A Veteran Comedian of Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Howard Stern talks... and talks and talks...
" 'I'm not gonna be like Bob Hope. Ninety-something. They put him in one of those K-Mart commercials. Guy couldn't say da-da.' "
I am ten minutes early for my lunch with comedian Pat Cooper. But Cooper is even earlier. As I pass by Sammi's, a popular, downscale Chinese restaurant on Sixth Avenue and 11th street, I spot him through the window, seated comfortably alone at a table, facing out toward the street. But once inside, when I approach him from behind and introduce myself, I see he is not really alone. But then again, as I soon find out, Pat Cooper is never alone. An audience is only a joke, a wisecrack, an insult away.
Our lunch has been arranged by a mutual friend who's known Pat for years. "I'm doing you a big favor," she tells me. "Pat's perfect for a book, and you could write it with him. You're going to owe me..."
Although I've never met him before, I know who Pat Cooper is. As a kid, I watched him perform on Ed Sullivan with other comedians like Bob Newhart, Jack Carter and Jackie Mason. As an adult, I've watched him on Carson, Griffin, Letterman and Leno. He was always funny, outrageous, on the edge, and for some reason he always seemed angry about something or, more precisely, angry at someone. Now, at age 70, his career has undergone something of a resurrection -- or at least taken a different turn in the road -- after appearing with Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal in "Analyze This," and being discovered by a brand new audience with his numerous appearances on Howard Stern's radio and TV shows, as well as Don Imus' radio show. And now, after being in show business for over fifty years, Cooper is busier than ever, working 40 weeks a year, appearing in Vegas, where he lives most of the time, Atlantic City, Florida, and anywhere else they'll have him. The man lives to work.
"WhattamIgonnado, retire?" he says, his voice rising, the words spilling out of his mouth as if they're stuck together with Crazy Glue." "Then what? I love what I do. But when I don't have it anymore, I'm finished. Goodbye. I'm not gonna be like Bob Hope. Ninety-something. They put him in one of those K-Mart commercials. Guy couldn't say da-da. He's worth half a billion dollars if he's worth a quarter. He had to do that? Bobby, it's over! I loved Henny Yougman. I loved him. He was working in a wheelchair. I said, ╬Henny, how the fuck can you do this?' I shocked him. He says, ╬I'm a sick man, you shouldn't say that.' If he's a sick man, what was he doing on stage, reading cards at 90 years old? You're telling me that's not a disgrace to my fucking business?"
But Pat Cooper is not Bob Hope and he's not Henny Youngman. He can stand up on his own and he does, as often as he can. In fact, tonight he tells me he's headlining a fundraiser for a friend, a New Jersey politician who needs dough to run for Congress. "He's a lawyer, a singing lawyer, who has stage fright," Cooper tells me. "I told him, ╬Whaddya do in front of a jury? You got stage fright there?' He says, "No. I'm fine in the courtroom.' So I tell him, 'Then just make believe you're singing in front of a jury.' I don't know why the fuck he wants to be in politics, but he's a friend, so I'm there."
Pat Cooper's latest audience is smaller than he's used to; but what the hey, a laugh's a laugh, isn't it? Seated at the table next to his are six young guys, late twenties, early thirties, their sleeves rolled up, their sport jackets hung on the backs of their chairs which have now been angled to face Cooper, who is holding court as if Sammi's has magically been transformed into an impromptu dinner theater. And make no mistake about it, Cooper has got them in the palm of his hand and he's working the noontime crowd as if he's getting paid for it. I can't quite make out what he's saying, but he has these Gen Xers in stitches and I hesitate to break up their party. As I wait for a break in the action -- which I soon realize may never come -- I feel like an intruder. But I feel odd just standing there, as if I'm a waiter at the Carnegie Deli waiting patiently while a customer decides on pastrami or corned beef, so I introduce myself. Cooper, without missing a beat, looks up, holds out his hand so I can shake it, and announces, "Boys, here's my date."
"You're better looking than I thought you'd be," cracks one of the young men, but Cooper doesn't hear him. He's the main attraction and he's not about to hand over the stage to some amateur pipsqueak trying to crack wise.
"What's your name?" he asks me.
"Charles," I say.
"You don't look like a Charles. You look like an Anthony. Maybe you should change it."
I sit down and before I can say a word, Cooper launches into a non-stop monologue, peppered with profanity and profundity.
"Rat-a-tat-tat. Words are his ammo..."
For the next hour or so, he doesn't shut up. Rat-a-tat-tat. Words are ammo, his mouth an assault weapon and it seems as if he never has to stop and reload. Numerous times during the next hour various diners glance over and recognize him, some lean in to tell him how much they love him. From their ages, I surmise it's more likely they know him from Howard Stern than from Ed Sullivan. The stories that come out of his mouth, about his tough childhood, his family, how he got into the business, working with and knowing Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Steve and Edie, and other comedians who are his contemporaries, like Shecky Green, Buddy Hackett and Soupy Sales, are hilarious, and no one, not even Howard Stern, is immune to his acerbic wit.
"I told Howard, 'Howard, your wife's going to leave you.' 'Why?' he asks. 'Because you're cheating on her.' 'I don't cheat on her!' he says. 'Sure you do.' I say. 'You talk about this ones tits and how you're gonna bang that one. How do you think your wife feels about that? That's cheating, my friend. You're cheating on her and she's not going to stand for it.' 'You're crazy,' he says. And look at what happened..."
Somehow, no matter what the subject, the conversation always gets back to those who have done Pat wrong, or the phonies he's worked with. And inevitably, Pat Cooper cuts them down to size.
"I worked with Tony Bennett. He'd always say, 'Frank Sinatra says I'm the best. Frank says I'm the best' I said to him one day, 'Tony, my friend, I hate to tell you, but Sinatra never said that. I worked with Frank. I asked him. I said, 'Frank, did you ever say that Tony Bennett was the best singer?" He told me he never said that. Come on, would Sinatra ever say another Italian was the best at anything? Italians don't do that, my friend. We don't help each other. We're not like the Jews. The Jews help their own. Not the Italians."
Cooper, even while seated, is in perpetual motion. I've never seen a man with so much energy. In the middle of telling a story, he will often stand to act out a scene, and he often punctuates his tales with wild gesticulations. At one point, he swings his arm out wide and knocks over a glass of water. Quickly, he apologizes and starts to wipe up the mess. A waitress notices the mishap and quickly appears with a bunch of napkins. "Look what he did," he says, pointing at me. I smile sheepishly, as Cooper grabs a couple of napkins all the while aiming a steady stream of words at the waitress. "You're a sweetheart," he says. "That's why I eat here all the time...My friend here, he's very clumsy..." It's no wonder I feel guilty, even though I had nothing to do with the water spill. Once the waitress leaves, Cooper quickly gets back on track.
Although Cooper is 70, you'd swear he was no more than late fifties, early sixties tops, and it's probably because he hasn't given the aging process time to catch up to him. He's too busy talking, telling anyone who will listen "the truth."
"I don't give a fuck," he says. "I'm not going to sit here and lie about people. I went on Tom Snyder and I told the truth. 'Pat, you can't do that,' they said. But I did. I told everybody that Lola Falana was a cheap bastard. That Jerry Vale stole from me. That Steve and Edie didn't pay me. They're all cheap bastards. What the fuck do I care?"
Cooper has worked as a comic for over 50 years, ever since the days he was Pasquale Caputo of Brooklyn. "I came out of the womb funny." He was born in Brooklyn. His father was a bricklayer and to hear him tell it, his mother was the meanest s.o.b. in the free world. "She'd whack us around but good. She'd sit there in her rocking chair and no matter where I was in the room she'd reach out and smack me in mid-rock. She could reach me from any angle, that's how good she was. Italians, they say, ╬Your mother hits you because she loves you.' The more she hits you, the more she loves you. I'm 14 years old, she puts my hand over the burner on the stove. I go outside. A neighbor sees me. She asks, ╬What's wrong?' I tell her what my mother did. She says, 'Your mother puts your hand over the burner because she loves you.' I say, 'Yeah, then why don't you go inside and let her hold your hand over the burner to show you how much she loves you.' I guess your mother runs you over with a car, she really loves you."
"Once she threw a plate at my father. He says, 'I gotta go out to the store, I'll be back in a few minutes. He goes to Italy. Eight months later he comes back and says, 'You got any more dishes to throw?' Another time, she decides to buy a building without telling him. He finds out. He says, ╬Now you can fuck the building.' He walks out, checks into the St. George Hotel, and that's where he lives for the next 36 years.
"I'd run away and they'd never even send anyone after me. I'd come back two weeks later and I'd put forty bucks on the table and they'd say, ╬Where've you been? We missed you.'"
Cooper changed his name as soon as he began to perform publicly. "My father hated that I changed my name. I betrayed him. I betrayed my heritage. But people still know me by that name. On the way over here, a truck driver sticks his head out the window and yells, 'Pasquale Caputo!' like it's some kind of poetry." Pat Cooper, or Pasquale Caputo is one of the people. He speaks for them. And if he's angry, it's because he is carrying the angst and pain and the day to day humiliation for all of us.
Cooper has three sisters, but he doesn't speak to any of them. One, he hasn't spoken to in 20 years. One night, he's in Morton's, having dinner and a woman comes up to him and says hello. "Who are you?" he asks. "I'm your sister," she says, "don't you recognize me?'
"Get the fuck outta here," he says. "My father dies," he explains, "and she puts the announcement in the paper saying he left three daughters. Doesn't mention me at all. I don't exist in the family? I don't exist, they don't exist. I don't got three sisters."
Cooper makes no apology for his forthrightness. "That's who I am. That's who I'm gonna be. If you're born a dog, you don't die a cat."
Though he was funny all his life -- his humor obviously a way to deal with the pain of his childhood -- his first professional gig didn't come until he was 15. "My sister was a singer. She entered a contest at the Fox Theater in Brooklyn. She was going to sing 'Ave Maria.' I went along with her. She comes up to me before she goes on and says, 'They've got an open spot. Why don't you go on and do that thing you do with your mouth, making noises to go along with music.' First prize was twenty-five dollars. Second prize was a watch. I won the twenty-five bucks. My sister wanted to dig my grave. She sings this religious song and I win the dough for making noises with my mouth. After that, I had to sleep with one eye open in case she came at me with a knife one night."
Cooper found his calling and nothing would deter him, certainly not having a formal education. "I only had one week of high school, and I was absent that week," he cracks. He began working small clubs in Brooklyn and, when he was lucky, in Manhattan. But at the same time, he was working as a bricklayer, just like his father.
One night, he was working a place called The Living Room, in Manhattan, and a manager by the name of Willie Weber happened to be in the audience. "Usually, there were two shows a night and I just went up there and did twenty minutes on anything that came to mind, and then did the same thing again. But at The Living Room there were three shows a night and I had to change my routine for the second show, so I came up with this routine called 'The Italian Wedding.' It killed."
After the show, Weber approached the kid and said, "I think you've got talent, and if you let me help you by shaping your act, I think you can go places."
Cooper thought, why the hell not, and so, with Weber's help, he shaped the act and one day he called Cooper and told him he'd been booked for the Jackie Gleason Show. "I didn't believe it," says Cooper. And he really didn't believe it when he was waiting to go on and the Great Man himself passed by.
"I was standing there, my back against the wall, and Gleason passes by. I was scared to death. He stops, looks at me and says -- and remember, this is before he'd ever heard my act, 'Kid, you're the greatest. You know how I know that? Because I'm the greatest, and if you're on my show, then you must be great, too.' And then he just kept walking."
The show was taped for the following Sunday and Monday morning Cooper, who was back on his day job laying bricks, received a call from Weber. "Kid, the Copa wants to book you."
Cooper couldn't believe it. He was so shocked, so unbelieving, that he refused to quit his job as a bricklayer. "I had a family to support. Who knew how long this was going to last," he says. But there was a slight hitch. The Living Room, now with a hot commodity on their hands, didn't want to let him out of his contract. Weber said, "No problem. We'll buy your way out." "So," says Cooper, we paid them a hundred bucks a week so I could appear at the Copa."
And that's how Pat Cooper got to rub shoulders with all those people he now tells the truth about. At least it's the truth as he sees it.
" '...you think I'm gonna open for a fuckin' dead guy, you're crazy.' "
Bam. Bam. Bam. No one is safe from his biting tongue, nothing is sacred, not even the long departed. "I worked as an opening act for the singer, Sergio Franchi. We used to appear together all the time. Franchi dies. His wife misses him terribly. She comes to me and says, ╬Pat, how'd you like to open for Sergio?'"
"Sweetheart," I say, "I hate to tell you this, but Sergio's dead."
She says, "Yeah, but you go on, you do your act, then I bring out film of Sergio..."
"Sweetheart," I say, "you think I'm gonna open for a fuckin' dead guy, you're crazy."
Although Cooper has been in the public eye for thirty, forty years, he's never quite made it to the rung of a Hope, a Berle, or a George Burns. "I'm not a star, my friend," he says proudly. "But I don't fuckin' wanna be a star. I don't wanna work that hard. Listen, in a horse race does that horse care if he comes in first? Hell, no! You come in last, they still feed you, they still put a roof over your head, they still bathe you. Same thing with me."
"Money means nothing to me. I make it, I spend it. I'm having lunch with you, dinner with you, I pay. If I don't have the money, I borrow it and pay, and you'd never know I didn't have it. DiMaggio, he was a cheap bastard. Never picked up a check in his life. He'd say, "Pat, I wanna sign some balls for you.' I'd say, 'Joe, I don't want any balls. What am I gonna do with a bunch of fuckin' balls? He says, "I'll sign 'em, To Pat: Best Wishes, Joe DiMaggio.' I say, just sign ╬em, Joe DiMaggio, forget the Pat.' He says, 'Then you'll just go out and sell them.' Cheap bastard."
"I said to him, 'How come you didn't get one more hit in that 56 game streak? You woulda made a million bucks. Fifty-seven straight games. You woulda been all over those Heinz ketchup bottles, the relish, everything.' I'd tell him this every time I saw him. I used to make him crazy."
Money is one of Cooper's favorite topics -- although on second thought everything is one of his favorite topics, because one thing Pat Cooper does not lack for is opinions. "One time I got this check and a manager I had signs my name on it. Steals the fuckin' money. That's fraud. I press charges on him. One day I go into this fancy restaurant on Park Avenue and a friend of my father's" -- Cooper presses one finger to his nose, a finger on the other hand to his ear, bending both of them out of shape, leaving little doubt that this guy was "connected" -- "is there with this deadbeat. A big fella, he goes over to this guy and says, 'You owe Pat money, you pay him. You don't pay him, I'm gonna take care of you," and he punches him in the face. The guy goes down. There's blood all over. I look around. I don't want any trouble. I say, "Listen, it's okay..." The fella says, "You drop the charges, Pat. This guy'll pay or else he'll get more of this..." badda-bing!, he hits him again. I'm afraid he's going to kill him, so I say, "Yeah, I'll drop the charges. Don't worry about it." So, I drop the charges. But it was all a set-up. The guy was willing to take a couple punches if I'd drop the charges. I never saw a fuckin' dime."
Cooper doesn't hang out with other comics, primarily because he finds them depressing, insecure. But he is a student of comedy. "You gotta have a gimmick. I told this one guy, 'Tell people you're the worst comic in the world' -- and he was, believe me, he was -- 'then you play a college and they come to see you and they walk out and they say, 'Yeah, he is the worst comic in the world.' Then word gets around and you're a hit. Everyone wants to see the worst fuckin' comic in the world."
What Cooper does have is a wife, whom he's been married to for 36 years and who lives in Las Vegas with him, when he's not on the road -- which is about 40 weeks a year -- two kids and several grandchildren, whom he adores.
"So, Pat," I say, finally able to crowbar in a few words while he digs into his chicken dish, "about the idea of doing a book, what do you think?"
"I think, my friend, the time is right. And you know, I'd get out there and sell it like crazy. Let me tell you a story, my friend. I had a record come out with my routines on it, including 'The Italian Wedding.' It came out and it just sat there. The fuckin' record company wasn't doing a thing. So, I picked up some Massachusetts phone book and I copied down a whole bunch of addresses and I sent out a mailing, telling them all about my record. The record started selling like crazy. I went there and they gave me a fuckin' parade. Can you believe it! A fuckin' parade. And that's what I'd do to sell this book."
At the end of the meal -- a meal he insists on paying for -- Cooper says, almost apologetically, "Look, I entertained you for an hour, right? Nothing comes of this, at least you had a good time."
And he's right. After all, that's what Pat Cooper has been doing for over fifty years -- making sure people go away feeling they got their money's worth.
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