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Meatballs of Comedy, the East Coast Comedy Crew, Rallies for a Terminally Ill Friend

The Meatballs of Comedy -- Tommy Tallstand, left, Joey Sorice and Brandon Ficara in front of Ciao Cristina, home of their regular Saturday night gig
The Meatballs of Comedy -- Tommy Tallstand, left, Joey Sorice and Brandon Ficara in front of Ciao Cristina, home of their regular Saturday night gig
Nanette Gonzales

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."

Sorice

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.

It

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.

In

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

associated treatments.

"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.

By

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?"

After

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.

Realization soon

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.

Years

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.

This

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.

On

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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