Paul Mecurio: On Top of his Game

By | November 18, 2006 at 5:37 pm | No comments | Features

Paul Mecurio

For the last decade, stand-up comedian Paul Mecurio has helped make The Daily Show what it is today. But now, with a new satirical sports show in the works, the former Wall Street lawyer is poised to break out on his own.

By Dylan P. Gadino

There’s a measured confidence in the way Paul Mecurio peacefully navigates the otherwise bustling hallways that make up the offices of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. With little more than 30 minutes until taping, 20-something-year-olds hurriedly transport videocassettes to darkened production rooms, guys wearing headsets pace and that tie-clad dude who plays the PC in the Apple commercials leans up against a wall, that is, until he sees Mecurio. That guy – John Hodgman, an accomplished writer and now sometimes correspondent on The Daily Show – approaches Paul to introduce himself. “I don’t think we’ve ever met but I’ve heard a lot about you and I’ve seen you perform.” Hodgman says. “You’re like a legend.”

It’s true. The stand-up comic has been working – as a writer and performer – at The Daily Show since its 1996 inception, two years before Stewart even found himself helming one of cable’s most popular and influential programs. Today, like many days at the studio on Manhattan’s West Side, Mecurio is here to warm up the crowd.

It’s a job that goes largely unseen – unless you’re lucky enough to score tickets to a live taping – but it’s one Mecurio takes seriously. There’s no laugh track, no intermittent “applause” signs and the temperature on set is not unlike that of the Arctic tundra. The audience can do well with some warming up.

When he comes out to the crowd, it’s under thunderous, wholly disposable radio rock music. The wiry, minutes-ago-soft-spoken Mecurio sheds his track jacket and engages the gathered like one would engage the audience at a Journey concert circa 1981. It works.

“You basically have to act like a monkey in a cage that hasn’t been fed,” Mecurio says of addressing the 150 people. “You need to explain to the crowd why they’re there. They need to be vocal and to react and have a good time and let it be heard that they’re having a good time. So I do that and then they throw me a couple of bananas and I go back to my cage and I do it again the next day.”

After watching Mecurio for a few minutes, it’s clear where his material comes from and why he’s a nationally touring, headlining comedian. He’s constantly observing, is wildly inquisitive and is able to form a connection with a dizzyingly array of contrasting people: Navy guys, business owners, a hitchhiker; they’re all represented and Mecurio deftly chats them up and down, even suggesting to one grandmother type that she flash Jon when he comes out.

The studio, however, is not a place where Mecurio does a lot of his original material. Which is fine since there’s not enough time here to properly accommodate his style of controlled but high-energy comedy. Not likely to be pigeon holed as a story teller or a one liner or an observational comic, Mecurio takes great care not to get caught up using just one vehicle to create punch lines during the course of a set.

He also seamlessly bounces from waxing biographical to chatting about pop culture to investigating headier things like politics and racism.

“A lot of stuff hits me viscerally, he says about his joke writing process. “A lot of it is what’s going on in the news. Everyday I try to write. I don’t necessarily write at a specific time because for me it just sort of comes. I carry a pad around and scraps of paper all over the place. Sometimes I’ll even put things into a handheld recorder. It’s an ongoing process where stuff is getting written and rewritten. There’s this sort of open pipeline to my head.”

SPORTING THE FUNNY
This pipeline has served the Providence, Rhode Island native well over the last 10 years, not only for his stand-up but also for his work at The Daily Show where he’s shared, with the staff, Emmys and the highly respected Peabody award in journalism. And now, Mecurio is quite possibly entering a new phase of his career in front of the camera.

He’s recently completed a pilot called Sports Central, a satirical sports news program, on which Mecurio acts as the co-creator, host and executive producer. The show pokes fun at athletes and at the genre of sports news programming in general: think SportsCenter if it were infiltrated by the minds at The Daily Show. For a further hint at the show’s tone, one needs only to listen to the pilot’s opening tagline: “Sports Central – because you want to see athletes ridiculed by the people they beat up in high school.”

Paul Mecurio “The show focuses on all things about sports that go on off the field,” he says. “[Co-creator Jim Jones] and I realized that there’s really no satire in the world of sports. It’s such a huge part of our culture and it seems like it’s the only thing we don’t satirize. The show’s got that false positive sarcastic thing that doesn’t hit you over the head. It lets people hang themselves by the absurdity and stupidity of their own comments and actions.”

In addition to the pilot, Mecurio recently became a staff writer at newly launched joke site DailyComedy.com, where – along with other well-known comics like DC Benny, Tom Shillue and Laurie Kilmartin – he contributes daily, short topical bits.

And although Mecurio’s pilot has garnered interest from three networks – it’s too early to tell which will pick it up – and his profile is up thanks to DailyComedy as well as regular appearances on Sirius satellite radio’s Bower Show and Jim Breuer Unleashed, Mecurio says stand-up is his first love. “Ideally, I’d always want to do stand-up,” he says. “Performing live is my main focus and what I love to do.”

But for Mecurio, stand-up comedy wasn’t always such an obvious career path.

THE SECRET LIFE OF COMEDY

Years before he became a full-time comedian, Mecurio graduated with honors from Georgetown Law School and began working at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher on Wall Street and eventually as an investment banker at CS First Boston. But when he sold some jokes to Jay Leno and he heard them performed, Mecurio felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. It was something he couldn’t easily turn away from.

In the midst of struggling with what to do with the rest of his life, Mecurio’s father died suddenly. He took a leave of absence from his Wall Street job and returned to Providence, where he thought he would help bolster the family’s furniture business. As it turns out his mother treated Mecurio like he was still 12 years old.

“On Sunday nights, my mother would make me take her garbage canning where she would go through people’s garbage looking for things that needed to be fixed a little bit, like broken clocks,” he says. “It was just a nightmare. One night I was the lookout for her as she was going through trash. She turned to me with curlers in her hair and a whistling hearing aid and a housedress. She says to me, ‘I can’t believe people threw this clock out. They’re crazy!’ And I’m like ‘They’re crazy? That was the moment of clarity where I knew staying home was not an option.”

So Mecurio returned to his job. While working late one night at the firm, Mecurio ducked out of the office, hopped a cab and did a few minutes at an open mic place called Downtown Beirut II. It was the type of place where a comic might hit the stage shortly after an audience member gets slashed across the neck. At least that’s something Mecurio was lucky enough to experience.

“This guy is screaming, ‘he cut me, he cut me!’ and I go on and I say, ‘It’s nice to be here at Downtown Beirut. I always wanted to follow a slashing.’ The guy thought I was making fun of him. So he just wadded up all these bloody napkins and he threw them at me and they landed right on my shirt. But I stayed on stage.”

Mecurio rushed back to the office for an all-night work session. When one of the senior partners asked why, in god’s name, there was a giant bloodstain on his work shirt, Mecurio knew he’d better come clean. It was time to make public the secrets that bound together the double life he was leading— a life of a comic by night, high-powered mergers and acquisitions lawyer by day.

He knew this was the turning point. “My wife thought I was cheating on her because I would come home smelling of beer and cigarette smoke,” he says. “She had no idea what I was doing.”

Eventually Mecurio left his giant Manhattan apartment, sold all his suits and moved into what basically amounted to a halfway house in New Rochelle, NY. “I was literally living in a 10 by 12 rooming house with ex cons and pushers,” he says. “I was sharing a bathroom and a kitchen with these people.”

It got so bad that one day, Mecurio found himself on a train to New York City again, uniformed in a blue suit and red tie, accessorized with the Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm. But after a few months, he was finally convinced. He turned his back on a life of obvious wealth and future security for the scraping and clawing that is a career in stand-up comedy.

“I liked writing jokes too much,” he explains. “It was the idea of creating something that was my own and having people react to it that gave me a tingle. I couldn’t keep away from it. I was addicted.”

For more information, check out www.paulmecurio.com. To watch the pilot of Sports Central, log onto www.myspace.com/paulmecurio

About the Author

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor in chief of Laughspin. He launched Punchline Magazine in 2005 (which became Laughspin in the summer of 2011) with childhood friend Bill Bergmann. Dylan lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons. He hopes the Shire is real.