Back in 1988, during the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the writers penned the episode entitled “The Outrageous Okona.” The b-story of that show followed Data (Brent Spiner) as he tried to grasp the very human concept of humor by creating a holodeck comedy club and picking the brain of “The Comic,” a role performed to perfection by Joe Piscopo, the comedian and former Saturday Night Live star. Today, June 17, happens to be Piscopo’s 60th birthday, and to celebrate the occasion we caught up with Piscopo for an exclusive interview in which he recounted his “Outrageous Okona” experience and filled us in on his current projects, which include opening Club Piscopo, an Atlantic City nightclub, and playing concert dates around the country.
What was your immediate reaction when you got a call about being on Star Trek?
Piscopo: I was doing a press junket in Japan and I stopped off in Hawaii, and I got a call from my manager, who was also Whoopi Goldberg’s manager at the time, I think. My manger said, “Joe, I’ve got something really interesting for you.” I go, “What’s up?” He said, “You want to do a Star Trek: The Next Generation?” I said, “Whoopi’s there. That sounds kind of fun.” So I went from Japan to Hawaii to Los Angeles, and I read the script, which was custom-made for the character, and I did it.
How’d it go?
Piscopo: Working with Whoopi is always great, because she’s the best, But I’ve got to tell you, as we got into it, I sat across from Brent Spiner, and I didn’t know much about Brent, but watching him, he is one of the finest actors and he was so funny, too. He had all that Data makeup on, which had to be a little restricting, and it didn’t even make him flinch. I looked into his eyes and I thought, “This is for real now. I’m going to be the Comic from the 20th century, and we’ve got to make this work.” So I was just so blown away by the whole process, by the way they shot the show – it was done like a major feature film – and in particular by Brent. I was very grateful to be there, just so proud to be a part of it.
Everyone knows that Star Trek was notorious for having its regulars and guest stars stick to the script. Even a minor change meant a call upstairs to the production office. Meanwhile, as a comic, you’re known for improvising. How did your style jibe with the show’s system of operating?
Piscopo: There was a lot of room to play. When I went on the stage with Brent, I’d explained that I could do impressions of other comedians, like Jerry Lewis, who I just loved, and they let me go. They let me go and, if I remember correctly, Brent stuck pretty much to the script. But I was allowed to play. I know what you’re saying. I did Law & Order, and I couldn’t change a word, man. I had to do it verbatim. It was like doing theater. But on Star Trek, they let me have fun. We just had fun.
What kind of reaction did you get to your appearance?
Piscopo: People loved it. And I have to tell you, I swear to you, wherever I go, people know me from Star Trek. If I get one more customs agent at the airport, in a foreign accent, tell me, “Star Trek! Star Trek!” I am recognized more from that than anything I’ve ever done. People remember it like I did it yesterday. And the coolest thing is I signed these cards. I have my own like baseball-cards from the episode. They’re these special edition cards with a hologram. They sent them, through my agent, and I signed them. I was so flattered. That makes me kind of proud as well.
Let’s catch everyone up on what you’re doing now. You’re on the road a lot, doing your shows, and Club Piscopo will open to the public on June 30 at Resorts Casino Hotel. What can people expect to see there? How often will you perform? And will you be emceeing as well?
Piscopo: I’ve been doing a show that’s a mix of comedy and music. We hit on it about 10 years ago, and people love it. It’s me doing my thing, making jokes, doing impersonations and singing some Frank Sinatra songs. So it melds comedy with a live big-band jazz sound, and I’ve got some really talented cats I’m working with. We’ve been going out all across North America and we’ve been in Europe. I don’t know how I got here, my friend, but I’m having a hell of a ride.
And how about Club Piscopo?
Piscopo: This is a dream of mine, and it has been for many, many years. Atlantic City is like home to me. I’ve worked there all these years and I’ve always wanted a retro-style nightclub where people could come in and see really great comedy and jazz entertainment. Yes, I will be there, and I’ve got some commitments, but I’ll be there most weeks Thursday to Sunday nights. The room is gorgeous, an Art Deco space, and people can come in have a drink, and then see a great show. We’ll have the velvet ropes, the whole thing, man. It’ll be the kind of club that just isn’t around anymore, and it’ll give people a chance to see all these amazing, talented people working in jazz, who just don’t get enough recognition. And it’s the same with comics. There are so many great comics out there that you’re not seeing on TV, and I’m going to put them on stage. The goal is for people to say, “Wow, were did you find that singer?” or “Where did you find that comic?” And I will be the master of ceremonies and I’ll do my shtick. I’m bringing the Frank Sinatra wig, what can I tell you. You might even see Bruce Springsteen on stage. I’ll do David Letterman. I’ll do all the characters.
Today is your birthday, and that leads to our last question: What are you doing to celebrate it?
Piscopo: Thanks, man. And you know what? I’m from New Jersey, I’m a father, and I think I have a child at every exit in New Jersey. So what I’m going to do is stay in my Jersey house. My mother is making lasagna. I’ll have all my children here. And we’re just going to have a nice day.