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Paul Mecurio: The Wolf Of Broadway

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paul mercWhen it comes to comedy resumes, scholar and comic, Paul Mecurio has one of the most impressive. Wall Street power player, joke writer for Leno, staff and Emmy winner on The Daily Show, writer on  The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and has appeared on everything from ESPN to HBO. He currently appears as a commentator on the venerable, “CBS Sunday Morning,” CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and CBS News. And, Paul is now on the heels of his first one-man show on Broadway. Let’s take a deep/deep dive into Paul’s origin story. You can see Paul at Rooster T. Feathers 5/30 to 6/2. Hit the banner above for tix!!

DNA: Growing up and going to college in Rhode Island did you ever do stand-up or have a desire to perform?

Paul: I would watch the Late Show and see some stand-ups and the next day go into school and do some of the jokes. I would get laughs from my friends and I would think I was a comedian because they thought I ws funny. In High School I hosted a talent show where I was the MC and did some bits. I never thought I would do stand-up. I ended up going to law school and working on Wall Street. I never thought to myself that I would accumulate all this law school debt and that would be my path to stand-up.

Growing up were you more a Letterman or Leno guy?

It’s funny, I leaned towards Leno’s club act early on, it was edgy. But in terms of Late Night, Letterman was the one I really liked. But Leno was the person who helped me get my start. I was working as a lawyer and went to a private function and he was there and I gave him some jokes. I told him, “I’m a lawyer on Wall Street and I wrote some jokes and I’m not going to use them so you can have them.” He called me the next day and said he would hire me as a freelance writer for the Tonight Show for $50 a joke.

Famously, Leno always seemed to be the one guy on comedy who would actually look at a person’s jokes. Your instinct was dead on.

It was a shot in the dark. But you’re right. When I wrote on the Daily Show we would never take outside submissions. But that was mostly because we need material that reflected what was happening that day.

What was one of the jokes you gave Leno?

It was about those remodeling shows like This Old House and how the contractors are always really well dressed and clean shaven and super polite and finish the job on budget and on time. But in real life they’re showing plumber crack and hitting on your wife and drinking all your booze when you’re not home. It blew me away when I saw that joke come out of that square box and do well with the TV audience. Leno called me and said he wanted more but that I needed to try out the jokes in front of an audience before I send them in. And that’s how I started doing stand-up.

Was your job anything like The Wolf of Wall Street?

Yeah. I dealt with a lot of big companies and there was often hostile takeovers. You basically prepare an offer for a company that doesn’t know it’s coming and you surprise them with it. You do a lot of work ahead of time and research and you’re working all night, sometimes 100 hours a week.

You were in your early 20s?

Yeah. I had a ton of energy. I had my cufflinks, Armani suits and a 2 bedroom in a co-op in a nice part of New York City with a doorman. I wasn’t doing blow every night, but there was a definite fast pace. It was more like the movie Wall Street with a lot of maneuvering around companies. Nothing was illegal or sleazy. It was   just making very complicated deals that required a lot of work. I’d work all night, go home sleep for two hours and a car would come and bring me back to work. If you wanted lobster to eat they would send somebody to Montauk, Long Island and buy lobsters fresh off the boat. It was literally the other end of the spectrum of the dive bars that I was doing comedy in. I would see my deals on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. But seeing my joke on TV had more power.

So, you’re in a cutthroat business on Wall Street and because Jay Leno told you too, you start hitting dive bars to do jokes. That’s a crazy origin story. What was the first place you did comedy at?

The most memorable one was a little restaurant near where I worked. One night the senior partner came in from the firm. So I did the entire set sideways so nobody could see my face. I was introduced as Paul Windmill which is the street I grew up on. So it was like my porn name. Another real dive was called Downtown Afghanistan Two. It was Beirut Two but they updated the name. We always joked about the “Two” part because they were franchising them. They dealt drugs out of them and a hooker would give you notes on your jokes. It was a dysfunctional Cheers full of debtors and people buying drugs and stolen property. There was a lot going on and nobody would pay attention. That’s where I learned to talk to the audience to force them to focus. And then I would go back to work.

What year was that?

End of the 90s. I also figured out that if you had a car you could drive headliners around and get some paying gigs in better clubs. One night I pick up a guy from LA just bragging the entire ride about how edgy he was. He did all hacky material. And at the end of his set he swallowed a rod and spit fire and then took some nasal floss stuck it up his nose and pulled it out his mouth. He got a standing ovation. Afterwards it was like we saw two different shows. He talked about how he crushed it and truth was he was such a douche. I got pretty depressed because I didn’t want to have to do what he did to make it in comedy.  

Were you able to make comedy friends in the early days? Or did you have this secret identity, as a Wall Street broker, you were trying to protect?

Not really. I couldn’t tell anybody in that world I was an investment banker/lawyer and big Wall Street guy. I would have been marginalized and been treated differently. I also didn’t want to be hit up for money all the time.

Now that you mention it, do you have 20 bucks?

It was a secret double life. I would sneak out of work and have the car that drove me stop two blocks from the club. I would put on a t-shirt, do a set and run back to the car and head back to work. Mt girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, thought I was cheating on her because I would come home smelling like cigarettes and beer. My pockets would have phone numbers from women, who were comics I would meet for future shows.

Was there a defining moment where you made the switch to comedy or was it gradual?

I kept going back and forth in my mind. I loved how free I felt doing comedy but I was making good money, so I was torn. I hemmed and hawed and then my father died of a heart attack. I went home for the funeral and my mom wanted me to stay and take over the business. I was too afraid to make a decision. I tried to help my mom, but I was just an errand boy and that was my lowest point. My life felt like a joke. I didn’t know where I belonged. I didn’t want to stay on Wall Street but going into comedy meant I had to start all over again. I couldn’t stay in the family business and the worst feeling in the world is not knowing where you belong. I thought I had my act together. I went to law school, became a lawyer, got a great job on Wall Street. I had a clear path. But I had a mid-life crisis. I took a leave of absence to be with my family but then went back to Wall Street and knew that I had to give comedy a shot. That’s kind of how it happened. But I did go back a forth for a while. It was a fucked up couple of years.

Well, you landed on your feet dude! Being part of the Daily Show original crew must have been exhilarating.

Lizz Winstead of the Daily Show saw me doing stand-up in the city. I was hired to write and did some segments on the show. I always thought we were going to be cancelled. And for the most of the time I was just writing in an office. And the one thing I didn’t want was to be stuck in an office again. I kept thinking why did I want to be stuck in a much smaller office with no lobster dinner? But it ended up catching fire and it stuck. Of course, it was a different time where the network would let a show breath and work itself out and grow. Now there’s at least five shows like the Daily Show with everyone who got their training at the Daily Show. But we had to create the genre and process including getting footage and writing for the footage. A small crew of us led by Lizz and Madeleine Smithberg and Craig Kilbourne, the host, created a format and then Jon Stewart took it to a whole nother level. But I was convinced it would be canceled. I saw it as a credit that would help me move up the food chain.

What is your latest project?

I have my one-man Broadway show opening in July in NYC. We just signed the contract and finalized everything. It’s called the Fourth Wall.

Wow, congratulations Joe. That’s a big achievement on an already wild ride of a career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized
05/23/2018

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