Before we had There’s Something About Mary, we had Pat Cooper. At the young age of 83, the “angry” Mr. Cooper is still going like the Energizer bunny. You may recognize him from his on screen roles in Analyze This and the sequel, Analyze That, but his career began decades earlier in the 1960’s, with comedy albums and appearances on programs like The Jackie Gleason Show, and now keeping up with the times, The Howard Stern Show, Seinfeld and Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. He has appeared on stage with bona fide celebrities, not your “Who is that?” modern day crowd, like Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
WIth his foul language mixed between innocent joke setups, you at once may be embarrassed as the subject of a roasting, like Quentin Tarantino, or wish he were your mischiveous grandfather. He talked about his fabulous autobiography, How Dare You Say How Dare Me!, and why he doesn’t find the Kardashians intellectually stimulating. Because, you know, with Cooper around, he might have made a great reality TV-scripted boyfriend…
Nobody can accuse you of giving up on your career; you are working well into your 80’s…fantastic! What keeps you going when we see people giving up on their comedic careers after one year of ups and downs?
I was always funny, and always have been funny. When I’m playing to a full house, I have a certain flow in what I do and what I say. I’m a “Jazz Comedian.” You can’t fake that. It’s not something that you just learn after one year. I worked at my routines for more than 5 years before I finally got my first big break with Jackie Gleason on his TV show in 1961—but the reason I was able to get there in the first place was because I worked! These young comics today, so many of ’em think they’re going to be the next big thing after only a few months—and too many of ’em have no sense of the history of being funny, the tradition of being funny. I may be Italian, but nearly everything that I learned about making people laugh in this world came from my embrace and love of the Jewish culture. The Jews are naturally funny—they know the rhythm of funny, the pacing of funny, it’s a part of their DNA. And the biggest thing about the Jewish people is that they encourage their children—they love and nurture talent in their kids. When I was coming up, a Jewish kid would get applause and a hug when he told a joke at the family dinner table, “He’s another Milton Berle!,” they’d say. If I tried telling a joke in my house, I’d get a shout and a slap! Who knows, though? Maybe all those shouts and slaps upside the head made me a better comic . . . it certainly got me out of my parents’ house faster!
Abraham Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Is great humor always going to offend someone?
The only kind of humor that offends me is “bad” humor—when somebody says something that has no truth to it and is designed just to make someone feel hurt or sad. What‘s funny about hurting somebody? I’ve been hurt plenty in my life, but the humor comes from how you bounce back from the hurt. Life is painful enough without adding something stupid to it—that’s the kind of thing that gets me so angry!
What’s “great” humor? That’s when you mix your skill and your craft and your own life experience together and make it into something the audience knows in their gut but doesn’t expect they’re gonna hear. That’s what I’ve been doing for more than 50 years — that’s what it’s all about. By the way, “good” humor is an ice cream bar. Next!
It’s pretty awesome that you have a hobby like horse race gambling. I’m sure you have loads of material about “winning by a nose.” Have you ever experienced any funny moments while gambling? Why did you take up this new passion?
I’ve been betting on the horse races for years now, but I have a special way of doing it. I always bet on horses that have repeating letters in the name. Same thing with jockeys—I’ll place a bunch of bets on a horse if the jockey also has those repeating letters. Don’t think it always works for me, though. I lose as I often as I win with my method, but it’s my way of doing it and I enjoy doing it that way. Now that people know I’ve been placing the bets all these years, you watch…they’re gonna start giving all the damn horses new names!
Your book description itself talks about how you are inspired by your own anger. Is anger necessary for comedy also? Do you believe what I was told once, “What we say when we are joking is half true?” particularly when doing roasts? Sort of like the Jim Carrey scene from “Liar Liar” where he roasts his boss accidentally while under his truth-only spell?
When I’m yelling, I’m not angry. I yell because of all the sadness that there is. I yell because I’m trying to say something* real in a world that’s so full of shit now that our children and our grandchildren aren’t gonna have a chance to know how good their lives can be. I see kids today, and all they’re doing is sending texts and pushing buttons on these little pieces of plastic until they’ve got their heads so far up their asses that they can’t even tell you what time it is without checking their machines. They say all these machines means progress. That ain’t progress, it’s shutting down on life. I tell it like it is, every day of my life, and especially when I’m asked to do a roast. Nobody does a roast like me—I never work from paper, I just roll with it and say what I know is the truth that will bring the laughs from the people. When I was asked to be on a roast for Richard Pryor, who was sick with MS at the time, I stood up at the podium and looked at Richard and said, “Hey, Rich, when are you gonna fuckin’ die already?!” The room froze for a second, but then Pryor started laughing his ass off—and that laugh went around the room like a fuckin’ boomerang. We weren’t laughing at Richard or his pain—we were laughing at death! And that’s the best medicine any of us can have. If we can look death straight in the face and tell it to go fuck itself, then we’re the ones who get the last laugh. The angriest bastards I have ever met are those who didn’t dare to stand up for their dignity against death—and that, my friend, is the biggest tragedy of all. If you can use anger to yell people out of their own problems, you do more good than if you smile and send a condolence card. One is bullshit, the other’s real. I go for what’s real.
*Should* we be able to talk about things we all know but avoid, what we call the “elephant in the room?”
It’s healthy to talk about things in any way you want—so long as young children aren’t involved. Kids should be allowed to be kids more in this world. Parents nowadays want to make their kids like their friends—that’s a disgrace! Why should you bother kids with your problems? Why should they have to listen to all of that crap? They’re gonna have to deal with it soon enough once they get older, so just leave ‘em alone a little more. I’m not saying you should lie to your children or shy away from talking about sex or bigotry or what Uncle Sam really did to the Indians. But don’t keep trying to make ‘em grow up faster so you have a friend in the house. Let ‘em be young—the only fuckin’ elephant that should be in a kid’s room is Dumbo!
What challenges did you face when writing your memories down on paper for your book? Did you struggle with seeing how to make the words jump off the page because you are so used to speaking them aloud with comedic timing and this was an entirely different art form, where you have constant editing processes?
Well, I didn’t write the book down on paper. I spoke the book out loud. My friend and manager, Steve Garrin, had me sit down in his recording studio 2-3 times a week for a year and a half. I had all these stories that I wanted to tell, so he just hit the Record button and I just let loose. Then Steve and Richie (Herschlag) got together and put all the stories together in a way that was my voice but suited better to the actual page. I never wanted to write a book, or at least never thought I wanted to write a book. But I decided to give it a try, and everyone who reads it has really enjoyed it. I didn’t write a book a week after my first TV appearance, or the first time I was on Howard Stern in the ‘80s. I wanted to wait until I had most of my life in hand, and could really say something to people about it. And if you ask me, I think we fuckin’ nailed it!
When recording an album, you cannot feed off a live audience’s energy. What do you do to ensure it’s funny and not solely funny to people who think everything you do is great, like best friends and family?
I haven’t recorded a concert album in years, and all my comedy albums were recorded before live audiences. I think that’s what made them so good! As for what I do to make it funny, it’s not anything that I do anymore—it’s just me. I’m a funny man, whether you like it or not. I see this world as a ridiculous place—and now that I’m going to be 84 years old this coming July, I’m only too glad to get the hell out of here!
What is uniquely Italian American about your style that transcends time, where someone who’s a “Jersey Shore” generation could get your jokes? I assume, by the way, whoever liked that show would like your humor anyway for its bluntness.
I can’t stand JERSEY SHORE or any of those other reality shows. What in the hell is a Snooki? And why are those Kardashian girls famous? What do these people actually do?! As for how my Italian background influences my style of humor, it’s just where I’m from and what I know. I don’t judge people who like JERSEY SHORE, but I just don’t come from a world where that is considered entertainment.
I love that you have a Twitter account and use it honestly. Which is a lot to say for anyone, and I repeat myself, for someone your age, when we have people my own age with a bunch of handlers controlling their public image. Do you have any plans to start including more of your humor online in daily updates? Do you have an urge to confront anyone on Twitter for free publicity? You’re probably the single person I can think of who could pull off an online PR stunt humorously and well written!
I’m still not sure what the hell a Twitter is, but my manager put up a few things that I said and suddenly people starting following me. I don’t even get the language—you send out a Tweet or a Twit or a Twat . . . what the hell does it all mean? As for PR stunts, that’s not my style. I am a genius of myself, and nobody does what I do. When it comes to me, all that really matters is what I leave on that floor each night that I perform. And now that I have written my life’s memoir, that’s another part of all that will remain. I’ll be gone soon enough, but I’ll definitely be remembered as somebody who spoke and didn’t tweet.