The big story?
Saturday Night Live.
May 2, 1982
Only in some very strange households.
Around midnight on most Saturday nights, those households are tuned to NBC, waiting for Brian Doyle-Murray to introduce the sportscaster on the Newsbreak segment of Saturday Night Live. The cheers and laughter from the studio audience start even before the sportscaster gets a chance to yell, "Thanks, Bri. Hello again, everybody. Joe Piscopo. Live. Saturday Night Sports. The big story?..."
After which, Piscopo lays waste to baseball, football, Muhammad Ali and—sometimes he goes too far—Sports Illustrated. And he puts them on one word at a time.
Viewers see Warner Wolf, Marv Albert, Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, everyone but Chris Economaki, in Piscopo. But none of those guys is half as entertaining—or half as perceptive, for that matter. "I get to say what everybody really wants to say," says Piscopo the person. After trying to explain the baseball playoff situation on a show last fall, Piscopo the sportscaster said, "Who wins? Who knows? Who cares?"
Piscopo the boy grew up in New Jersey, the birthplace of jokes about New Jersey. His father was a baseball-loving attorney, and, says Piscopo, "I had a sickeningly terrific childhood." So much for one theory about where comedians come from. He broke into show biz at a grade school function to which Moose Skowron, then the New York Yankees' first baseman, had been invited. "We had this little sing-along," says Piscopo, "and I remember handing my sheet music to Moose, who didn't seem to know the words. I believe the song was I've Been Working on the Railroad."
Piscopo the teen-ager was a good baseball player—first baseman and pitcher in junior high—and in high school discovered acting. He was good enough to win a Lincoln Center-sponsored student-actor competition. The prize was an all-expenses-paid trip across the Hudson to New York City to see Lee J. Cobb in King Lear.
Soon thereafter Piscopo enrolled at something called Jones College—"You've heard of Smith, well, this is Jones," he says—in Jacksonville. He was soon on the air, working for three radio stations in the Jacksonville area. He spun Mantovani records for dentists' offices, and he read the news and sports—straight. He realized radio wasn't for him when one morning he put a classical music tape on backward and didn't discover what he'd done until an hour later when the station manager called.
After he worked the dinner-theater circuit in the South and Northeast, playing minor roles in productions of plays like South Pacific and Butterflies Are Free, New York City called—and then put him on hold. Six nights a week for 4½ years he worked for laughs only as a stand-up comedian. When Saturday Night Live tried to regroup in 1980, after the loss of Gilda Radner, the late John Belushi et al., Piscopo was chosen for the cast. That season the show was an unqualified disaster—the only thing grimmer than the humor was the ratings—but it did mark the first appearance of Joe Piscopo the sportscaster. He was conceived by Piscopo the comedian and Barry Blaustein, an SNL writer. They wanted to parody announcers shoving all the sports news into three minutes of air time. Verbs? Prepositions? Needless.
When Dick Ebersol, a former Roone Arledge whiz kid at ABC Sports, became the producer of SNL last year, the only cast members he retained were Piscopo and Eddie Murphy. The two combined on a classic piece on Dec. 12, the day after Ali had lost to Trevor Berbick. Said Piscopo, "The big story? Muhammad Ali. Last night. Fight. Drama. Bahama. Lost." Piscopo next introduced supposedly 20-year-old black-and-white footage of himself interviewing Cassius Clay, played by Murphy. "The big story? Clay. Cassius. Mouth. Big. Fight. Liston. What's the story, Cassius?" Murphy then launched into an uncanny imitation of Clay, promising to retire from the ring in five years "healthy, happy, rich and pretty. I'm the greatest fighter of all time." Back in the studio, Piscopo introduced Murphy/Ali, his face swollen, who pathetically mumbled his answers. Piscopo, cutting off Ali's singing of Old McDonald Had a Farm, said, "Well, there you have it. Ali. Confused. Career. Over? Brain cells? Few."
On a February show, Piscopo feigned outrage, saying, "The big story? Magazines. What the hell is going on? Let's take a look." After showing the bathing suit issues of Inside Sports and SI, he yelled, "Journalism? Sports? Flesh." He ended the segment naked onstage.
Three weeks ago Piscopo didn't need to speak to convey the big story. He just appeared with icicles hanging from his nose, and these words were flashed on the screen as he shivered uncontrollably: BASEBALL. APRIL. COLD. I FROZE MY——OFF. BACK TO YOU, BRIAN. A few Words are worth thousands of pictures.
Piscopo the person is just a regular funny guy who lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife, Nancy, and their 3-year-old son, Joey. "Honey! Home. Dinner? Hungry." He's also a softball jock who counts meeting Phil Rizzuto among his biggest thrills.
The sportscaster is Piscopo's best-known character, but he also does Ronald Reagan, Tom Snyder, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Andy Rooney and a sensational Frank Sinatra on SNL. "It's fun to become somebody," he says, "because basically I'm not a very secure person." Part of his insecurity stems from the fact that his NBC biography lists him as 5'1", which is about a foot short of the truth. "One writer did a story without seeing me and called me diminutive," he says. Actually, he's getting bigger all the time, if the ratings are any indication.
Saturday Night Live.