Meatballs of Comedy, the East Coast Comedy Crew, Rallies for a Terminally Ill Friend
Nanette GonzalesThe Meatballs of Comedy -- Tommy Tallstand, left, Joey Sorice and Brandon Ficara in front of Ciao Cristina, home of their regular Saturday night gig
Joey Sorice -- pronounced sore-eess -- greets people just inside the
showroom door at the snazzy Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank. "That guy
right there," he says, pointing to Vince Secere, a handsome yet
comically visaged character expert and martial arts expert, "was in Analyze This. He was the guy that was thrown out the window."
is 5 feet, 5 inches but larger in overall effect, with a fireplug
physique and strong, squared-off features under his brushed-back mass of
dark hair. He's been a comedian and show producer in L.A. for 10 years.
While he grew up partly in the Valley, the northern New Jersey of his
earlier upbringing defines his persona.
Sorice's "The Meatballs of
Comedy" brand is all about humor, but tonight's show has a serious
side: It's a fundraiser for Sorice's longtime friend and current
roommate, "Fat" James Price, a well-liked actor and Comedy Store
regular. Price recently was diagnosed with sarcoma of the leg, and it
already has spread to his lung. He does not have much time left.
is no secret that tragedy and comedy are often intertwined. And comedy
is an unstoppable force: The show must go on. Price lives that as much
as anybody. Seated at a booth in a 1950s bowling-style shirt, seeming
remarkably healthy and high-spirited in spite of his condition, he takes
in the proceedings with glee.
Marie Del Prete, a pretty,
no-nonsense brunette, takes the stage. She lasers into a guy in the
front row: "Shut up! What, are you talking during my set? I know you!"
She's got the streetwise, outer-boroughs attitude to rock this shtick,
and is met with eruptions of laughter.
Sorice's core crew of
Meatballs -- him, Tommy Tallarino, Brandon Ficara and Vinnie Coppola --
regularly performs a thematic stand-up show at various venues, augmented
by live and recorded music, festive backdrops, good food whenever
possible and the kind of flamboyant, wisecracking Italian-American style
seen in Goodfellas, My Cousin Vinny and Saturday Night Fever. Other comedians and actors are brought in as needed.
a city simultaneously known for easygoing cultural assimilation and
authentic ethnic/cultural bubbles, these guys revel in their style,
which is both recognizably American and intensely tribal. There is a
sense of camaraderie, the "I've got your back" associated with older
neighborhoods back East.
"Can I say this? Joey's loyal," Price
declares. A few weeks after the fundraiser, he's at Sorice's comfortable
Sherman Oaks townhouse, where he's been living. Normally jolly and
buoyant, the 42-year-old clearly is exhausted from his sickness and the
"See where I'm at?" Price asks, referring
to the surroundings and the top-notch medical care he's received,
despite being uninsured. "It's because of him. If I didn't have him and
Mel and Gary, I'd be out on my ass." Melody Whitney and Gary Garver, the
Meatballs' office assistant and an old friend, respectively, have
shuttled Price to hospitals, reached out to his circle of friends and,
along with Del Prete, organized the Flappers show.
mid-December, Price is far too sick to attend the Meatballs' regular
Saturday night gig at the Burbank bar/pizzeria Ciao Cristina. It's still
a high-spirited, festive affair, and Sorice hits the "stage" area with a
presence honed by thousands of gigs in the last decade.
"Bada bing! Fuhgeddaboutit!" he spits out. Then a pause. "What, nothing for that?"
that, the polished jokes start coming: "I don't like Jehovah's
Witnesses coming to my door. Because I'm Italian and I don't like any
witnesses." "If you've ever gone fishing and caught a member of your
family, that's Italian. If your house, car and Social Security number
are in someone else's name ... that's Armenian." Each zinger sets off a
roar of laughs in the cozy, packed restaurant.
spreads through the room that Henry Hill, the half-Italian, half-Irish
New York mob associate immortalized by Ray Liotta's portrayal in Goodfellas,
is sitting front and center. Each comedian is forced to look at -- or
self-consciously not look at -- a wizened ex-member of a notorious Mafia
crew whose dark eyes burn with a Charles Manson ferocity.
ago the organized crime informant was thought to be a shoo-in for
immediate assassination if recognized in public. But now he's apparently
a low enough priority hit to take in some good Italian food and a
comedy show, causing only minimal risk to the lives of some hardworking
comedians. Anyway, the Meatballs aren't afraid. What's a stray bullet
compared to the fear of the crowd eating you alive?
Joey Gaynor -- a
member of the extended Meatballs crew -- takes the mic. A burly,
Falstaffian chap who came up with Sam Kinison, Gaynor ain't afraid of
nobody. "I grew up in northern New Jersey, in a black and Italian
neighborhood," he barks. "It was called a spaghetto." Gaynor's slamming.
Hill yells out, "Fuck you! We don't like you!" By the time Gaynor picks
up a guitar and promises to do a Sinatra song, only to crank out a
spastically rhythmic, hilarious version of "These Boots Were Made for
Walking," Hill loses it, putting his head down on the table, hysterical.
is the only "killing" happening tonight and, as trite and overused as
this phrase may be, Fat James Price would have loved every minute of it.
Dec. 22, Price passed away. When, a few days later, friends gathered to
spread some of his ashes under a tree near the Hollywood Sign, "The
Italian-American community came out in full force," Sorice says. That
includes Ciao Cristina's owners, who, thanks to all those Meatballs
gigs, have become like adoptive parents. This may be a city of
transplants, but these guys have each other's backs.
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