A Considerable Town

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

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Thu, Jan 12, 2012 at 9:00 AM
click to enlarge 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
  • Nanette Gonzales
  • The 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."

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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