There’s a gaggle of people from business executives to career politicians considering a run for governor of New Jersey in 2017. But only one recently performed on a Star Trek cruise together with William Shatner: Joe Piscopo.
That’s right, the former Saturday Night Live star is seriously considering a run for governor of the Garden State. While I’m far more progressive than Piscopo—who hasn’t made up his mind yet if he would run as an Independent or a Republican—you can’t help but like the guy. He has an infectious enthusiasm and energy coupled with a love for Jersey that just can’t be faked.
Before we talked politics, we discussed the running feud between Donald Trump and the place that made him a star, SNL. While Piscopo is a fan of the president, he very decidedly comes down on the side of SNL in this battle. “You don’t cut funny,” Piscopo said. “All is fair game in comedy when mocking people in power.” (I couldn’t agree more.)
Piscopo, who played Ronald Reagan when he was on SNL from 1980-1984, praised Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of Trump as being “on the money.” He then laughed out loud as he recounted Melissa McCarthy’s recent depiction of Sean Spicer on the show. Piscopo even defended the recent SNL sketch about Kellyanne Conway that outraged some on the right—and even a few on the left—who claimed the sketch crossed some imaginary comedy line. (It didn’t!)
Piscopo shared his own battle while on SNL about how far is “too far” when mocking political figures. He had made a short video that was a parody of the hit TV show Outer Limits. In it, Piscopo played a Reagan who was taking control of your television in the way Outer Limits did, and the comedy dealt with Reagan wanting to start a third world war. But when then SNL executive producer Dick Ebersol (who replaced Lorne Michaels for a few years in the early 1980s) saw the video, he thought it “crossed the line.” While Piscopo vehemently disagreed, in the end Ebersol won out and disappointingly for Piscopo the video never saw air.
I asked Piscopo how would he suggest the notoriously thin-skinned Trump respond to SNL? His answer was simple: “Invite Alec Baldwin to the White House.” He added, “Trump needs to have a sense of humor about SNL and doing that would make it clear he does.”
As Piscopo noted, when he was impersonating President Reagan on SNL, Reagan actually invited him to the White House. Same went for Darrell Hammond and Dana Carvey, both invited to the White House by the respective presidents each was parodying, Carvey by George H.W. Bush and Hammond by Bill Clinton.
In Piscopo’s case the visit to the Reagan White House changed his life. “Reagan was a great man, warm and decent,” remarked Piscopo. That meeting began a political transformation for Piscopo from a center-left guy to more politically conservative over time.
Piscopo has dabbled in the world of politics in the past as a surrogate for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign in 2008 and discussing issues on his radio show. But it wasn’t until now that the crazily busy Piscopo, who hosts a daily four-hour radio show in New York City, makes personal appearances and is a father to five, actually thought about throwing his hat in the ring as a candidate.
Part of the reason Piscopo might actually seek the governorship now is that “people keep asking me to run... ‘I hope you run, Joe’ is something I have been hearing from so many people.” If he runs as a Republican, Piscopo noted he would need to make a decision in the next few weeks due to state GOP party deadlines. But if he runs as an Independent it will give him more time to assess his options. Piscopo also added a unique upside to running as an Independent: Some of his celebrity friends like Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and George Lopez would likely be more inclined to publicly support his campaign.
But regardless of his party choice, Piscopo views himself as an outsider taking on the system. He bemoaned big money in politics, calling it “obscene.” He suggested donating the millions that would be spent on the governor’s race to help those in need and instead holding a series of televised debates so Jersey residents can assess the candidates.
Piscopo raised certain New Jersey-specific issues that he would focus on if he ran, from revitalizing the struggling Atlantic City to lowering the recently enacted 23 cent per gallon state gas tax intended to fund repairs of New Jersey’s aging roads, bridges, and rail systems.
But while Piscopo has good name recognition he still has a unique challenge being known as a comedian. While New Jersey voters have elected other political newcomers to statewide office in the past such as former NBA star Bill Bradley to the U.S. Senate and former Goldman Sachs head Jon Corzine as governor, would they really vote for a comedian as the state’s top executive?
Piscopo responded to my question by quoting a lyric from the classic song “That’s Life” sung by Jersey’s own Frank Sinatra, a person he famously played on SNL: “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.” The idea being that he’s not just a comedian—but he has done many things in his life that have prepared him to be governor.
The field for the 2017 governor’s race is already crowded on both sides of the aisle with some strong candidates. But being a Jersey guy myself, I must admit there’s a chance that come next January we will hear, “Live from Trenton, it’s Governor Joe Piscopo!”