John Pinette: “Still Hungry” as a comedian after 25 years

John Pinette is still hungry. Not just for food, which he will recount, regale and reheat his temper over in his upcoming Comedy Central special, which is called Still Hungry and premieres on Friday night and arrives in DVD and CD forms on Aug. 2, 2011.

Pinette told me he also feels, as after a quarter-century in stand-up comedy, he’s still hungry to make sure he’s on top of his game as a comedian.

“It was meant to be a double entendre,” he said over the phone last night. “The next one will be called John Pinette: A Man For All Seasons.”

Before we get into it, let’s watch the trailer for Still Hungry. Roll it.

What do you think of the Wild West attitude of the Internet, which has made everyone think that through the power of Twitter and Facebook, that they’re all joke-writers, too? “Look. We have no governing body. I’m a comic, but I’m also a gladiator. ‘Well, what makes you a gladiator?’ I just said it. ‘Have you fought in the ring?’ Well, no, but I’ve been practicing. I can fight for four-and-a-half minutes,” Pinette said. “But you know what? I don’t think there are enough open mic nights anymore. New York is one of those great cities that still can. But they are trying to bring that back. Back when I started 25 years ago, people loved going to those open mics. I hope it comes back. The Comedy Store in the late 80s, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy would come in — this was on open mic night. I hope those come back and when they do, the crazies go away. But there is that rogue element. What are you going to do? If you say you’re a comic and you don’t get any work, youre going to figure it out, because you live in a box. You live in a refrigerator box.”

Tell me about when you started, in Boston during the 1980s. That was quite a scene, as documented in the movie When Stand Up Stood Out, as well as just the stories all the comics still tell. What was your early experience like? “We worked hard and played hard. It was that simple. It was very intense, and like, I felt like, you got to understand, for a kid from Malden of very modest means, having left an accounting job, being around these people I considered celebrities and heroes, and now I get to work with them? It was a very special time. I think I was too young to appreciate how special it was…how the opportunities, you’d go onstage seven days a week in Boston. People today don’t get to do that and I never appreciated that. Once you realize you don’t appreciate something, something else comes along. When it was time to do Still Hungry, I knew every minute I was working on it, as tiring as it was, from writing the one-man show in Montreal, and retooling it, I knew no matter how I felt, I couldn’t have felt any luckier to be doing what I was doing.”

Did you run with the veteran Boston comics back then, or did you hang with the younger comics like David Cross or Louis CK? “I fit in more with the older guys. I always respected them. I didn’t work with the others quite as much. Louis CK did two sets and he was in New York, he was a bullet train. I worked with Nick DiPaolo a lot. I knew he was a very decent fellow, but if you didn’t know that about him, you’d freak out! He’s a decent fellow, but he’s such a caustic presence onstage. It was a very rich time when you think about the names that came through there. Tony Clark and David Cross and Louis CK and Janeane Garofalo, and you can keep going. And Lenny (Clarke) hit with some series, Kevin Meaney got on TV, Steven Wright had hit a few years before. You know, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done as a job that something was meant to be.”

I’d ask about your continuing obsession with food, but it seems like we as a nation are obsessed with food, aren’t we? “Listen. I was ahead of the curve, the curves if you will. The reason I started talking about food. People thought it was a fat joke, I thought everybody eats, everybody has an opinion. I found out a long time ago I didn’t fit in as a graphic comic. There are guys that swear, that are graphic, that are really filthy. Some of it I don’t enjoy but some of it is brilliant. I thought it was better for me to start out by being me. What did Richard Pryor do? Not that I would say I’m…What comics do is put their life on their table, and what i was doing was putting as much of my life on the table, and what was on the table was cake. A lot of cake. If you watch the special you might want to have a pizza menu nearby.”

Speaking of cake, here’s a clip from his special talking about the TV series Cake Boss.

I know when Food Channel doubled up as Cooking Channel, they really got me — plus the Travel Channel does a lot of food shows? “I honestly think there are too many. We overdo anything until it sucks. Like Real Housewives of Orange County? That was weird but then all of a sudden we had 27 of them. Who wants to watch Real Housewives of Passaic, New Jersey? Like I said onstage, you can’t spin off Cake Boss. we’re spinning off cake?!?”

You also mention onstage your gluten allergy (which I’d seen him do a year earlier at the very same Vic Theatre in Chicago where he filmed this special). Do you think these food ailments, like gluten allergy or lactose intolerance, are on the rise for any particular reason? “We live in a made-up world of ailments. Do you have shaky toe syndrome? Well, I think I do. Lactose intolerance i knew of as a kid…I must tell you, I have a very light form of, I’m allergic to wheat, but I eat it and everything has gluten in it, and gluten sucks. But if I take the meds and stay off the gluten, the weight falls off. I’ll tell you, there is something to it.”

“They never call me Happy Moderation Johnny. Again, the term moderation comes to mind. I walk into Whole Foods and i get it enough. I know that when I don’t do the right things and buy the right things, I feel terrible. That Food Nation movie. Yeah, I believe in that stuff. But there’s not getting to be fewer of us. Look, when I was two years old they were giving us Coca-Cola and sugar. We didn’t know nutritionally then what we know now.”

You also mention in the special about performing 26 of 27 nights at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland. I know comedians I talk to tell me they either really love it or really hate it. “Lewis Black just looked off in the distance and shook his head. He said, ‘Don’t ask (John) Bowman.’ It was, wow! It was great and I talk about it in the special. And I got (the special) because of that. It was very humbling to walk to work and not know where I was. I felt like it was my first day of kindergarten. I think I needed Edinburgh. But i didn’t need it for a month. I’m a huge history buff, though. At least I got my ass up every day and visited stuff. I became a member of Edinburgh Castle and visited all the time…I was bringing people off the street and saying, ‘I own a castle!’ My manager said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ What if somebody wants to lay siege? I now have a place to go. I think my membership expired. Actually, I sold it to Nicolas Cage for $8 million. There are things that are on that list of 1,001 things to do before you die, and this (Edinburgh) is one of them.”

Some might say performing onstage at Broadway is another one of those things. Did you feel, doing the musical Hairspray several years ago, that you were ahead of the curve on that front, too? Seeing as how so many stand-up comedians hit the stage in NYC this spring. “It was great luck with the most work I’ve ever done outside of stand-up comedy. It was intensely hard. But I love the musical. The ethic is the show does not stop. If you fall down, if you miss a line, you have to do the best you can to move on, and that’s how life works. It’s basically life. The Broadway thing is an amazing juggernaut. I was filled with self-doubt, and I was surrounded by a creative team that was confident. They said,”We’re going to throw your fat ass in a dress and make it happen.’ Listen. I did the national tour for a year, and when I got to Broadway, I felt like I earned it. I didn’t think I needed a large dressing room.”

You just recently also performed in NYC but in Central Park for Comedy Central. Do you have any advice for comedians who have to work both outside and during the daylight? “No, it’s its own creature and you have to hope for the best. Jim (Gaffigan) has his own audience. I had a few people come out for me, too. An audience outside in the day is an absolute crapshoot, and be prepared for that. It is a crapshoot. Just go on. You have to do it anyways, so you might as well relax and hope for a laugh. Like it or not, you took the gig.”

The Comedy Central special is an hourlong with commercial breaks. The DVD includes 90 minutes, with bonus footage and featurettes.

John Pinette

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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