Anger, be it legitimate or amped up for performance, has been the onstage fuel for comedians as varied as Sam Kinison, Lewis Black, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. It’s not that they couldn’t be funny without the rage; it’s that fury is such a component of who they are/were as entertainers, one imagines a void would be left if any of them popped a Xanax and actually enjoyed life.
That thought goes double for one Pasquale Caputo, the Brooklyn-born son of an Italian bricklayer and the opinionated, bellowing, in-your-face funnyman who would grow up to become comedian Pat Cooper. Though he turns 82 in July, Cooper still performs—at full gusto and volume—and has just written (with Rich Herschlag and Steve Garrin) his autobiography How Dare You Say How Dare Me!
Asked about his inimitable comic delivery, Cooper said, “Style is everything. There’s a thing called a comedic rhythm and I don’t see that today. Milton Berle had it, Henny Youngman had it. Jackie Leonard had it. Don Rickles has it. You don’t see that no more. For some reason, I see a lot of comics who are content to stand up and do their half hour and just go home. Years ago, if I didn’t get a laugh in two seconds, I was ready to quit show business!”
“But is that all a put-on?” I asked Cooper. “Do you have these kinds of tirades in real life?”
“I am a walking tirade! I have such energy that people don’t know if I’m a sick human being or if I’m over-healthy. My parents didn’t know where I came from because no one in the DNA of my family has my energy! And there was no talent in my parents or my sisters. If I was a Jewish kid, people would have said, ‘Another Milton Berle!’ But Italian families were not known for comedy. If you sang off-key, your father said you were another Caruso. But when I came out with my hit album, they thought I was making fun of the Italians. Ridiculous! I was trying to let ‘em know that Italians have a sense of humor. Which was unheard of!
“Being an Italian in my era,” continued Cooper, “meant Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you went to work. Saturday you went shopping. Sunday you ate macaroni, and Monday you went back to work again. And my father would always say, ‘Don’t get too cocky, ‘cause one day you’re gonna die.’ My father, the cement was hard when he was born. When he said something he didn’t back off. He would say to me, ‘Why don’t you die so we can take the land that you’re standing on and give it to somebody who wants to go to work?’ How does that grab you? And my mother hit me. My mother was the hitter; my father, just by staring at you, you would melt. That was not called violence in those days; that was called ‘raising your family.’”
Recalled Cooper, “The teachers used to hit me in school! You know what my father would say? My father would say, ‘Why didn’t you kill him? This teacher is trying to make a stupid man like you intelligent. You respect her! If you don’t respect her, I’ll hit you!’”