What can be said about Joe Matarese that hasn’t already been said? A comedian out of New York City who’s done it all: Letterman, Ferguson, Kilborn, Chelsea Lately, Comedy Central Presents, Premium Blend, Gotham Comedy Live. He’s done the Montreal Comedy Festival multiple times, he’s been on Howard Stern, and he’s performed with Artie Lange. And these are just to name a few!
Matarese recently performed on America’s Got Talent. In his controversial appearance, Matarese received a standing ovation from the sold out crowd as well as all four celebrity judges, with his beloved wife and children alongside him. Yet, in the very next round, Matarese was eliminated after learning just moments before that he would have to perform in front of only the four judges, and no audience. On top of that, the show edited his performance by cutting out crucial parts of his act. The incident left a sour taste that spread throughout the comedy community, which now serves as a cautionary tale for younger comics.
Fortunately, the 25-year veteran did not let the negativity get the best of him. He has a very successful podcast called ‘Fixing Joe’ along with a very funny web series also called ‘Fixing Joe’, available on the Official Comedy network. Having the opportunity to meet Matarese was a pleasure, made possible by fellow New York comedian Paul Virzi, host of The Virzi Effect podcast. Matarese could not have been more genuine as we talked about the America’s Got Talent incident along with comedy advice & wisdom, what it is like to work with Artie Lange, comedy & depression, and why comedy contests are not as important as comics may think.
AMERICA’S GOT TALENT
In the elimination round, I like how you called out the judges at the end of your set saying, “You guys are being tough on me on purpose!” It was like something Patrice O’Neal would have done in a similar situation.
[Laughs] I think the way they aired it, they made it look like I was saying it out of insecurity. Instead of saying it like, “I’ve been doin’ this for 25 years and I can tell you guys are trying to NOT enjoy what I’m doing. You’re going out of your way to give me nothing.” I just don’t understand how they could give me a standing ovation and tell me how they see me being in the finals, yet the next round they acted like they didn’t know who I was, like we were back at Square One. It made no sense. That’s why I called them on that.
Have you had a chance to talk with Howard Stern, or Howie Mandel about it after you did the show? I ask you this assuming that all famous people are friends with each other…
[Laughs] No. But you know what’s funny, I was at Nick DiPaolo’s BBQ the other day for football, and Artie Lange was there — Artie and I are friends. It was funny because Artie goes, “What happened?!? I only saw Week One and I heard all this negative shit about the next round…” So I told him what happened. And I told him how I thought Howard Stern and the group would remember me after giving me a standing ovation.
And what did Artie say about it?
He just goes, “You expected Howard Stern to remember you?! That’s like 50 trips to The Hamptons in between each round!” [laughs]
After seeing that elimination round, it was obvious that it was planned, especially with that ominous music playing in the background.
Well, here’s the thing in retrospect: What set looks good in front of NO audience and NO laughter? Does ANY stand up set look good? Ya know? Just for comedy, they should have had 10 people who didn’t know us to come and watch. Trust me, there were enough people sitting around doin’ nothing. [laughs] But it’s like, you can’t just put 10 people in a chair? Stand up comedy does not work without an audience. It just makes no sense to do comedy like it’s music and perform in front of four judges who are TRYING to NOT laugh.
And you found out about this right at the last minute?
The producer warned me, “Just be ready, they’re gonna be kinda tough on you. They’re not really gonna laugh and respond.” And I didn’t believe it! ‘Cause I’m thinking, “Well, aren’t they just gonna be themselves? It’s a reality show!” If I was the judge of that contest and you make me laugh, I’m gonna laugh! I’m not gonna TRY to give you a blank stare.
That sounds awful. Why would the judges even act like that?
What I think people don’t realize is that the judges have nothing to do with it. They’re just ACTORS. It’s the producers telling these actors what to do. That’s who’s in charge. It’s a reality show, but you have to script reality in order to make it work as a TV show. So they script it like, “This guy is gonna win, this guy is not gonna win, and this guy is just gonna look like he’s gonna win.” So to follow the script they go, “OK, laugh at that guy, laugh only a little at that guy, and don’t laugh at all at this guy…”
They just kept telling me what to say! They kept telling me to say, “If I don’t make it through the next round, my career could be over!” And I was like, “But no, it wouldn’t be.” [laughs] And they go, “But you can’t say that!” The producers get mad at you if you don’t go along with what they want you to say. Show business is confusing. [laughs]
And even if you don’t follow the script, it seems like they will edit you in a way so that no matter what, you keep to their script.
I talked about this on Opie & Anthony of how even in my GOOD set, they still cut out some things. And one of my jokes doesn’t make sense because of it — the one about the softball league. They cut out the setup of the joke where I talk about how bad the announcers would sound. They just took it out.
What was funny was that when I taped my next comedy album, all the jokes that I did in that 2nd round — jokes the judges said didn’t have any punchlines — ended up being stand outs in my full hour. They got like, three or four applause breaks! So I would get mad on stage being like, “I’m glad you guys clapped because this is the joke that Howard Stern and Howie Mandel said didn’t have any punchlines!” [laughs]
Going through this experience with America’s Got Talent, did it make you more hesitant to take on other gigs of that sort?
Well, I did say “No” to Last Comic Standing. I’m done with contests. I’ve done them my whole career. Every comedian goes through doing contests early on. And you think, “Well, this is my way, everybody else is doing it, so let’s go do it! Maybe I’ll get work at this club if it goes well!”
But aren’t contests necessary when starting out and trying to build your career and your fan base?
You don’t have to do it. But you think you’re supposed to.
How else can comics get exposure early on in their career without doing contests?
They have to just get really GOOD. [laughs] Get good! But if I could give advice to young comics out there: I really feel like if there’s ANYTHING out there that pays no money and it’s some comedy contest — you don’t need to do it. Just don’t do it. Get good, make a video, and show it to everybody — but make sure it’s good! [laughs] And show it somebody you respect first, because you tend to think you’re better than you really are.
And the fact that there are SO many different styles and genres of comedy, it’s hard to just lump them all together for a competition.
Yeah, there’s a lot of FUNNY people, but there’s not one that’s FUNNIER. It’s who you like, and who you don’t like. I think Bill Burr is hilarious. I think Marc Maron’s funny. Sebastian Maniscalco I think is funny. Louis CK’s funny. But if you said, “WHO is the funniest out of them?” I couldn’t say. I can’t tell you who’s FUNNIER, they’re all different. They’re all FUNNY. There’s no FUNNIER.
ARTIE LANGE APPRENTICESHIP
You and Paul Virzi are good friends and he’s appeared on your podcast many times. Bill Burr took Virzi under his wing, and I’ve heard that Artie Lange did the same for you?
I do go to Artie a lot for advice. But I always tell Virzi how much luckier he is to have Bill Burr — ‘cause Bill Burr is kinda normal whereas Artie is an ex-addict. You don’t hear from him. There’ve been times where I’ll text him for advice and he just changed his phone number and I don’t know it, and I’m wondering why he isn’t getting back to me. Then I find out from somebody else that he changed his number. The guy changes his phone number like every three months…like he’s an FBI agent! [laughs]
He cleaned up though, didn’t he?
He did. He did clean up. But he still struggles with depression. So I don’t press, if I don’t get a phone call back, I figure he’s in a tough place and just wait for him to get back to me at his leisure. If he’s in a good place, he’s there for me, but there’s other times where I think it’s harder for him. So that’s why I tell Virzi how lucky he is — Bill Burr’s an AMAZING comedian and he’s a little more normal. I mean, no comedians are normal, but he’s able to have a friendship with Virzi. But, I hope this doesn’t sound like something to make Artie mad, I still love the guy. I dunno how you’re gonna write that and NOT make Artie mad at me… [laughs]
We’ll just get the America’s Got Talent editors to edit this…
[laughs] But the truth about Artie…the times when he isn’t private and he’s in a very good mood and we’re talkin’ and getting along like regular guys — I gotta say they were some of the greatest moments. There was a time when he came back out of his depression and he got sober and he called me up and we hung out, I told him “If you ever need to just have a cup of coffee and talk, I’m here for you.” And then a week later, he goes, “Remember how you said that about the coffee? I wouldn’t mind havin’ a cup of coffee right now.” And we went into a diner and we shot the shit — we musta been in that diner for like, five hours! Depression is an evil thing, and it’s hard to understand it unless you have it. There’s a HUGE difference between being depressed and having depression.
What do you think it is about fame that makes people get like that?
Well, depressed people get into show business and then I always say, show business can make them more depressed. There are moments in show business where you have to be really funny and “On” and if that isn’t you, it can make you more depressed. Because you’re masking something. It can be harmful. There’s nothing a depressed person hates more than having to hang out with a buncha people and trying to pretend they’re NOT depressed. And they say for comedy, the more depressed you are, the funnier you are. But in reality, it isn’t healthy for a depressed person. You might as well go into drama. [laughs]
You joke about taking Celexa for your depression. Before you started taking Celexa, what was it that let you know you needed to get things under control?
When my wife almost left me. She couldn’t take it anymore. I would go into my own head a lot, I’d always want to be alone, I’d cause fights — I’d snap at the smallest things and just get really mad and frustrated. I remember one time I ran outta gas right in front of my wife’s mom’s house, and I couldn’t get the nozzle from the gas can to fit, so gas was just pouring out on the side of the car. And I was just yelling “MOTHER FUCKER!” at the top of my lungs right in front of her mom’s house. And I remember that being a vivid moment where she was like, “What the hell are you doing?! You gotta get on some medication.”
For a comedian, isn’t the stage supposed to be the therapy and the medication?
But audience members just laugh. They don’t give you advice on how to be better. Like, Artie used to get booed when he’d go on stage and say that he wasn’t drinking anymore. They would boo him because they wanted him to drink. Audience members don’t want you to be better — it’s boring to be better. It’s harder to get laughs when you’re like, “Hey! Things are goin well! My wife’s really smart and I’m really dumb, but ya know, we really even each other out!” The audience would be like, “BOOO! GET OFF THE STAGE!!” [laughs]
How has the medication affected your stand up?
It’s definitely harder to write material now that I’m on Celexa. The anger has quieted. I used to have anger outbursts all the time, which is where my ‘When A Comedian Attacks’ album came from. In fact, that all started when I put up a YouTube video of me fighting off hecklers, which ended up getting like, 3 million views! And before I came out with the CD, I remember talking to Bill Burr on how I should do a CD with just me fighting off hecklers, and Bill goes, “I’d buy that!” [laughs] But now that I’m on the medication I’ve realized those outbursts had little to do with the audience, and a lot to do with me. I was easily angered and I was having clubs getting mad at me. My whole career before I was on Celexa, I would have clubs tell me I was too rough on the hecklers. I would bury them. I was a comedy vigilante. [laughs]
[laughs] What if you had just gimmicked your act in those days as “The Heckler-Fighting Comedian”? And perform in a boxing arena like Andrew Dice Clay…
[laughs] Or like when Andy Kaufman used to fake-wrestle women on stage. [laughs] I thought of doing something like that. On my first podcast, I had Bill Burr as a guest and I told him I was thinking about bringing a chalk board on stage and just starting arguments with hecklers and just keep track and try to win the arguments. [laughs] But Burr told me that was the worst idea, it’d become a nightmare. Because then you would ultimately be playing a character you end up hating, rather than working on real material. But in my head, I’d be like, “But…I’d be a millionaire!” I’d be a miserable millionaire! [laughs]
So why comedy? What made you choose this profession?
Probably half the reason why my wife calls me “disconnected” is that I’m creative in my head — I’m thinking all the time, creatively. I’ve always had that voice in my head. Even when I was younger, I was always thinking about jokes and performing. I wanted to perform and when I found a place where you go where there was an outlet for everything in my head, which was open mic, I started there in Philadelphia when I was 19. And after that, I just never stopped going — I would have gone sooner if I had known it was there!
Were you ever the “class clown” in school?
I was never a class clown. I mean, some of the teachers hated me — I was a shitty student, so maybe I was making people laugh by being a shit head. [laughs] I was such a jerk! I remember one time I came in late and the teacher goes, “You’re late! Where’s your late pass?” while holding out her hand. But I just slapped her hand and gave her five, saying, “Wusssuppp?!?” So that got a laugh. [laughs]
Were your family and friends accepting of your decision to be a comedian?
No, they weren’t accepting. They thought it was ridiculous. My grandmother — and I talk about her on America’s Got Talent — how negative she was and still is. She’s 94 now and she can’t say anything nice about me as a comedian. [laughs] And she has alzheimer’s disease, so I hafta hear her insults over and over and over again… [laughs]
[moment of laughter]
They say comedians are insecure by nature. Do you feel that is true for you?
On stage, insecurity can be the death of me sometimes. Celexa has helped with that, I don’t worry anymore. But, when I would get mad at a heckler, a lot of it was because I had that insecure thing going on like, “If I don’t do well, they’ll never hire me again…so let’s yell at somebody if they’re not laughing!” [laughs]
Where do you think the insecurity comes from? Are there specific moments in your childhood that may have caused this?
My family members are very critical. They’re all very vain and constantly critiquing, yet they just don’t realize it. Saying things like, “What’s with your hair? It looks too long! You’re just gonna let it be grey?! You should dye it! When are you gonna shave your beard?!” [laughs] They do that a lot. I had nowhere else to go but be insecure!
When you start out in comedy, people like to advise you to have a backup plan. When you first started, did you give yourself a time limit saying, “If I don’t reach this goal by this point, I’ll just call it quits.” ?
[Laughs] No. I think a lot of it was that I just had NO other thing where I had this kind of passion for it. I just SUCKED at everything else! [laughs] I barely went to college, I got fired from EVERY job before I was a comedian — I was a terrible employee, and I was finally good at something AND I loved it, so it just became my way of life.
What were some of these jobs you were terrible at?
[laughs] I was a waiter at one place — got fired from being a waiter — maybe I didn’t get fired, maybe I quit ? Either way, I remember suckin’ at it! [laughs] I remember one time I was changing the salt & pepper shakers and I got some pepper up my nose and it made me sneeze into my hand. And I just rubbed my hand onto my leg, but one of the customers I was serving saw me do that, so the manager called me over and goes, “They don’t want you to serve them your food, they saw you wipe your sneeze-hand onto your pants!” [laughs]
In your podcast episode with Yannis Pappas, you talk about how you had a DJ business before you did comedy. Having that DJ background, when you first started comedy, were you on stage talking in that awkward DJ radio voice?
[laughing] That’s a good one! I used to tell jokes at this one bar — and there was NO ONE there when I was DJing, like maybe six people just getting drunk at this bar, and I would do comedic bits in between songs — but not my own comedic bits, I was doing covers of other comedians from comedy albums that I used to listen to in my basement. And I’d go, “Oh this is fun!” At that time, DJing was almost like stage time.
ADVICE & WISDOM
In your podcast episode with Pete Davidson, you guys talk about how it takes a long time to figure yourself out and find your voice. Why is that? What do comics have to go through in order to figure themselves out?
I think it’s just a lot of performing. I don’t know if it’s like, “Oh you have to go through THIS.” You just have to do it for a really long time and it slowly becomes — it’s like a sculpture and how it slowly forms into a piece of art as you slowly chip away at it. I’d even compare it to Shawshank Redemption how it took him all those years to chip that hole in the wall and get out. It just takes a really long time to chip it all away and go, “Oh my God, here it is, I’ve got it now.” I’m 25 years in and it feels like I’m JUST starting to do it — it’s ridiculous! [laughs]
You also mention how every 10 years you become a different person. Does that mean you have to constantly burn and redo your material if you don’t get on TV in those 10 years?
Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get on television. I was doing TV 7-8 years in and I look at it like, “Okay, this is who I was back then.” I looked different, I dressed different, I talked different, my material was about different shit — but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t funny. It was good enough to get on TV back then. It just evolved into different looks and different styles. It’s like bands — they sound different as the years go by.
Going back to Artie getting booed for NOT being a “fuck up”. Do you think comedians almost NEED to go through terrible things in order to be great?
No, because I think that just decides your style. There are guys who are probably fine, so they do something a little more observational with their comedy. They might not talk about their own life ‘cause there’s not much there. But they might be really good at making smart observations on life —it just doesn’t have to be theirs.
What was comedy like when you first started? Was it easier or harder to get booked back then?
You know what’s weird, when I started out, very early on you could make enough money to where you didn’t have to have some shitty job. Like, I have not had a “job” since DJing, and I was probably 23-24 years old. I mean, there were a million different one-nighters all around that paid decent, and you could get like, four of ‘em in the week. And then you could try to get a weekend somewhere. It wasn’t like now where there’s ‘Bringer Shows’ and open mics all over the place. I was very good at the hustling, and the business end of it. I was always on the phone calling bookers. It’s not like now where everything’s emailing. And maybe it was easier then because they can’t blow you off on the phone as easy as they can by just not emailing you back. But I used to get work—I wasn’t making a TON of money, but I was making enough to support myself.
COMEDY & RELATIONSHIPS
Aside from being a comedian, you are a husband and a father. What is the key to maintaining a healthy normal relationship in an industry that is everything but normal?
Well, I went through a MILLION of ‘em. It’s VERY hard. I didn’t meet my wife until I was 38, which probably did not make settling down easy. But when my wife saw me perform, I was good — I had been headlining and I had been on TV and done a lot of stuff by the time she saw me. And I had some money left from a development deal with NBC — even though I spent most of it, but I had enough left to own a condo in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is a really nice town — a MINUTE outside of New York City. And not mention, it was right across the street from Artie Lange, who I didn’t know too well at the time. [laughs]
When dating, girls tend to assume that just because you’re on TV that you must be some kind of multi-million dollar celebrity. What was it like for you when you first met your wife?
Ya know my wife even said, “When you came to pick me up on our first date, I didn’t know how successful you were. I knew you were really good because I saw you perform. But I didn’t know if you were gonna show up in a BMW, I had no idea.” [laughs] She had no idea how much money I made…and then I showed up in a Nissan Altima. [laughs]
Is it harder to be in a relationship with somebody outside of the comedy & entertainment business?
I think it works better with someone who’s not involved in this business at all. You read about comedians who are married to other comedians or to their married to an agent or a manager, and I dunno how they do that. I love that my wife and I have totally different jobs. And she understands it now. She now thinks everything’s gonna be a let down, eventually. [laughs] Because she’s seen so many of ‘em. But, even America’s Got Talent tricked my wife. She was like, “Ohh this might be something! Who knows?!” ‘Cause they came to our house and did all kinds of filming and stuff. But, she’s seen a lot of let downs. She’s seen me on Letterman and came with me to the tapings, but she’s smart enough to know that it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re gonna make a lot of money from it. Basically, we’ve decided that if we can stay at this income level that we’re at right now, if we could just have what we have now, we would be happy.
I like how you did not get married until you were almost 40. I’m seeing people getting married in their early 20s, I dunno how they’re doing that…
No way. I would have been the WORST husband ever back then. [laughs] I cheated on every girlfriend I had until I met my wife!
I mean, I KNEW I didn’t wanna be with the girl that I was in the relationship with, like I KNEW that they weren’t the one for me, but I didn’t know how to break up with them. And I was such an insecure idiot, I was too insecure to be single. I realize now that I should have just broken up with them and been single, I didn’t hafta hurt somebody. But hey, it’s all part of growing up. I finally grew up.
INTERVIEWED & WRITTEN BY David Gavri