The Truth About Joe
What makes Joe tick?
To answer this
question, we have to go
back to the beginning.
I’m one of eight siblings in a Sicilian-Irish-Canadian Catholic family. A middle child, so an inveterate attention hog, I am living proof that the “rhythm method” really works, if you’re hoping to have a baby.
In the only “baby picture” I have (a double exposure), a very young Joe is playing with cellophane wrapping, and the laser-focused look of delight on my face is unmistakable. Easily amused? Perhaps that is “my saving grace”.
It was my “Silly Putty” at the time and foreshadows the trait most evident in the person I was to become – silly. Silly has been my stock-in-trade for as long as I can remember. All my comedic influences have been silly.
Starting on the American side of the pond with The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Bowery Boys, and every comedian who ever appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, including “Wayne & Shuster”, “Señor Wences” and “Topo Gigo, the little Italian mouse. “Señor Wences” didn’t even require an expensive dummy or sock puppet. Lips drawn on the forefinger and thumb of a hand. Silly for next to nothing in upfront costs.
Across the pond in jolly Old England, I discovered The Goons, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, and The Pythons of the Monty type.
My idols were Jonathan Winters and Peter Sellers – certifiably funny and just plain certifiable.
Silly – one and all. These were my “peeps” and my inspiration.
“Get Smart” was my kind of television. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were speaking to me. It was brilliant in its silliness taken to extremes. More on my connection to this later, but a parody of “Get Smart” that I entitled “George Brilliant” was one of my first attempts at writing in a similar style during my fledgling years. I make no apologies for the thinly veiled copycat title, which in current vernacular would be called “an homage” (as in “It’s not Intellectual Property Theft, Your Honor. It’s an homage.” – note important legal distinction.)
But writing, comedy or otherwise, was not my first choice of a profession. Around the time I was 6, I wanted to be a garbageman. I’d be working for the City, so “job for life” – but that was not what appealed to me most. You get to ride on the back of a truck. Jump off. Throw stuff in the back and then use the controls to operate a crusher machine. But wait! There’s more!
You get first pick of all the good stuff people throw out for zero cash outlay. This is a job that pays for itself over time! In material assets, I would have a net worth of over a million dollars when I die. And I’ve seen a million dollars on display at the Ex in the Better Living building, where I have also viewed The Beatles carved in butter, very realistically – so I know of which I speak.
This Dream Job is the first indication of another dominant trait that has guided me over my lifetime. An argument could be made that I have done everything in my power to skate through life, putting in only the barest minimum of effort needed. This is reflected in repeated report card comments that contended “Joseph is not working to the level of his ability”. I took this as definitive proof that I was well on my way to achieving that goal. Not to say I never tried hard. It’s a relative term. There were lots of times I did. I just hoped it would be enough.
As a result and perhaps due to the complete lack of competent Guidance staff at the high school level, I had no idea what I was going to do after graduation.
Let me step back a moment and share that I received, or better yet, survived, 12 years of education in the Separate School system – that was the name given to the Catholic schools – “separate” – very inclusive and welcoming. Kudos to whomever chose that distinctive moniker.
It is not to be confused with the public school system, or as better known from our side of Pharmacy Avenue, the “dirty Protestants”. Again, we embrace our brethren.
The Irish have been fighting a similar battle for centuries but the point of contention between the students of Precious Blood and those ragamuffins from Wexford Public was the Elmer the Safety Elephant flag and Diamond plaque. There was a crosswalk between the two schools, used by both schools and, if just one kid got hit by a car, they’d take away the flag and the plaque. I don’t need to tell you that the stakes couldn’t have been higher. This justified lying in wait behind snow banks with snowballs polished to ice so that the loss caused by the offending school could be avenged. “Love thy neighbor?” “Yeah, sure – right after I throw this iceball, Sister.”
However, after 12 years, during which I received an “A” grade in every term 8 consecutive years running in only one subject – “Religious Knowledge”, I transferred to Wexford Collegiate Institute to finish my formal high school education at the hands of the “dirty Protestants”.
My accomplishments can be summed up in these words – “Best Year Socially and Worst Year Academically”. I graduated with an “Honours Graduation Diploma” nonetheless. Finally, I was moving forward to my stated goal. I couldn’t have put in less effort and was handsomely rewarded for it.
My elementary school education provided me with a basis in Spelling, Composition and Grammar. I had a drill sergeant Grade 7 grammar teacher – if she wasn’t “Army”, she could’ve been. I took Typing in high school, because they had a room full of typewriters and a hole in the schedule. And if anyone’s manhood was threatened, they made the Phys. Ed. instructor teach the class. I don’t recall if he ever blew his whistle during Typing class, but it’d be funnier if he did.
High school was also the first time my writing ability was recognized. English class assignment was to do a parody/modern updating of the poem “Lochinvar” by Sir Walter Scott. Somehow I managed to knock it outa the park. I was asked by the teacher if he could use it as an example for other classes. That’s the kind of “ass-kisser teacher’s pet” move that could get your ass kicked. I immediately said “yes”. In hindsight, perhaps not a prudent choice but I was stuck in “you like me!” mode. It didn’t last, as my next English teacher characterized my fiction piece as “bordering on ridiculous”. I knew then I was on the right track. Ridiculous and silly are neighbors on the same cul de sac.
So, I had some training that could be useful as a writer. I had no idea how I was going to make that happen but of all things, writing came easiest to me. That was a very attractive quality. But how do you get paid for doing as little as possible? You have to get appointed to the Canadian Senate. That seemed unlikely, although I haven’t completely given up on the possibility yet.
Let’s recap – legally, I was an adult and I had no idea how I was going to get through the rest of life, let alone what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So Life made a couple of suggestions.
“I know, Joe, – you should go work in a factory.” Actually, it was because the mother of a friend got me a job there. I became a Shipper/Receiver. It didn’t have the prestige or cachet of “garbageman” but it paid – $1.95 an hour. In “6-year old terms”, that can be expressed as “buys a lot of jujubes and black balls”. Nine months and enough beer consumption to float the Centre Island Ferry later, my life was to change forever.
Back at Wexford (and yes, that’s the same school The Weeknd came out of – note hip, current, shameless name-dropping reference), I had met a girl. She’d gone on to higher education while I was busy getting high, but we reconnected in a very beautiful and spiritual way (“Is that a crucifix in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”). She had an irresistible quality – she liked me. I could work with that.
It turns out that even though we had spent our lives fifteen minutes walk from each other’s houses, and went to the same church (Precious Blood – what else?) and knew all the same people, we had never crossed paths.
As a story choice, “it was destiny” is always a good way to go.
We have been married for over 47 years now. She chose me for obvious reasons. When we first met, I was rocking a serious beard and as studies have concluded “a beard is a signal of intrasexual formidability and potential to provide benefits to females”. Surprising as it seems, that never worked as a pick-up line.
Just so we could have even more in common, I got accepted into the same college-to-employment training path Debbie had picked.
I became a trained mental health counselor. And if the irony is lost on you, it shouldn’t be, given what I’ve already conveyed. I worked for years in a group home with adolescents, created a summer job program that put our kids together with seniors who needed work done around the house, and then moved onto our day treatment program as a life skills instructor and counselor. In Irish Catholic families, this meets the requirement that at least one child enter an order or “accept a calling” as it were.
Halfway through that illustrious career, I was approached by a friend, who I met that last year of high school, to join a few others in writing, acting, shooting and editing our own half-hour comedy production for Graham Cable. Think “Wayne’s World” but with less production value. It was part of any cable provider’s mandate to provide community access to their studio equipment. We would shoot several scenes and when we returned the next week it would be taped over with Armenian Belly Dancers. This could be why it took us 9 months to create four half-hours. Our program appeared in the TV listings under the title, “Photographing the Nude”. We knew this would catch viewers’ attention and Internet porn had not yet been invented. Know your audience. We did receive the very coveted Graham Cable Cecil B. DeMille Award for our production.
After my very financially lucrative career in Social Services, I made a savvy business move and quit to cofound an improv comedy troupe. Nothing succeeds like success.
The ACME Harpoon Co. came into being when I joined forces with a former Toronto Second City performer. We weren’t scared of a little competition and we gave them as little as we could. Actually, we opened at Old Angelo’s in Toronto and our run was held over. So, smelling of meatballs and full of piss ‘n’ vinegar, the troupe extended our reach to play the Prince of Wales hotel in Niagara-On-The-Lake, the Bavarian Inn in Elmira every weekend for a year and a half (just a short hop from Kitchener-Waterloo, home of “Pork Sausage in a Bag”) where we also taped “The ACME Harpoon Radio Hour” for a local K-W radio station, and finally, crossing provincial borders to play Le Méridien Hotel in Montreal for four months – we were also held over there.
After three years on the road, it was apparent that perhaps another route into the entertainment industry might be something to consider. So, I wrote for sketch comedy shows like “Laughing Matters”, “Pet Peeves” and “Comedy Mill” and I wrote an episode of “My Secret Identity”, starring a young Jerry O’Connell, and then sitcoms.
I wrote a blackout that originated from the Graham Cable program. I performed it with ACME Harpoon Co. I sold it to Steve Smith for his television sketch show. I used it as my audition piece when I crashed the SNL audition. It’s called “Swansong’s Last Supper TV Dinner”. Twelve years of Catholic schools and three years as an altar boy, I tapped into the very rich comedic vein that these sources had provided me with during my formative years. Write what you know.
The fact that I have never appeared on SNL should give some indication of how favorably I compared to another Scarborough boy who seems to have done alright for himself.
Now, let’s revisit the sitcoms. I was a hired gun for one episode of “Starting From Scratch”, a sitcom that starred Bill Daily (“I Dream of Jeannie”) and Connie Stevens (“Hawaiian Eye”). I hold the distinction of having written for two single-season sitcoms in the same year, as confirmed in the literary classic, “Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s: A Complete Guide” by Bob Leszczak. Quite a ringing endorsement. I’ll humbly accept this prestigious recognition, but money in the bank seemed a lot more gratifying.
And then, opportunity came knocking. My sister-in-law was a producer on “Check It Out!” and she arranged for me and another writer to come in to meet with the executive producer. I had already written three original sitcom pilots, one of these was with this other writer. In the meeting, it was conveyed they were looking to hire a writing team as Story Editors. “Were we a team?” Without dropping a beat, we both responded, “Yes”.
Don Adams was the star of “Check It Out!”. Don Adams was the star of “Get Smart”. I was pretty sure I had died and gone to heaven. It turns out that I worked on the last season of that show. I have on-screen credits for episode writing and Story Editor. I went out on my own from then. It was on this show that I met and worked with Frank Peppiatt, one of the creators of “Hee Haw” with his partner, John Aylesworth – both of whom are considered greats in the History of Sketch Comedy, as told by CBC.ca.
The next sitcom was with the same producer and it starred Lyle Alzado, a former LA Raiders football star. He was a single parent raising two teenagers and teaching by day and a masked wrestler by night. I got to meet all the WCW wrestlers. I also appeared as an actor in an episode – featured for a whole scene in a speaking role that I wrote. As a result, I’m huge in Germany (just like Hasselhoff). I was Story Editor and credited writer on several episodes of what turned out to the only season of that show.
I moved on to a CBC production that starred Canadian comedian Mike McDonald and Dan Redican of The Frantics. I was Story Editor and so was Peter Wildman of The Frantics. I’d worked with Rick Green of The Frantics on the Steve Smith sketch show. And on this gig, Paul Chato of The Frantics was the Head of Comedy for CBC. That’s quadruple points for multiple shameless name-dropping references.
“Mosquito Lake” got higher ratings than “The Beachcombers” but the critics hated it because it was silly. Again, I proudly point to my real on-screen credits for episode writing and Story Editor. It was the only season produced. Do you detect a trend here? Didn’t matter.
I was getting paid to be silly. Mission Accomplished!
“Have silly – will travel”. So, I got my green card in the immigration lottery and moved the family to LA – just like “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars.
And the rest is silly history.