Paul Mecurio on Writing for The Daily Show, Selling Jokes to Jay Leno, and Banana Hammocks
Paul Mecurio is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning comedian, writing for the Tonight Show and both incarnations of The Daily Show. His journey is a winding road that has taken him through writing, stand-up, law, banking, cable news commentating, podcasting, and undoubtedly more. He will be performing February 6-9 at the Fort Lauderdale Improv, and graciously spoke with New Times about his many lives bound together by comedy.
Cultist: How often do you come to Miami? What are your feelings on the city?
Paul Mercurio: I usually get down to the area once a year, and I like it. Not enough Latinos. I think you need more Latinos. I have a great time. I don't know if that's because I'm Italian or whatever, but I really connect with Latino audiences. I like them. They're feisty, and they give you stuff back. I like to talk to the audience, so I get a lot out of that. It's fun. Plus, it's the one place where I can openly wear my banana hammock and no one wants to arrest me.
Wow. Are you going to close with that on?
Dude, I wear it the entire show. That's all you see.
You are performing at the Ft. Lauderdale Improv Feb. 6-9. What will you be talking about?
I'm going to be playing all the tapes of everyone's secret recordings done by the NSA for the people in the audience. If anybody wants to hear their online affair being publicized, come to the show, because that's where it's going to happen. It's auto-biographic - my former life as a lawyer/banker on Wall Street, growing up in an Italian family in Rhode Island, getting married, having a kid, and just how I tend to get into confrontations with people. My former lives.
You've had many; Law, stand-up, cable news commentating. What do you enjoy most?
Hookers. As many as you can get me. Little triangles down below, something tasteful. I really like doing the commentary work on TV a lot. It's raucous, it's fun, it's fast. It's always based off what's going on.
Is it strange to be inside the cable news machine, especially with your background as a writer for The Daily Show?
Yeah, given that TDS' bread and butter is calling that world on its nonsense, to then go in and be part of the problem [laughs] is conflicting sometimes. I mean I'm a former writer on TDS, I don't write but I still do the audience warm up on the show.
Does it make you feel like a double agent?
No... that's actually a good way of putting it. Yes, I actually do have a capsule of cyanide so if the segment's not going the way I like it... I've killed myself on air at least four times. No, I feel like having worked at TDS and having a bit of a jaded perspective on that world has actually helped me in going and doing those shows, because I actually know how not to be disingenuous and how not to just tow a party line and speak the same nonsense that everyone else is speaking.
What are you best at? Does one trade feed the others?
First of all, I think I'm very average at everything. You know, I have a lot of issues about that. Thanks for bringing that up. What I like the most and feel most connected to right now is my live stand up, but also the TV appearances. I like going on and mixing it up and having conversations with groups about anything from pop culture to politics to relationship stuff. That's a comfortable space for me to be in... and I like the swag I get when I go on the shows.
What kind of swag? Punditry swag? Is that a thing?
Well I've got a blow-up doll of Roger Ailes, so be jealous. You can if you want to.
Ooh, and a Rupert Murdoch real doll?
Well CNN gives out Wolf Blitzer beard combs. With little white pieces of hair in it. It's very very authentic.
You also wrote for TDS when it began. What was the show like early on?
It was fun. They'd let us try things because it was a new animal. We'd try things, and we'd cross the line sometimes. Like when the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was happening, there was this phase where Monica Lewinsky was rehabilitating her career and did this Vanity Fair photo shoot. I got so incensed... my friend and I wrote that she also got an endorsement from the milk industry, and we had them put a.. uh... "shot of milk" on her face, if you know what I mean? And it said "Got Milk?" at the bottom, and I don't know - can I say cumshot? I think I can, right?
And it got put into the script. No one reviewed it with Network ahead of time.. and the president of the network saw it in the middle of a show at 11 at night and was like "Who authorized this picture?!" and he yelled at us like you know when your Dad yells at you. He's kind of proud of you but can't admit it. He was kind of half-yelling half-smiling. So we would cross the line and then he'd pull us back.
Do you think that pushes the line forward every time you cross it?
Yeah, and I think you have to. Any great comedian does that. Carlin did it, Pryor, Lenny Bruce. Kinda see how far you can go, then go too far and come back. There was less at stake then, too, on some level. Because it was a new show on a younger network, you could just get away with more. But we didn't have much of a budget and the kind of access to footage that the show has now.
It's an institution now.
It's strange. It's definitely become... this thing.
What's it like to do the warm-up for The Daily Show?
It's great because you come out and basically your job is to get them riled up and laughing right away. So, typically what I do is [pause] I have this goat. And I bring this goat and and one thing leads to another... I can't say more than that because it's a proprietary act...
Doing the warm up is fun, and it's essential to any show. I know being on the other side of it, you're writing these jokes all day and you're working really hard and if the audience is flat... the audience is flat, because we don't use laugh tracks. It's a live taped thing. It's like putting all the pieces of the puzzle together and it's the last significant piece of the day, and if that's not right, then everything just feels flat.
So if Jon Stuart is on fire one night, do you feel like you set him up for that? Like you get a cut of the laughs?
Let me tell you one thing my friend, it is ALL me. That show only succeeds because of my warm up-- [breaks] No, no. You want to do a good job with any job you have. You kind of know when you walk out of the studio, I get a sense. Sometimes, the house can be great and the joke falls flat for whatever reason, or sometimes the jokes are great and maybe the audience is a little off... little things like if it's super cold out some days those audiences are standing outside for an hour and it takes their energy away, and we have no heat because Stuart spends all the money on booze. We don't really talk about it.
I heard that Jay Leno convinced you to become a comedian. What happened there?
I was working huge merger deals in New York and started writing jokes as a hobby. I met him at this private function and went up to him with all these jokes. About a week later, he called me and said "I'm gonna do your joke tonight," and he did my joke. (I got) 50 bucks for that joke, and it blew my head off my shoulders. He said "start going into clubs and trying out the jokes." That's when I started living this secret double-life where I was a lawyer by day and a comic by night.
What is your podcast about, and where can people hear it?
It's on iTunes called The Paul Mecurio Show. I like the long form interview where you really talk to people about their process. I wanted to do that kind of a show where I can sit down with no restraints and talk to people about what I want to talk about. So I've been talking Paul McCartney, Jay Leno, Bob Costas, Stephen Colbert, the hosts of MythBusters... really cool people talking about their process and where they got where they got.
Stone Cold Steve Austin, fascinating interview. I'm not a huge wrestling fan, but what those guys go through to find and define their characters is exactly what a comedian does. They go from town to town, work these little shows and they hone their character and try to connect with the audience. I'm really really proud of it. It's mine.
So podcasting is a format that fits your personality.
I like to talk, and I like to learn about what people are doing.
And not have people tell you what to say.
I like to talk and not be told what to say, and I like to be able to do it in my banana hammock thong. While I drink my mimosa. And someone is oiling me up.
Paul Mecurio. Thursday, Feb. 6, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Ft. Lauderdale Improv, 5700 Seminole Way, Hollywood. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $17 plus fees via at ftl.improv.com. Call 954-981-5653 or visit ftl.improv.com.
-- Daniel Reskin
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