BY JONATHAN VALANIA “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” arguably Raymond Carver’s most beloved and depressive short story, is about a broken down, bottomed-out alcoholic supervising a yard sale on his front lawn where he’s selling off the sad pieces of his shattered life, and it’s not really clear if he’s selling off his belongings to so he can start his life over or because he plans to end his life. Hence the tantalizing ambiguity of the title — Carver doesn’t tell you what we talk about when we talk about love, that’s for the reader to figure out. The point, I think, that Carver was making is that whenever we talk about something, we are always talking about something else at the same time, something subliminal.
When we were booking the interview with Jeremy Piven you are about to read, his publicist drew an explicit line in the sand: We were only to talk about stand-up comedy and not, by implication, the elephant in the room of this introduction — the fact that eight women have accused him of sexual misconduct spanning the shitheel continuum from harassment to assault, according to BuzzFeed. Piven has never spoken publicly about the allegations, but he issued a blanket denial through his publicist, and cited the fact that he passed a lie detector test administered by a member of the American Polygraph Association. Still, in the wake of the allegations, CBS declined to renew The Wisdom Of The Crowd, the crime drama he produced and starred in, after just one season. He has one movie in post-production and another filming, but since the BuzzFeed story broke back in January he’s kept a very low profile, having been banished to The League Of Awful Men by the court of public opinion. His four-bedroom/3.5 bathroom, 4,404 square foot beachfront Malibu crib is currently on the market (a steal at $8.5 million, a nearly two million dollar climb down from the original asking price).
It is probably no coincidence then that at the age of 52, after a long and rewarding acting career that netted him a Golden Globe and three consecutive Emmys for his portrayal of Ari Gold, the profane, hard-charging, alpha-bro Hollywood vulgarian from HBO’s Entourage, Piven is currently re-inventing himself as a stand-up comedian. He is currently in the midst of a maiden voyage stand-up-tour-cum-charm-offensive that brings him to Punchline Philly for a five-show stand that starts tonight and runs through Sunday. The tour has reportedly drawn legions of bro-dawgs, and the ladies who love them, looking to get loud and liquored up and touch the hem of the garment of super-agent Ari Gold, Lord of the Bros — or at least the man who plays him. It’s also become a #MeToo flashpoint, and Philly is no exception. When we accepted an invite to interview Piven we foolishly expected he wanted to come clean only to be told that anything other than stand-up comedy was off limits. But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the 30-minute interview: We did talk almost exclusively about comedy and all things funny, but at the same time we were, with tantalizing ambiguity, talking about the unspoken and the unspeakable. Because in Philly, that’s what we talk about when we talk about love.
DISCUSSED: Louis C.K., Second City, Chris Farley, why now, being Ari Gold, swearing at his mother, zen and the art of Garry Shandling, Dave Chappelle, Shakespeare, nieces, the Piven Theater, the secret of laughter, the City of Big Shoulders, Mark Wahlberg, Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Pryor, Monty Python, the fearlessness of improv, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the possibility of second acts in American life and whether or not the mighty who’ve fallen can find redemption in laughter.
PHAWKER: Your publicist was very specific in clarifying that the conversation should be restricted to stand-up comedy…
JEREMY PIVEN: Yeah, I mean stand-up comedy, family, acting – anything you want, you know. Except what they talked about, yeah.
PHAWKER: Okay, fair enough. So, at the age of 53, after a long high-profile career in film and television, you are reinventing yourself as a stand-up comic. Why now?
JEREMY PIVEN: Sorry, sorry brother, one more time. I just had a bad connection.
PHAWKER: I said at the age of 53, after a long and high-profile career in film and television, you are reinventing yourself as a stand-up comic – why now?
JEREMY PIVEN: Well, what’s fascinating is that it’s not a reinvention. What’s interesting is that I grew up on the stage, and I’m a stage actor, and always have been. And then kind of figured out a way to navigate film and TV. But from the time that I was 8 years old, I was onstage. And that’s what I did all through school. And then as soon as I got out of college – I went to NYU and the National Theater in Great Britain to study Shakespeare, and various places, I won’t bore you with all the details – but as soon as I got out of school, my first job was at Second City, doing sketch comedy and improv. So that was my first job. I went on the road back in the days with Chris Farley.
PHAWKER: Oh, wow.
JEREMY PIVEN: Yeah, a million years ago.
PHAWKER: I love Chris Farley, I did not know that.
JEREMY PIVEN: Yeah, that’s why we’re having this conversation. That’s why we’re here, brother, because we’re actually knowing the truth, in my opinion. And that’s, by the way, that’s why I’m doing standup. Because after having the privilege and the honor of playing fictional characters that have been scripted, I get to get up on stage and perform my story, my own story, from my point of view. And I’ve never performed as myself. And that’s what’s so fascinating, and daunting and beautiful and exhilarating about stand-up comedy. It’s you either live or die up there, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher. There are no second takes. You get one take. And instead of doing a scene in which the lines are written, and you get to navigate and play off other characters, you are the screenwriter and star and producer and editor. You’re up there doing it. And I’m loving it.
PHAWKER: So, you were at Second City at the same time as Chris Farley, you just said – correct?
JEREMY PIVEN: Correct.
PHAWKER: That’s awesome. Like I said before, I love Chris Farley, and I still miss him to this day. Could you tell me something about Chris Farley that I might be surprised to know, or um…?
JEREMY PIVEN: Yeah, thank you so much brother. This interview is about….obviously me coming out there and doing stand-up myself. It’s not a tell-all story about Chris Farley.
PHAWKER: No, I’m not asking you for dirt.
JEREMY PIVEN: Yeah, he’s everything you would expect. He has a huge heart. He was just a lovable guy that was a brilliant, brilliant performer and comedic force and improvisational animal. And that’s what happens in Chicago – you, to this day, have incredible audiences that show up. And you do get some street cred, in terms of, they know that there’ve been a lot of great performers that have come out of Chicago. My parents have a theater there, the Piven theater, and there’s so many places you can go to there. I think, you know, growing up onstage at the Piven Theater, you know I still run lines with my mom to this day, and that’s one of the things I talk about onstage. You know, when you were watching Entourage, imagine if you will that I was running lines with my mom. She was playing all the other characters. And all the profane language, everything that I was using – I was running lines with my mom. And what’s brilliant about that is that it’s genuinely shocking to people, but for me, it’s just second nature. My mom’s an artist, so she’s not gonna judge me for the language that I’m saying in this text, because it’s a part of the piece. So, I do this really fun bit about, you know, launching into those profanity-laced tirades, and having my mom direct me, run lines, and what that’s like. And she’s this tiny little demure woman, who kind of looks like a version of Mary Tyler Moore, and so that’s kind of what the show is about. It’s about my perspective and my life and kind of what it’s been like to navigate as an actor, as a person, you know, kind of at times, and it’s totally understandable, misunderstood. When you’re in people’s living rooms playing a bunch of characters, of course people are going to get used to looking at you in a certain way. And so when they see me on stage, they have to readjust, “Oh, okay, this is who that guy is. That’s interesting – he’s got a family and he’s got nieces. I didn’t know that.” There’s a lot of that, and it’s just an incredibly fun evening. And to me, doing an hour of stand-up comedy, it’s not a Q&A or some sort of a book signing or an appearance. This is stand-up comedy, and I’m honored to do it.
PHAWKER: Standing up there and performing the jokes and getting the timing right, etc. I would think that’s a very similar muscle to working in theater. But writing jokes, I would think is a different muscle.
JEREMY PIVEN: Completely. Completely. And by the way, I couldn’t have more respect for stand-up comedians – for their journey, how hard it is to navigate the space, to write their own material, to find one’s voice, I mean there is nothing easy about it. It’s difficult as hell. And you know, I got up last night at a dive bar. I’m getting up tonight again at a dive bar in front of a group of stand-up comics that stand in the back and fold their arms and look at you like, “Why is this actor on stage doing stand-up?” And they call that going to the gym. If you can get in there and work those rooms that are basically the equivalent of going in and performing and doing one of these, you know. Like when you’re first doing comedy, you go in there, and you sign up – that’s how Jamie Foxx back in the day, um, got his name. His first name is Eric, but when he went and did a sign-up sheet, I don’t know if you know this.
PHAWKER: I don’t.
JEREMY PIVEN: When you have an open mic, you sign up, and he wrote his name down as Jamie. I don’t remember the exact story, but he wanted a gender neutral name, so he could get picked.
PHAWKER: Oh, so that’s how he…?
JEREMY PIVEN: Sorry, brother, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. What I’m doing now is the equivalent of an open mic. I’m going to these rooms where they don’t know that I’m getting up. And it’s a handful of comics in the back, and these are really really tough rooms. And no, I didn’t have to come up in the same way that stand-up comedians did. And I’m incredibly lucky to be able to start with audiences. But, after 40 years of performing on stage and on film and TV, I love and have a reverence for being on stage. And the variable which you mentioned earlier, astutely, is writing material. And you know, there a couple different ways to do it. You can do it all before you get up onstage and then you can write it all onstage – there’s both of those methods. And there’s having to adjust to the crowds. It’s so incredibly challenging, and you have to have an ego death. You gotta just put it all aside, and get up there, and be ready to bomb. As [Dave] Chappelle told me, you gotta be, you have to be, you have to bomb, but you have to bomb at the right time, so you can learn from it and then get up there and thrive. And I’ve been loving this process.
PHAWKER: So what is the secret of comedy, what is the secret of making people laugh, what is the secret of writing the code that triggers the same involuntary response — i.e. laughter — in a roomful of complete strangers of all walks of life at the exact same time? Because there is something magical about that. About the arrangement of words and the expression of them with just the right inflection and intonation, and timing.
JEREMY PIVEN: It’s fascinating, because we all know what it’s like to be with your friend or group of friends, and to be relaying a story that happened to you, and how insane it is. And we’re all storytellers. Every one of us. Now, can you be a storyteller on a mic in an uncomfortable situation in front of a roomful of strangers? Ah, that’s easier said than done, man. You know, how does a guy get up there a million times at the free throw line with everyone looking at him with the game on the line? How do you slow your heart down? How do you become present? You know, would I be able to articulate to you how to do it in this interview, you know, in this brief interview? I don’t know, but I can tell you that, um, as I said, putting your ego aside, doing the work, getting up as much as you possibly can, taking it seriously, loving and embracing the audience, being honored to be there, speaking your truth, because they can feel it – all of these are variables to relaying your journey and your story and relating to them in a very present way that is funny and that’s what I’m doing. And I welcome anyone that wants to come, whether they’re someone that I’ve touched through my work or someone who doesn’t believe that I can do it, whatever. I welcome them all, because as I said, growing up in Chicago, almost all of the theater work that I did was for very small theaters. And we were just always hoping for an audience, because we just wanted to perform in front of people. So whatever brings you in, it doesn’t matter, whatever brings you to the table, I look forward to it.
PHAWKER: Well let me just say here, I’m not coming to this interview skeptical about whether you can do this — you’re a trained performer who can think on his feet and be able to take the temperature of the room so I don’t really think stand-up is a stretch for you given your skill set.
JEREMY PIVEN: Oh no, brother. I’m sorry that you’re feeling anything or if you’re offended at all. I was not referring to you at all, in any way, shape, or form. Just if there’s anyone, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter why you’re coming – I just wanna see you.
PHAWKER: So, uh, let’s talk about your comedy influences.
JEREMY PIVEN: Well, I was born in New York, and moved to Chicago, and then have now moved back to New York, because my mom is out of Chicago now. And growing up in those areas, uh, I was exposed to two of the greatest cities in the world, and exposed to so much incredible music and theater and even television. I was lucky enough to kind of peak in and see the reruns of Monty Python and seeing guys like John Cleese. But then being exposed to Richard Pryor. The thing about Richard Pryor is, um, he was such a brilliant storyteller and actor. Richard Pryor’s a brilliant actor. No one transitioned that seamlessly into acting like he did. Because he would enter into the moment. He’s telling you a story, but he was so present in telling the story that he was acting it out, flawlessly. He would show you what it was like to be scared out of your mind. There was something about a camping trip, and he just said he never had a reference for that in his life, and how he was scared about that. And talking about his real-life interactions with everything that he’s been through. And being incredibly honest and open and raw onstage. He was a very, I’m in awe of that guy still. You know, I could never turn anything off with Richard Pryor in it. So he was, he was an incredible force. And I think people like Dave Chappelle we’re lucky to have today. And the thing about Chappelle is yeah, he is Richard Pryor, but Chappelle’s also putting the work in. There’s nothing lazy about Chappelle, don’t be fooled. This guy is getting up everywhere, for hours at a time onstage. So he’s, and getting politically active and using his voice, for no other reason than that he wants change. So those guys are my heroes right now.
PHAWKER: What was the last joke you heard that made you laugh, can you recall?
JEREMY PIVEN: The last joke I heard that made me laugh, um…thank god this isn’t radio, because the silence is killing both of us.
PHAWKER: [laughing] Take your time. If nothing’s coming, we can move on. But if you wanna take a second and go ahead, go ahead.
JEREMY PIVEN: So this is for, refresh me for a second, Poker.com?
PHAWKER: [laughing] Poker.com, I love it. No, it’s Phawker, it’s called Phawker, it’s a riff on the now-deceased website, Gawker. And we’re based in Philadelphia. So the pun was that we were sort of the half-assed Philly version of Gawker when we started out — it seemed like a good idea at the time.
JEREMY PIVEN: Oh, that’s awesome. I will absolutely check it out now.
PHAWKER: So I’m a big fan of Garry Shandling and one of your first acting jobs, was on The Larry Sanders Show, a brilliant but brutal satire of late-night talk show culture, where you played the head writer. What do you recall about auditioning for that part?
JEREMY PIVEN: Well first of all, buddy, these are great questions, and I don’t know how you knew, but that literally was what I was going to talk about, so you tapped right into it. I remember auditioning and, just before I went in the room, and you have to understand, one of the things that I think that will really serve actors who transition into stand-up is the amount of rejection that we have to walk through. Because, you know, you’re literally walking into these rooms and auditioning for every role you get, and this is one of those cases where it was my first on-camera job after Second City. And so, I know who Shandling is, he already had It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and did brilliant stand-up, and I’m already in awe of him. Already, before the show even starts. So I run to the bathroom, and I run into him, and he’s putting in his contact lenses. And I said, “Hey Garry, how are ya buddy? I’m just about to audition for ya, I don’t wanna bother ya.” And he goes, [in accent] “Oh great, wow you are, okay. Good luck, good luck, good luck.” I was lucky enough to get the role of head writer on The Larry Sanders Show, and he was an absolute, hands-down, make-no-mistake-about-it genius. And yes, you know he was a complicated guy, as seen in Judd Apatow’s brilliant documentary [The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling]. That is something that everyone should see, not just for comedy but for, just to see a man’s life. And to see a guy who was in there, living, fighting the good fight, who became incredibly spiritual. And came to terms with who he is, and his insecurities, and how to navigate his life as a person, not just as a stand-up comedian, and we get to see it play out. So it’s not some didactic message. It’s so brilliant, that documentary. And I got to live it. I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by him and Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, everyone on that show. And so, every day, make no mistake, I didn’t have a huge role, and I would’ve loved to have been able to contribute more, but it wasn’t my time.
JEREMY PIVEN: It’s almost, it was almost like playing for a world champion, and you’re kind of coming off the bench, and you’re a role player and you kind of get to contribute. And you wanna mix it up with them more, but it’s not the time. But i just got to learn and to be around it and to see how these geniuses work. And that’s why when kids ask me you know, “What do I do? What’s the secret, man?” And I think today, and it’s not their fault, you know, everyone’s a celebrity. Everyone has their own social media outlets, and are being judged by numbers of likes and who’s following them, and so people wanna know the secret. But sometimes they don’t wanna hear it when I say, “Do every job that comes your way. Get on every set that you possibly can. Learn from the greats, you know, do backgrounds.” There were times when I was basically background on The Larry Sanders Show, but I got to absorb these geniuses, and I wanted to contribute more, but it wasn’t about that. That was indicative of my first 40 movies. I was 40 movies into my career by the time Entourage came around.
PHAWKER: Forty movies before you landed your breakout role?!?
JEREMY PIVEN: Correct. Yeah, I was 37 years old when I started Entourage. On paper, I was the age of a retiring pro-athlete, if they’re lucky. That’s when I started Entourage. So I had had a full life as a performer, um, that was working on film and TV. I’d done a bunch of TV series, you know, I was a series regular on many shows before Entourage came around. And I think my agents at the time were thinking, you know, we’re lucky enough to have offers for me to do leads in other TV shows, why would you take a role that has one scene in a pilot that’s a fringe player in an ensemble show? And this is part of that ego death that I told you about, which is put it aside, do the work. I knew Ari Emanuel, it was based on him, because it’s based on Mark Wahlberg’s life and his true-life entourage. And I knew that people were fascinated with the backstage life of performers. And Mark was a, is a very vital, interesting character, and so was his world. I knew that Ari Emanuel was a character that lived in dualities, was incredibly driven, um, and a very reactive, you know, second-generation Israeli-American. And was probably misunderstood, and loved his wife and was monogamous, and yet appeared to be a pig. So there was all these dualities that I could hang my head on as an actor, and I thought you know what, no, there’s not a lot yet with this role, but there’s great possibilities. And what a fertile premise this was. And I knew that HBO had the highest pedigree of shows, with The Sopranos and Sex & the City. And I was lucky enough to be on The Larry Sanders Show, which kicked off original programming on HBO. Before that, there wasn’t any original programming [on HBO]. So I was lucky enough to be on the show that kind of unleashed all that.
PHAWKER: Last question: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there’s no second act in American life, but I say the jury’s still out on that. My question for you is can a creative artist find redemption in stand-up? Is there a way for someone, say like Louis C.K. in the fullness of time to redeem themselves and to go on and have a second act in American life?
JEREMY PIVEN: [long pause] Obviously, that’s a very loaded question…[long pause]…And I think especially in these times…[long pause]…it’s a very loaded question, and I thank you for it. I know what you’re getting at.
PHAWKER: I think the answer for you is just, “Man, I hope so,” right?
JEREMY PIVEN: [long pause] I think one of the great things about stand-up is, and by the way no one, no one can argue that Louis C.K. isn’t a brilliant stand-up.
PHAWKER: Agreed. Huge fan of his work.
JEREMY PIVEN: [long pause] One of the great things about stand-up is every time you get up there, you have a chance, uh, to connect with the audience, and to sink or swim, every single time. And it really doesn’t matter how well or badly you’ve done before, uh, in terms of um, I’m just speaking creatively. And it’s up to you, because like, for instance when I get onstage, if they’ve traveled out there, they’re usually happy to see me. And I’ve connected with them, and made them laugh, and they’re happy to see me. And that lasts maybe thirty seconds, maybe a couple minutes. And then it’s truly up to you in that moment to connect with them and make them laugh through your truth. And I would have to bet, I don’t have any clue, and I don’t know Louis C.K., but I would bet that a guy like that would, because part of stand-up is examining yourself. And I think that people are very interested and curious about seeing him perform. And he has proven himself, he was a comedic genius, so I’m sure people are very curious to see what’s next.
JEREMY PIVEN PERFORMS AT PUNCHLINE PHILLLY TONIGHT THRU SUNDAY