the dog can run.
“The people are so nice, too. You could be in Idaho and you wouldn’t even know. And I’m the guy that wrote the joke: New Jersey. What exit?
“I just fell in love with the lifestyle and the community.”
He used to take his kids to the Phillipsburg Mall and knows Easton and Larry Holmes. But his performance at the Sands will be his first visit to Bethlehem since pieces of the old Bethlehem Steel plant were transformed into a casino and arts center.
“I’ve been meaning to go but just haven’t had opportunity,” he said. “Everybody is asking ‘What are you going to do for Sinatra’s 100th birthday?’
“The Sands has been great and so hospitable. And it’s close to home. It’s going to be a great celebration.”