Jersey Boy - Jim Florentine

It’s no secret that New Jersey has been home to some of the biggest names in comedy. Dating all the way back to the era of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, many comedians and entertainers such as Jay Mohr, Joe Piscopo and others blossomed from the Garden State. However, despite hailing from a state that has sprouted so many celebrities, Old Bridge’s own Jim Florentine faced an uphill battle to gain respect and be noticed in the larger comedic market of New York City and, ultimately, the country.Florentine’s first foray into professional comedy didn’t come until his mid-20s, when he was a radio deejay in Hazlet while working other jobs in the area. Florentine, a huge heavy metal fan, was inspired by other stand-up comics who pushed the envelope, like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay, and he wanted to bring his own rock star persona to the comedy scene when he began performing at local clubs. After years of playing at open mic  nights and smaller venues, Florentine eventually got noticed on the Howard Stern Show when they played clips of his Terrorizing Telemarketers CD, which contained live recordings of Florentine talking telemarketers in circles until they hung up in frustration. He soon became a regular guest on the show, and that national platform sparked his ascent to the national stage.
Florentine’s rise from a trouble-making school kid to an Emmy-award winning comedian and successful show host is a reflection of his classic New Jersey attitude and determination. It’s a good bet that many residents and  locals who encountered him while he was mowing lawns or heard him on the radio in the 1980s had no idea they were listening to a future star. Though he knew his humor was a little crude and edgy for the time, he didn’t waver from it and it finally paid off. In addition to his stand-up tours, he also co-hosts VH1 Classic’s highest-rated program, That Metal Show, a program solely focused on telling the stories of current and former heavy metal  performers—some of which were Florentine’s boyhood idols.
Florentine, now 50 years old, lives in Marlboro with his wife, Samantha, and their son, Luke. He met Samantha at a Kid Rock concert, which he only attended because he said his former girlfriend (who had died) came to him in a  dream and told him to go. Florentine credits such emotional events with altering his outlook on life and helping him reconcile his demanding career with a happy home life — something he previously had a hard time envisioning.
Inside the Count Basie Theatre, a venue where many famous entertainers, including Florentine himself, have taken the stage, he provided Living in Media with a backstage pass to his journey through his comedic and personal  life. He was casually dressed in blue jeans and a tee shirt with “Iron Maiden” emblazoned across the chest, demonstrating that, despite his success, Florentine has remained true to his roots — and himself — throughout his  career.

LIM: Were you a comedian as a child growing up in Old Bridge?
JF: A little bit. I was right in the middle of seven children. I remember once my parents hired a babysitter to watch all of us. We were upstairs and called for the babysitter to come. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs we all  started throwing dirty clothes on top of her. She quit right there, just walked out. She didn’t even wait for her pay.

LIM: So you started pulling pranks that young?
JF: Growing up, I hung out a lot with my older brothers and I learned to ball bust from them. I went to Catholic school, and they were the bad kids. I went to Catholic school for first through sixth grade, and then I got thrown out. I  went to public school from there.

LIM: What do you mean, thrown out?
JF: Just being a trouble maker. All my friends went to public school, so I always rebelled because I wanted to be around them. One day the school bragged that they got these new wrestling mats and asked us to take care of  them because they spent a lot of money on them. As soon as I heard that, me and another guy went and cut them up with razor blades that day. The next morning they narrowed down who did it, and me and my friends spent like  the last three months of sixth grade in the principal’s office. After the school year, they said they didn’t want us back.

LIM: Why did you develop an interest in comedy?
JF: My grandfather was a big ball buster so I think I learned a lot from him. My dad was a prankster, too. I was never really the class clown, I was more like the guy in the back of the room cracking oneliners. But I would make prank phone calls because I was always grounded and my mom would send me to my room. There was a phone in my room, so I would just dial around and call people. Random numbers, or sometimes call and order like six  pizzas for a neighbor’s house and then watch from my window as the guy tried to deliver them.

LIM: Did they ever figure out it was you?
JF: No. They didn’t trace calls back then. It was a great time when no one told on you and they didn’t have star 69.

LIM: What comedians inspired you?
JF: My brothers took me to see Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. I remember watching and seeing how good he was. I also wanted to get into hard rock, but just didn’t have the talent for it. I went for singing lessons one  day. Usually they try to take your money and they’ll string you along, but after the first session my instructor told me, “Look, you don’t have it. You don’t have an ear for music.” I was happy she was honest with me. I was a lefty, and  all of my friends who played guitar were righthanded and couldn’t teach me how to play. But later on when I saw Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison bring almost like a rock-star mentality to comedy, that’s when I realized I could  get up there and do that.

LIM: When did you try to get your name out in comedy?
JF: I didn’t start until I was about 24. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I got a local deejay gig in Hazlet at WCNJ for a little while. I had gone to Brookdale. I went to Middlesex County College first. My dad wanted me to be an  accountant like him, and after one semester I said, “I can’t do this, this isn’t me.” I wasn’t good at crunching numbers and I wanted to do film, TV and radio. So he told me to go to Brookdale to see if I liked it. He was supportive of  it. I was on their station, 90.5, too. At WCNJ, I did the morning show for like three months. But it wasn’t free-form and I couldn’t play the music I wanted to play. The format was adult contemporary, so it was like Phil Collins’ solo  crap. I had to leave my Iron Maiden records at home. But anyway, when I did the morning show, and I saw Kinison, I knew that’s what I really wanted to do. It took me a while to get the balls to get up on stage.

LIM: Where was your first comedy show?
JF: Fort Lauderdale. I was down in Florida to visit some friends. I had about six months worth of material written down and my friends told me there was a comedy place with an open mic near the hotel I was staying at. I thought that was perfect, because nobody down there knew me. I told my girlfriend at the time about it. I ruined our vacation because for the next three days I was rehearsing my material. I went up that night and I didn’t do well. Some  people say they do well the first time, but if they play it back they’ll see that they didn’t. I said in my act that I was from New Jersey, and there was a comic from there who told me about a place in Woodbridge that had open mic on  Tuesday nights. I went up every Tuesday. That really started me off.

LIM: When did you branch out and play other cities?
JF: It took a while. I was about 25 when it started taking off. My parents were supportive the whole time. I was also cutting lawns and landscaping at certain times. They would tell me I could be doing better. Not that there was  anything wrong with it, but it wasn’t like I had my own business. I was just really in it to get a tan and to make a few bucks.

LIM: So when did your first big break come?
JF: I remember doing a dinner theatre in Sayreville. I was only doing comedy for like four months, and there was a shady promoter told me that Johnny Winter was playing and he’d give me $100 to perform for 15 minutes. I didn’t  even have 15 minutes of material, but I said, “Absolutely.” About 20 of my family and friends came to the show. Now, I didn’t realize the crowd was all bikers. They gave them food before the show, like a bad steak and a baked  potato. I got up there and started telling jokes and they started throwing food at me. They were firing food at me and I kept plowing away. My thing was, I was doing 15 minutes because I wanted to make $100. I wasn’t going to  walk off stage after a few minutes. I said, “F*** you guys, man, I’m going to stay up here.” They were booing, so I just said, “Okay, fine, I didn’t eat, I’m hungry.” I started eating the steak and potato off the stage. They must have  thought, “This guy is nuts,” and they started laughing and cheering. I made it through the 15 minutes, barely, but I remember Johnny Winter saying to me backstage, “Hey, do you want to come on the road with me? We have  comics open all the time, no one has ever lasted 15 minutes. We can’t believe that you were up the full time.” I said, “F*** that, that was a nightmare, man.” Of course I never got paid either, that slimy booker never gave me my  money. But it was great being on stage.

LIM: Your Terrorizing Telemarketers CD helped get you on Howard Stern’s show. What made you think of making a CD like that?
JF: I was doing comedy full-time for about seven years then, barely eking out a living. I was home during the day and I would have a comedy show at night, so when the phone would ring I would try to stay on with these telemarketers as long as I could just to torture them because I had nothing else to do. My buddy Don Jamieson told me I should record them and that I might be on to something. So I did it and just put the CD out thinking it would get my name out. I remember I brought over the first call I recorded to my mom’s, and my grandmother and my nephew were there. My grandmother was like 76-years-old and my nephew was 12 and they were both laughing at it. I knew if I can get a 12-year-old and a 76-year-old to laugh, then I was on to something.

LIM: When was it picked up by Howard Stern?
JF: Don had a connection with the producer there. He said if it was funny they would play it, but I was like “Yeah, whatever. This is going to get thrown right in the garbage.” But the next morning they started playing it.

LIM: And then you became a frequent guest on Stern’s show. What did that feel like, having that platform?
JF: It was amazing. I was a huge fan growing up. I snuck into Club Bene (in South Amboy) to watch a show of his. That’s when I was working my shitty construction jobs. He was a huge inspiration and totally right up my alley with  his sense of humor. I couldn’t believe that I had a chance to go on the show. My dad was a fan, and he was so psyched that I was going on there. But my mother hated it. Back then you weren’t supposed to brag about that kind of humor.

LIM: How did you meet Don Jamieson?
JF: He used to work at MTV as a producer. I was trying to break into New York City. I could play in New Jersey, but New York was where you really wanted to be. I’m doing comedy like three years and I met this comedian Rich  Francese who was on a bunch of comedy shows. I went to a Christmas party with him and he introduced me to Don. We went over to him and he said, “Hey Don, this guy’s a comedian from New Jersey, he likes strippers and he  likes heavy metal.” Jamieson goes, “That’s awesome. What bands do you like? What strip clubs do you like?” We talked for like two hours and he told me they were looking for new people for a comedy show on MTV. He got me  into a comedy place, The Comic Strip (in New York), one place I was trying to get in but just couldn’t crack. He called the owner and got me in to perform there, and next thing you know I was on the show. I got a call later that I  was going to be on the MTV show.
Photo taken by Colin Douglas Gray. Courtesy of That Metal Show
Jim Florentine – stand-up comedian, actor, writer, vocal artist, performer and a co-host of “That Metal Show” along with Eddie Trunk and Don Jamieson.
LIM: What was it like to finally break into New York?
JF: If you were from New Jersey, you never got respect in New York City. They thought you were just some blue-collar, lowlife dirtbag. They didn’t respect you, none of the club owners or city comics. They all wore bad sports  jackets and told David Letterman monologue jokes. I wanted to be a little more personal on stage. I didn’t want to say like, “There was a survey the other day that 89 percent of women fake orgasms.” They would do jokes like  that. And then you get a guy going in there and talking about his life, and they always held that against you. It was nice to break through, because then they had no choice but to put you on stage. But I always liked to be the  underdog. It was the same thing with music, like hard rock and heavy metal, which never got respect. Just do it your own way, and then they have no choice.

LIM: Where does that mentality come from?
JF: Probably from listening to music growing up, from being in school and walking in with an AC/DC shirt on and hearing people say, “Why would you wear that? That band sucks.” You were always the loner if you liked that stuff.

LIM: Did you ever worry that your humor would be too edgy for mainstream?
JF: I always knew it was going to be. If you could get 20 to 25 percent of America to like you, then you’re going to be well off. I’m not going to write stuff that I don’t think is funny. I’d always get advice to do that, but I wanted to talk  about what I wanted to talk about. I just had to find my audience. As soon as you try to appeal to everybody you compromise everything. The people that like you are going to, and the people that don’t, you can’t worry about them.

LIM: Do you consider the Emmy you won for your Inside the NFL segments to be your greatest achievement?
JF: That was good, but no. I’d say going on Howard Stern was because that busted open my career and got me to a whole other level. But the Emmy was great, too. The producer of Inside the NFL was a big Howard Stern fan. I  was putting out DVDs with Don Jamieson, and they would talk about them on the air and he said they really needed someone to mess with some football players. Wanda Sykes, who’s a good friend of mine — she lived in  Woodbridge when she was trying to crack New York City so we used to carpool into the city together – Wanda had a gig on Inside the NFL, but she got so big that she couldn’t do it anymore. They needed someone for her, so I  thanked her for getting so busy. It only lasted a year because I was a little too edgy for them, but it was great working with Dan Marino because I grew up a Dolphins fan.

LIM: When you started co-hosting That Metal Show, did you think it would be as successful as it has been?
JF: No, but I knew there had to be an audience out there for that old-school hard rock and metal from the 80s. By the time we aired one episode, they already picked up the second season. That was 2008, so we’ve been on the air for six years now.

LIM: What do you think makes it resonate with the audience?
JF: Our demographic, like 40-year-old males, is still passionate about that music. They’re married now, they have kids, they’re busy and don’t have time for new music. They want to relive when they used to go to Black Sabbath  and Judas Priest concerts, but they’ve got a bunch of shit going on. When they watch our show, they start reliving their past. If Dokken is putting a new record out, they’re not going to be on The Tonight Show, but they’re our Tom  Cruise, our A-list guests.

LIM: What about your weekly podcast, Comedy’s Metal Midgets. Is it tough to come up with new material on a weekly basis?
JF: It’s tough because I do an hour once a week. I put it out Monday morning and sometimes by Thursday I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m usually by myself, but it’s a lot of pressure. But, there’s nothing better than the freedom of it. I just turn the mic on and record and let it flow. There’s not a lot of money in it, but it’s great when people give me feedback, like saying they were stuck in traffic and I helped them get through their day by listening to  it.

LIM: What do you like to do in your downtime?
JF: I like going to baseball games. Last week I was in Baltimore with my brother for his birthday so we went to a couple Orioles games. Then I was up in Boston and saw the Red Sox. I like taking my son to the beach. There’s  enough time in my schedule to do that.

LIM: Are there any local places you like to go to?
JF: Asbury Park is a neat place. I got married at the Berkeley. My grandparents grew up in Ocean Grove, so we would always spend time down there. I love taking my son Luke to the Asbury beachfront. I also rented a place in  Bradley Beach for three summers in a row. Now I live in Marlboro. I was in Cliffside Park for about 10 years, but when I got married and had a kid, I wanted to move back to the suburbs. It was too crowded up there, and you want  your kid to have a lawn to play on and all that. It’s good to be back here.

LIM: There was a letter you’d written for where you detailed the story several years ago about your girlfriend who committed suicide, and how that impacted your life because it led to you meeting your wife. How did  that tragedy affect you?
JF: It definitely changed me. After recovering from something like that, because it’s unexplainable, a death like that, with someone who was that close, I knew I really needed to get my shit together and settle down and have a  normal life. My biggest fear was always, if I get married, how am I going to have a career because then I’m going to have to be at soccer games and PTA meetings and do homework with my kid, and I can’t write any jokes. But  you get more work done once you’re focused on that and get your life straight. It was a rough time for me, but it changed me. I was always that guy who said, “I never want to have kids. I never want to get married. What would I  want to do that for? That sucks.” Now that I have it, it’s awesome.

LIM:  How often have you performed at the Count Basie?
JF: I’ve done it four times total. I’m filming a comedy special in September, and I was thinking about this place, but it’s just too big. I can’t sell that many tickets. Plus, with a comedy special you have to do two shows in one night  in case you mess up or there’s a heckle, so they can just cut into the show. So I’d have to sell 3,000 tickets, and that ain’t happening.

LIM: Has comedy been a kind of outlet for you?
JF: Yes, definitely. It’s a place to vent. There’s nothing better than something pissing you off during the day and then going up on stage and talking about it and relating it to people. You’re your own boss. I make all the decisions  up there. There’s nothing better than that because I’m not good at listening to people. I never have been. My job, I can go on stage drunk wearing an AC/DC shirt as long as I can deliver and make people laugh and have a good  time. That’s a nice way to go to work if I have to.

LIM: Are you working on any projects?
JF: Yes, my first real comedy special. It’ll be out sometime before Christmas.

LIM: Will it be on any of the cable networks?
JF: Probably. We’re negotiating now. Possibly HBO, maybe Comedy Central, Showtime, maybe right to Netflix. We’re still working out the deal.

LIM: How long will you stay in the industry?
JF: You never know. I think about it, do I really want to be 60 years old and in Columbus, Ohio doing a show for four or five days? But maybe I’ll still do it. You always think you might run out of material, but there’s always so much  out there. Look at Joan Rivers, the way she kept going. Comics always worry about it drying up, but it won’t. I still love it. I perform now more than I ever have. I’ll probably keep going until there’s no audience left.

Favorite Restaurant: Porta in Asbury Park
Favorite Movie: Casino
Favorite Band: Black Sabbath
Pet Peeve: Fantasy football players
Three People You Would Like to Dine With: Bon Scott (late AC/DC lead singer); former president John F. Kennedy; Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins)

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01 Jun 2015

By Paul Williams