When Cherry Hill native and beloved Philadelphia comedian Joe Matarese brings his “Remember When” tour showcase to the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, NJ on February 14, he won’t solely focus on his growing up absurd during the 70s, 80s and 90s in the South Jersey and Philly areas. If his last gigs with Sebastian Maniscolco were any portent, Joe’s Valentine night’s gig is bound to be a bold, but broad look at who we are as a people, how he and his family fit in, what personal mental health issues feel like when embraced by a master comic, and probably something about Ponzio’s and Emerald City.
I caught up with Matarese during a work vacation, traveling through Europe while answering my questions.
A.D. Amorosi: You know what I like about your website? Testimonials. That’s some old school pro stuff afoot. What made you think of that?
Joe Matarese: I always think if someone wants to hire me off of my website reading what other people I have worked with have to say about me as a performer and as a business person is very helpful. It took me many years to realize how big the business part of show business really is. If you have no business skills you can be the most talented performer in the world and you just won’t be able to make a living. I wish I would have known and realized that in the first 10 years of my career when I was new to the game.
A.D. Amorosi: You’re not an old man – yet here you are reflecting on your distant Philly/NJ past with your new tour. Why now for this sort-of reconnoitering?
Joe Matarese: I’m at a new point in my life and I do talk about it in this show “Remember When”. It’s not just a funny nostalgic look at the way things were when I grew up and the way things are now. I’m coming at this from another side also which is at 50 years old I’m just starting to do what I want to do. I’m really being myself in everything I do now. I always want to do stand up in a more theatrical style and at the same time have a positive take away from whatever I perform. I wanted people to leave my show like you do when you leave a movie theater after seeing a great life-changing movie. I not only want to entertain you and make you laugh a lot I want to motivate and enlighten you also.
A.D. Amorosi: Considering you have a family and travel… Is your picture of the twin areas’ past mostly positive?
Joe Matarese: I think this connects with growing older and having to do what you want in life and not worrying about what others think whether it be positive or negative. I lived a long amount of my life with severe anxiety and letting my fear of travel keeping me from seeing the world and stepping outside my comfort zone. I am also not famous enough, believe it or not, to get to travel as much as I want for my career. When I started my performance record and my TV credits were enough to get me gigs at all the comedy clubs across the country. Social media changed the game in my career. If you don’t have a huge fan base it is very difficult to work and travel constantly as a comedian. The positive of difficulties in life forces you to work really hard to figure out what you can do to still do what you love and make a good living. I started really trying to be well known in the Philly/South Jersey market where I grew up and the NYC area. I just keep hitting those areas where I can sell tickets and fill clubs and theaters and not worry about becoming a huge star. I’m not interested in getting on airplanes every week and leaving my family. I love my mix of travel and parenting now. Also, my wife has a job where she has to travel so we try to sync up our jobs in the same places and schedule them around when we can bring our kids with us. If we can’t bring them we just don’t leave town for very long. Family comes first for us.
A.D. Amorosi: I don’t expect you to tell me your stage act. But, what would you say the show’s focus is on – hanging out in comedy spaces? Music clubs? Bars? Family? What was your life like before stand up?
Joe Matarese: My show focuses on doing what you want in life and not worrying about what anyone else thinks. It also focuses on being yourself and when you are being your natural self that is when you are at your best. I mix those two themes with all the nostalgic things about growing up when I did vs. now when my kids are growing up. A big piece of the show talks about growing up in South Jersey in the 70s through the 90s. It was an incredible time! We went to teen dances, rollerskating, played video games from way back when, just wanting to get a girls phone numbers, parachute pants, Members Only jackets, going to dance clubs followed by eating at the diner seven nights a week, the music from when I grew up and much much more. We will also be showing pictures and short video moments throughout the show to really bring everyone back to a time when the internet and cell phones didn’t exist and going clubbing seven nights a week seemed really important. My life before standup was very family and friends focused. I grew up in a very stereotypical Italian American household around the block from my “Mom Mom” and “Pop Pop” and my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I couldn’t do anything growing up that didn’t get reported to my mom and dad by my Mom Mom. She was a hawk! There is a lot in this show about her and how she didn’t want me to be a performer. That made me want to do it even more. When I look back at my life it’s amazing how many things I did anyway even after being lectured why it was not a good idea. I also played sports growing up (mostly baseball). We were a very Philly sports household. I love that about growing up in the South Jersey/Philly area. Everyone in your family is following all the Philly teams from who they drafted, who’s injured, and what you think the team needs to do to win more. Baseball is a love for all of us in my family. I was pretty good but quit early because I lacked the confidence and the fight that is really needed to get to the next level. I was very intimated back then by uncomfortable surroundings. If I got put into a situation where I felt like a fish out of water I would just bail and quit. That’s what life is full of and if you want to win you have to stick it out and find a way to fit in. I wish I would have known that back then. My brother was an outstanding baseball player and ended up getting a scholarship to GW University in Washington D.C. I found out much later that a lot of people in my family suffered from anxiety issues and my quitting things probably had a lot to do with my undiagnosed Mental Health struggles. The positive is when you struggle with those things and you are honest about it you will fit in very well in the standup comedy community. There are always positives to all negatives in your life.
A.D. Amorosi: Can you recall the exact moment – and why – stand-up comedy beckoned? And where your first paid gig was and how that went?
Joe Matarese: I think dysfunction drove me to a creative career. I definitely had a lot of craziness as a teen and standup started at 19 years old for me. I had been wanting to do it for years but had no idea you could just go to a comedy club on an open mic night and sign up and perform that night. In 1989 when I started there was no internet so everything was way harder to seek out. Even going into Philadelphia where I performed first (The Comedy Works on 2nd and Chestnut St) from Cherry Hill back then seemed insane especially to my Mom Mom. If I had a dollar for every time she said, “Oh my God, Joseph. The city… That’s not safe…” I’d be a rich man. Again her saying those things somehow made me know doing it was the correct decision for me. I’ve always had another voice talking to me in my head showing me the way. I would say good artists know how to listen to their hearts and create and do what it’s telling them to do. My first paid gig was at a place called the Fun House on the Lehigh campus. Back when $60 to do standup 90 mins from my house seemed like a lot of money. My only other memory of that night was the owner would go up first and ask every single person in the crowd where they were from and what they did for a living. I went up after him once and told the crowd that I had to follow him once at the Spectrum and he did six hours. I’m pretty sure it got a big laugh and the owner was cool and didn’t mind that I ripped on him. It was a really fun place and I brought lots of others there years after to get their first paid standup gigs.
A.D. Amorosi: I have certainly seen you on your own, but the last time(s) were gigs with Bill Burr and opening for Sebastian Maniscalco. Good shows, but does a place like Wells Fargo steal from the intimacy of your set?
Joe Matarese: Believe it or not, both times that I did the Wells Fargo Center felt very intimate to me. That is probably why it went well both times. I’m big on wanting it to feel intimate and comfortable on stage, and when it’s not I start feeling very disconnected from the audience and it affects my performance. Sometimes the key to that not happening which I’ve only learned in the last few years when doing these big venues is the setup and the sound in the venue. Something that happens over and over again and is a mistake for standup is a big space between the stage in the front row. That’s fine for a music concert but bad for comedy. Stand up comedians love the crowd right up to the stage. I want to see their eyes and really feel their laughter. We feed off them, big time. Wells Fargo had it set up that way. Another thing that helps it feel great is the sound. If you have a big venue that you are doing standup in and there is an echo like a sports announcer saying something amplified in a stadium standup comedy can feel very odd and make me disconnected up there. Lots of stage monitors take that echo away for the performer and Sebastian Maniscalco and Bill Burr both had. Sebastian even had something I’d never had before which was the newest state of the art 360 degrees big screen above us. These new screens they have in these places make the performer look crystal clear and huge. Now you get even more reaction from the audience because they can see every little facial movement perfectly. You mix that with 18,000 people that are all from South Jersey and Philadelphia and they introduce you as from there the same year the Eagles won the Super Bowl it’s an easy win. I loved the arena vibe. As long as it’s indoors! Comedy outside is almost always terrible.
A.D. Amorosi: Cherry Hill diners – Ponzio’s or Olga’s? And why?
Joe Matarese: Growing up I was always a Diamond Diner guy and so were my Cherry Hill best friends. We had many good times after going to Franchine’s, Enchante, or The Coastline. The Diner was always our last stop. We knew every waitress in the place by their first name. The Diamond Diner is missed by me, big time.
A.D. Amorosi: Is there a message you wish to impart to your Cherry Hill homies to get them to Collingswood for Valentine’s Day?
Joe Matarese: My message is this… Much like the Wells Fargo Center was an easy great night for me both times, going to see me on Valentine’s Day at The Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, NJ will be a show you can’t miss. I am performing a new 90-minute Standup show all about growing up in the South Jersey/Philly area from the 70s through the 90s. There will be tons of laughter and positive messages followed by a throwback dance party in the ballroom just below the theater. There will be a DJ playing all the music from the Enchante, Franchine’s, and Top Dog/Taylor’s days that’s included with your ticket price.