John Roarke's multiple personalities
THE COMPANY HE KEEPS: Roarke and his famous friends.
Even Jon Stewart can do Dubya. But John Roarke also does a good Al Gore (pushing his invention, the Vote-o-matic machine), a very good Bill Clinton, (recording a come-on of an answering machine message), and an uncanny Woody Allen (doing a trademark breathless movie voice but as Hannibal Lecter).
|100 Faces . . . 100 Laughs | September 21 + 22 | 8 pm | La Salle Academy, 612 Academy Ave, Providence | $20 | 401.621.6123|
That’s why he gets the big yuks. Which he will demonstrate on September 21 and 22 at “100 Faces . . . 100 Laughs ,” two scholarship benefit concerts at Providence’s La Salle Academy, his alma mater. Charlie Hall, of Ocean State Follies, will be the opening act.
This homecoming for Roarke, who moved back to his hometown of Westerly about a year ago, is especially meaningful to him because that’s where he got his first big laughs. Roarke, 55, has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in the films Naked Gun 2-1/2 and Silence of the Hams, and he was praised in US magazine as “the new man of 1000 faces.” But there was never anything quite like his first audiences.
One antsy afternoon before a school vacation, science teacher John Cerra asked if anybody wanted to entertain. Friends pushed Roarke in front of the class.
“So I did these imitations, which I had worked out with these guys, and it just killed,” he said, sipping iced tea at a sidewalk table in Providence. “The teacher laughed the most of all.”
A career, at least on a local basis, was born.
“There was an underground railroad of the teachers that were cool that smuggled me into classes,” he said. “So I had a circuit I would work, of new audiences.”
What, he’d ask, if Brother Alban had a dream of being the Tin Man or Brother Timothy were a gas station attendant?
“I was floating these nuclear weapons as though they were little bubbles of joy,” Roarke said, getting animated. “If I were a bully I wouldn’t have gone to square one. But I had this Bob Newhart personality, this very nice guy persona that I just fell into naturally.”
He’d found a reason for being. Unfortunately, leaving Rhode Island for Boston in 1979, he discovered that there weren’t any comedy clubs up there.
“I was working in a 7-Eleven — I was, like, starving,” he said. “I had no way to make a living as a comedian, I just knew I wanted to be a comedian.”
Rescue came after an agent watched him and other comics perform and approached Roarke. Could he come up with another hour of material in the three months it would take to book a college tour?
“I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Roarke recalled. “I didn’t know that that was impossible. It took Alan King like five years to get an hour.”
But he and some comedy writer friends expanded some of his characters and made it happen. Roarke did the college circuit for 3-1/2 years, pulling in $2000 per night, using New York City as a base and getting familiar with the comedy clubs there. He also got acquainted with some out-of-work comedians who were polishing their craft: Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and Paul Reiser. Then a fellow comic got him an audition with a Saturday Night Live clone called Fridays.
“So I went out to LA with a series, which was unusual,” he said. “It gave me a weird start — but it was a good start.”
He ended up working late nights on ABC from 1980 to 1982, with a cast that included David and Michael Richards.
Despite all his performing, was doing live TV nerve-wracking?
“It was do or die,” he replied. “It was like I had prepared for this stuff all my life. I didn’t have as much experience as I wish I had had, but my eyes were on the prize because I had a sense of destiny and I knew not to waste energy with anxiety.”
That self-confidence has served him well. Ronald Reagan may have blithely picked up the phone to compliment Roarke’s impersonating him as blithering, but occasionally someone as egocentric as Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen has glowered.
Relating the latter objection, Roarke put down his glass and slipped into the most vocally spot-on, glasses-pushing impersonation of Allen I’ve ever heard.
“Are you going to sue them or what? Are you, you know, preparing your briefs?”
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