At comedy buffet, 500 helpings of Broadway
By KELLEY BENHAM
Published June 29, 2006
John Pinette launched a comedy career at the all-you-can-eat buffet, by joking about his own weight. The oversized comic became known for a bit where he is tossed out of an Asian restaurant: "You go now! You been here four owa!"
Nearly everyone has seen him at least once: He played the carjacking victim on the finale of Seinfeld. The guy no one would help.
He shed about 150 of his 450 pounds after weight-reduction surgery several years ago, but he's still known for being the big guy. "A large mammal," he likes to say.
He recently finished a two-year run on Broadway and on the road as Edna Turnblad, the flamboyant stage mama in Hairspray.
Before Edna, the only theater he'd done was as a sophomore in high school. About the only singing he'd done were some songs about buffets as part of his comedy routine. For the role of Edna, he learned to sing, dance and do 45 minutes on an elliptical machine.
Now he's back in the comedy clubs, his habitat for the past 20 years. He's in Ybor tonight through Sunday at the Tampa Improv. We talked to him about how his act has evolved with his life.
You just finished performing on a cruise to the Caymans. How was that?
It was an inaugural voyage. They had a Titanic lecture on board. Since we were in the Caribbean and there were no icebergs, it went well.
They had an acupuncturist on board. She said, "We can do it for weight loss." But she would have to load the needles into a blow gun and shoot them into me at the buffet.
Did you partake of the buffet?
Oh, it was ugly. I was with my sister and my brother-in-law. We're all larger mammals. It was like March of the Penguins.
Sounds like the weight struggle is ongoing. Is that still a big part of your stand-up routine?
I lost over 100 pounds. The rest is up to me. I do talk about being a big guy. I just try to bring my life to the stage. I don't do "I'm so fat that . . ." jokes.
I just finished nine months on Broadway, there's a huge segment on that.
Tampa will be my fourth week back in the clubs. I feel like I'm revved up. In Hairspray I played a woman. There's a lot of material there, and believe me, I use it.
What was it like playing a big woman on Broadway?
I never thought I'd have to wear a fat suit. They told me and I said, "I don't think I'll need that."
And you know, you have to shave your eyebrows. And when you shave your eyebrows people don't know what's wrong but they're pretty sure something's not right, and maybe we should take the next elevator, honey.
It's just like De Niro gained weight for Raging Bull, I shaved my eyebrows for Hairspray. I looked like a young cherubic Uncle Fester. I hear they grow back really bushy. Which is good because I've been asked to read for the parts of Russian dictators.
The pantyhose, that's another five minutes of stand-up right there.
What did it teach you about yourself?
I did 500 episodes of Hairspray. It's rigorous. I look at myself five years ago and I couldn't have stuck it out. I just never thought I would have been able to do it. Just the singing and dancing. It took me to another level as far as being an actor. Before I was a comic that would get parts as an actor.
It taught me that anything's possible and to not underestimate. I knew nothing. They took me to school. I'm not going to be the next Phantom of the Opera. You won't see me in the next Producers. But I have more options. When you're afraid to do something the best way is right through it. I just did it.
The first night I did Hairspray in Seattle it was like the scariest night. I said, I think I'd rather be in a gunfight than do this.
People say stand-up comedy is the scariest thing you can do.
Then they should dance in heels.
I hurt my foot the last week of Hairspray because of those friggin' heels. I took two shows off. My podiatrist told me that I have a foot like a hobbit. I'm like an 11 triple E.
Now that you're back to stand-up, something you're much more comfortable with, how do you make sure your act evolves?
I'm writing more and I'm bringing more new stuff to the stage. I'm doing the Montreal Comedy Festival in a few weeks.
How much of your material is new?
Half at least. It has to be. Because think about it, you can't go up there and parrot the same thing over and over again.
Two and a half years ago I was a straight stand-up comic that walked into the part of a woman played by Harvey Fierstein and Divine. It has been quite a journey. From buffet to Broadway.
How did your time on Broadway change your act?
It's given me a greater comfort level. It's given me an ability to bring more of my life to the stage.
What's your life like?
My life is like, on the road right now.
Do you have a dog?
That's my big dream. I'm 42. My eyebrows are growing back. Hopefully now I'll be able to get a girlfriend. I work with beautiful girls and they all call me Mama.
Your first comedy CD was called Show me the Buffet. What will you call the next one?
I like From Buffets to Broadway. I didn't think of it as that before.
I would like to do the theater again. I tried out for Riverdance but I didn't get in.
What role would you like to play?
Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 893-8848 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
John Pinette will appear tonight through Sunday at the Tampa Improv, 1600 EEighth Ave., Centro Ybor, Tampa. Tickets are $18-$20 depending on the night of the show. For tickets and times call 813 864-4000 or click on www.improvtampa.com.