From performing standup at a carnival in Iselin where no seating was offered and patrons walked by without hearing his punchlines, to playing a large and attentive crowd at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, Parsippany native Joe Conte has seemingly done it all in a comedy career that has spanned nearly 20 years.
Conte is also the longtime co-host of the Bob Levy Show and Conte and Kenny Show podcasts, which he says gives him the dubious distinction of “owning the world’s record for doing radio the longest period of time without making any money.”
We caught up with the comic recently and, in his usual candid and self-deprecating manner, he discussed the loss of fellow comedian and close friend Otto Peterson (of Otto & George fame), the childhood experiences that shaped him, the serendipitous evening that started his career, and the respect he’s continually searching for.
Here is his story, in his own words:
Did I get a lot of attention as a kid? Yeah, sure. At least 50 percent of it was negative.
My sister was the only girl, and my brother was the baby, so I was the one who caught all the shit from my crazy Italian parents. That’s probably why I go on stage and seek accolades from complete strangers.
My brother exudes an amount of confidence that I’ve never had. Part of this might be the luck of the draw. Part of it might be because my relatives would say, “Joseph is a good boy, he just needs to lose some weight.” … when I was 7.
In the genetic lottery, I had one number. My brother had the Pick 4 boxed.
If you speak Italian slowly for me, I could probably understand it. Just like English.
When my parents were arguing a lot, I tried to be a diversion by lightening things up. They divorced when I was 14, but it wasn’t the overwhelmingly sad thing that most kids experience. I was happy that I didn’t have to hear them fight anymore.
I don’t remember being a funny kid at all. In high school, there were people known to be funny, and I wasn’t one of them. I first realized that I could make people laugh when I got into my 20s. Sarcasm had entered the equation.
I got messed with a couple of times growing up, usually for being overweight. Some comments. Some jokes. I remember one of the guys from the football team continually hitting me with spit balls. But bullied? No.
I never felt that I fully belonged anywhere, so I’ve always behaved myself. I’ve never been the type to make waves. I’m well liked, but I think a lot of it probably has to do with the fact that I’m well behaved.
I’ve always been extremely nervous around women.
When I was around 10 years old, I not only used to practice making out in the bathtub, I would actually make out with the bathtub. I’d put my mouth in that opening and move it all around, pretending that I was kissing a girl. Don’t act like you never tried that.
For the first 30 or so years of my life, my love life pretty much consisted of me liking a girl, and her wanting nothing to do with me.
I appreciate you trying to convince me that I’m not a fuck-up, but I once lost my car in a poker game.
At times, gambling filled a void in my life. I needed a relationship, and for a long while, that was it.
I’ve always been horrible with money. My father used to say, “Ma Joseph, if he a hada 10 dollars in his pocket, he woulda spend ‘em 11.”
First, I wanted to be a tap dancer. Then I wanted to be magician. Then I wanted to be a weatherman. I never wanted to be a fireman or a cop or anything like that when I was a kid. I wanted to entertain people. I wanted to say, “Hey, take a look at me.”
I was a best man at a wedding, and gave my speech in front of 150 people. There were a few heartfelt moments, and it got laughs. It felt great! I left there thinking, “Wow, I can do this.” Later that same night, I saw a friend of mine at a party. He told me that he had been doing standup for a few weeks, and thought I should try it. Incredible, right? A perfect storm.
We went to an open mic at a comedy club a few weeks later, and put our names on the sign-up sheet, with his name first. I was extremely nervous, but knew that I had some time to prepare while my friend did his set. Suddenly the host says, “And for our next comic, please give it up for… Joe Conte!” My friend tells me today that I was white as a ghost. I was scared to death. I had no idea how I was going to get through it. I basically crawled up there and was looking for some way to calm down. Luckily, I saw an old classmate of mine sitting in the front row, who always thought I was hilarious. I focused on her and nobody else, did 5 minutes, and got a few laughs. It was amazing. As soon as the guys dropped me back home, I called my sister. It was 1 a.m., but I had to tell somebody. “Nancy, I did standup tonight! It was great!” When I hung up, a tear came out of my eye. It changed everything.
That was 18 years ago.
I don’t get too many hecklers because I’m loud and passionate and fast-paced up there, and I don’t leave enough time for doubt to creep in among the audience. The other reason is because I look like a guy who would beat the living shit out of someone who heckled me.
Once, a woman was so disruptive during one of my gigs that I told the guy who was with her, “Listen, she’s annoying. She won’t shut up, and we all hate her. You have to do something about her.” It turns out that he was her fiancé. At the end of the show, he listened to me — he took her ring back, and drove off.
Worst gig ever? We could be here all day.
I did a show way out in the Pennsylvania sticks, at a VFW hall. We were supposed to perform in the function room, where there was a stage set up. While walking through the bar to the room, we saw a total of six people, all of them miserable-looking guys. They looked like they never left the bar, never mind the town. But no worries — we were in the other room, with all the people who wanted to see comedy. The only problem was, no one wanted to see comedy. Not a single person showed up. The other comic and I were ready to head home when the booker says, “Hey, why don’t we just do it at the bar?” Playing any bar is tough, because no one pays attention to you. But this one? Next thing you know, I find myself standing behind the bar with a microphone, right next to the bartender, telling jokes to those six winners. Meanwhile, the bartender is walking in front of me mid-joke every time he needs to grab a Heineken. Then, a few of the guys start heckling me like hillbilly versions of the old men from “The Muppet Show.” It was a disaster. I plowed through it, so I could get out of there. Afterwards, one guy from the audience came up to me and introduced himself as Squirrel. No last name. Just Squirrel. He looked at me and said, “I’m gonna tell you somethin’ right now. You’re funny.”
Great gigs make terrible stories. Bad gigs give you stories that last forever.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a few goals and I’d love to make a lot of money doing this. But above all, I would like to have the respect of my peers. I’m liked by other comics, but they like me. I want them to like my comedy. I’d rather they not care for me as a person, but say, “Conte, man … that guy’s a good fuckin’ comic.”
I met my wife at a poker game, but she was dating a friend of mine at the time. That wasn’t the first time I saw her, though. The first time I spotted her, she was wearing a long coat and heels and I noticed her long beautiful hair. I thought she was very hot. And tall. Way too tall for her date. Oh, and I could tell that under that coat, she had big tits.
I saw her again at a show I was on, and her friend, a fellow comic, told me that Beverly thought I was cute. Things went from there.
She keeps me grounded, but with a foot in my ass. She has no problem telling me that I’m average at something, but at the same time will tell me that I can be great at something. Beverly makes me feel like I matter. I need that.
If someone would have told my 20-year-old self, “By the time you’re in your late 40s, you’ll be getting paid to do standup, have a pensioned job that allows you time to do podcasts and radio, and be married to a cool wife,” I would have thought that was great. And it is.
Otto Peterson? A borderline autistic genius. A brilliant comic. The thing about Otto was, he wasn’t just loved by people — he was respected by his peers. It didn’t matter how screwed up his life was at any moment, other comics always respected him as a funny guy who brought it every night. That’s the kind of respect that you want as a comic. That’s the kind of respect that I want.
Otto respected me, and was a great pal to me. I miss him.
Regrets? One. That I didn’t try standup earlier.
I had a blockage in one of the arteries in my heart. They had me carrying nitroglycerin pills around in case my chest suddenly tightened. Yeah, I was scared. My doctor recently complimented me on losing 7 pounds in 2 weeks. You want to know the secret to my diet? Fearing that I might die at any given moment.
I never look as heavy as I actually am, and that’s part of the problem. If I looked different, maybe my friends would have thrown a few more fat jokes at me, and I would have cut this thing off at the pass.
Will I be doing comedy at 50? Of course, I’m 48.
Will I be doing this at 55? I hope so.
Sixty? I think you’re probably pushing it.
I go 2 weeks without being on stage and I get depressed. When I married Beverly I feared that I might not care about comedy as much, but I like it even more now.
I’ve been working on a lot of new jokes lately. Trying different things. You have to hear some of this stuff.
I suppose age doesn’t really matter, because I’m doing a Project Graduation gig next week, and I have my stepson’s friends in tears when they come over.
Okay, you win. I’ll probably be doing this when I’m 60.
Conte performs at the Comedy Shoppe in Pompton Plains, July 29 at 8 p.m.; visit jjcomedy.com.
This article originally appeared on Robert Ferraro’s web site, Of Personal Interest.