Since he first wowed the crowd in the early 80’s at
Catch a Rising Star, Rick Shapiro has been considered an explosive
comedic talent, a sort of punk-rock, white Richard Pryor with a
literary bent, part Iggy Pop, part Philip Roth. But Mr. Shapiro was
also notorious for being a holy mess, a world-class drug addict who
turned tricks for drug money, spewed rage and obscenities, and bit
on the ass anyone who tried to help him make it. His material, and
his own life, were just too raw, people said.
But these days, the fans who stuck with him are
getting their patience rewarded by a new, improved Rick Shapiro.
A recent Thursday evening was typical of Mr.
Shapiro’s vastly upgraded juju. He brought down the house with his
one-hour comedy set at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village. His
end-of-set riffing was going so well, he finished 15 minutes over
his allotted time.
"Do you ever feel like a loser when you’re cleaning
up your apartment?" he asked the crowd at one point. "You’re just
pouring Lestoil and you’re like, ‘Wow, man, I’m a loser—this is
taking care of shit.’ And you’re too lazy to use water, so you mop
it over and then for two days your throat closes and you wonder why
you can’t eat? And you’re waking up with headaches and you’re like,
‘Oh, I got a buzz! This is good!’"
The audience hung on his every word.
Outside after the show, Mr. Shapiro smoked a
cigarette and paced on a small patch of sidewalk. He hunched
forward, holding his elbows tight to his sides; it was freezing cold
outside, but he wore a jean jacket wide open at his bare chest, a
thick, black leather belt wrapped around his wiry midsection, not
quite holding up his skin-tight bell-bottom jeans. He kept reaching
into his pocket, checking on a thick wad of cash tips.
A sprightly, short-haired young woman marched up to
him. Her name was Marie, and she was a Russian immigrant from
Greenpoint, with John Lennon spectacles and a ring beneath her lower
lip. She was, she said, a Rick Shapiro fan.
Mr. Shapiro blurted out a response. "You think I’m
thinking, ‘Oh, she likes my show—let’s fuck.’"
"Oh, no no nooooo," she said, laughing,
waving her hands in front of her face.
"I mean, that’s not what I’m ridin’ on, but it’s in
the back of there someplace," Mr. Shapiro said.
By the end of their exchange, he’d managed to get
Marie’s phone number.
"So, do you think she’ll go out with me?" he asked
me. "How long am I supposed to wait to call her?"
It was hardly an award-winning pickup attempt, but
still—he was passable as the kind of straight, regular person who
goes on dates with women he meets after work. The whole evening
The 44-year-old Mr. Shapiro has plowed through a
half-dozen managers and spent months in psych wards and rehab
programs. Each new manager has thought that he’d be the one to take
Mr. Shapiro to the top, only to watch the comedian crash and burn.
The pattern would seem to be continuing: This March, his latest
manager temporarily left the business, and Mr. Shapiro is now on his
own, performing at the same kind of downtown and off-Broadway clubs
where promoters tapped him for stardom more than a decade ago. Yet
again, he is being courted by several agents and managers who long
to be the next Rick Shapiro evangelist.
This time, though, everyone around him agrees that
something is different. With the help of his umpteenth therapist, it
looks like Mr. Shapiro finally has himself under control. His steady
five-nights-a-week gig at the Village Lantern is a long way from the
period a few years ago when he scraped by on welfare, surviving on
pierogies from the Ukrainian diner Odessa. Mr. Shapiro has even been
appearing regularly on Comedy Central shows like the comic
roundtable Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. It’s all enough to
make you believe the word in the comedy world about Mr. Shapiro:
Success this time is his to lose—and he’s sick to death of
"His whole approach to things has changed
dramatically," said Jason Solomon, one of a long list of former
Shapiro managers. "He’s a lot more professional." Gone are the days
of showing up late to a gig (or not showing up at all), and his
signature hour-long rants are being reshaped and reined in to pack
an acute punch.
"It’s like starting over again. It’s scary to be
there," Mr. Shapiro said over lunch at an uptown Chinese-Mexican
restaurant a few weeks later. Now, he said, "it’s going to move
forward. It’s not going to be me destroying myself."
Mr. Shapiro returned to the Sidewalk cafe the
following Thursday, midway through a 12-week run of shows that ended
last week. He performed, as always, in the Fort, a small, T-shaped
room in the back, where old instruments, chalk drawings of Dixieland
bands and rectangles of reddish lights covered the walls.
Onstage, Mr. Shapiro morphed seamlessly from old
Irish bartender to horny gay man to flirtatious female art student.
With both hands, he fretfully brushed back his
black-with-a-tinge-of-silver hair from his receding hairline,
sometimes gripping his scalp with his fingers.
He often yelled and spit into the microphone ("A
lotta white comics say ‘penis.’ It’s COCK!") during a frenzied,
attention-deficit whirlwind of a routine. He spewed venom at the
audience, at run-of-the-mill "observational" comics and at accepted
"I have to get AIDS," he said midway through the
hour-plus performance. "Because that’s the only thing that’ll put me
in a good mood." The crowd seemed unsure whether to feel sorry for
him or laugh. "I can’t think positively unless I have AIDS. Because
then it’s the bottom line. You have to think positively when you
have AIDS—you got nothing left! You’re like, ‘Oh my God, my skin’s
peelin’ off, my lover’s leaving me, I didn’t know I was gay!’"
Most of the audience laughed. Two gay men stood up
and left the room.
Carol Burnett once called comedy "tragedy plus
time." Mr. Shapiro has dispensed with the time lag: For him, comedy
is tragedy, period. When he told a joke about 9/11, or about
suicide, or about priests nibbling on little boys’ testicles, his
words moved so fast that most of the audience had laughed before
they’d even realized that they should be disgusted or depressed.
"Girls are funny, right?" Mr. Shapiro asked
himself. "Girls are fucked up, man. It’s like I have to wear a shirt
or you won’t go out with me. I just wanna do coke, and I’m off it 17
years. You know what I realized? Eight-year-old girls are the only
ones left I can have relationships with. They’re the only ones who
don’t try to change me. They love Uncle Ricky for who he is."
Then came the half-cracked non sequitur transition
to the next bit: "And torsos are my only pleasure, because they
appreciate every move in bed. They have no arms and no legs and they
go: ‘Do it again, man—I’m just glad you’re here.’
"‘What are you, desperate?’" (Mr. Shapiro
intervening in his own bit as a third-party interlocutor.)
"You ever fuck a head that had a thumb sticking out
of its neck but it’s alive, it just had no body?" Mr. Shapiro
concluded. "Oh, you gotta go to Venice Beach!"
With its almost poignant undercurrent, the Shapiro
shock factor ("Have you ever freebase-fucked a homeless woman?")
exists several notches above your average raunchy club comedian.
He’s as much a performance artist as comic: At the Sidewalk that
night, Mr. Shapiro began to spin a tale of a cabdriver who asked him
to have anal sex with bunny rabbits.
"Let’s just say that rabbit’s ass was made of
sulfur and a giant flame of blowtorch," he said as the taxi-driver
character. "And broken glass, rusty knives, swords that were not
used in Masterand Commander."
Mr. Shapiro started to yell, as Elvis Presley’s
"Suspicious Minds" played loudly over the P.A. system: "And the
teeth of your grandmother after she chewed on pus, sharks’ teeth—not
the kind that yoga people eat—glass and disease flying around and
guns firing and saws being pulled back and forth by carpenters who
gave up on their dreams."
And then he stopped.
"And that lit-tle baby’s face," Mr. Shapiro
whispered into the mike. "Its smile was being held up by seven Asian
children, with bangs held up by red balloons."
"I go by William Blake," Mr. Shapiro said later.
His extreme humor, he continued, is a form of searching for truth.
"‘The potential for prophecy lies deep within everyone.’ You think
you ain’t getting it? You’re getting it—even if you’re walking out.
I’ve seen the way people walk out. They don’t walk out like they’re
not getting it."
At 3 a.m. the next Tuesday, Mr. Shapiro slid into
the booth of the Westway Diner in Hell’s Kitchen, where Jerry
Seinfeld and Larry David purportedly hatched the original plans for
Seinfeld. He had just finished a set at Ha! Comedy Club,
where he was working on boiling down an hour’s worth of jokes into
the seven-minute routine of a normal comic, which he would need for
at least some shows if he ever planned to work the national club
The city’s hundreds of diners and coffee shops are
Mr. Shapiro’s main sources of solace, the places where he can write
and try out new material in peace. For someone like Mr. Shapiro, who
normally heads to bed around dawn, they’re also a great way to avoid
going home to his tiny sublet apartment on West 65th Street. He eats
almost every meal at diners, and claims he once walked from the
Village up to 76th Street and waved to at least one waiter in every
coffee shop on the way. It’s hard to believe, until you follow Mr.
Shapiro into several coffee shops around the city and hear "Heyyyyy,
Ricky!" from the owner, the waiters and the immigrant busboys.
Mr. Shapiro yawned and slumped down, critiquing and
cursing that night’s mediocre set and the other performers. I tried
to get him to give me a quick autobiography, but over the next two
hours, every question led to a tangent, which would then branch off
to another story, with two or three nested tales in between.
"We jump around and I get confused," he complained,
chewing away at his Buffalo wings with tiny bites, like a
What can be gleaned is that Mr. Shapiro had a
deceptively normal suburban childhood in Oakhurst, N.J., near Asbury
Park. His father was the dermatologist for the New York Knicks, his
mother a social worker. He earned D’s and F’s in most subjects, but
scored A’s in English. By 12, he was writing poetry and plays, which
his "practical" father tore up.
Mr. Shapiro started college nearby, but fled to New
York University, where he dated girls from Manhattan prep schools,
washed dishes and gambled to make enough money to afford to take
them out. He was soon mired in debt. To pay it off, the shy, cute
kid from New Jersey became a prostitute. He worked the clubs on East
54th Street, and wealthy middle-aged men took him home to opulent
apartments. The coke habit and heroin addictions Mr. Shapiro soon
picked up drove him further into the vortex of hustling.
"I can’t believe what I let myself do," he said,
It took him seven years to escape, but those
experiences have provided some of the best fodder for his comedy. He
sells bumper stickers that say: "Rick Shapiro: I Sucked Dick for
In a quiet moment in another coffee shop, probably
around 1987—he’s not sure exactly when—Mr. Shapiro decided to get
clean. He became more serious about acting and standup, something
he’d done on and off since college. During a long New York tenure
punctuated by two short stints in L.A., he was crowned the next big
thing over and over again by the critics and his peers. He had a
recurring character, "the Angry Poet," on Late Night with Conan
O’Brien and starred in Late Night writer Louis C.K.’s
cult short films. Comedian Dave Attell once called him up, asking,
"How does it feel to be the new genius in town?" Yet, as many of his
friends became stars on shows from Saturday Night Live to
The Sopranos, Mr. Shapiro never broke out.
Each time he came close, he told me, he
self-destructed. Mr. Shapiro was thrown off Late Night
because, on an Earth Day segment, he went off-script, drop-kicking a
globe, which prompted the audience to break out chanting, "We ain’t
doormats!" He lost a small role in a Damon Wayans movie when he
yelled "Fuck you!" at a production assistant and threw lasagna at
him during lunch break in Washington Square Park. The WB called him
in for a pitch meeting, and he was so cocky ("We think you’re
hysterical!" "Yeah, I know") that they didn’t invite him back.
One night, about 10 years ago, Mr. Shapiro hit
bottom. He closed the blinds of every window in his Los Angeles
apartment and refused to leave. His nerves were going wild. He got
into bed and pulled the sheets up to his nose and just lay there,
His manager at the time, Jason Solomon—Denis
Leary’s manager—had brought him from New York to L.A. just months
before. For 13 straight weeks, Mr. Shapiro had packed the theater
above the famed Improv comedy club. He was on the short list for a
movie lead opposite Eddie Murphy. The producers of Seinfeld
wanted him for a role that might have become a regular character.
After nearly 10 years as an actor-comic with great "potential," Rick
Shapiro was finally about to make it.
Instead, he panicked. "I couldn’t handle the nerves
anymore," Mr. Shapiro said.
He checked himself into the psychiatric ward at
Cedars-Sinai, where he remained for two weeks. On the day of the
Eddie Murphy callback, he was on a plane, flying home to New
"He kind of self-sabotaged," Mr. Solomon said.
Self-sabotaging, it seems, was what Mr. Shapiro did
even better than comedy.
"I think Rick is a comic genius—probably the most
important comic of our time," said Lach, the mononymous owner of the
indie label Fortified Records and a fixture of the downtown
Manhattan entertainment scene—and also an ex-Shapiro manager.
While most of Mr. Shapiro’s friends and managers
said it’s this self-destructive nature that has held him back,
others believe it’s just the nature of his act. Much of his material
just doesn’t translate to television, where most young comics first
gain national exposure.
"On television, he can’t say half the things he
does onstage," said Jeff Singer, a producer at Tough Crowd,
who said he hopes that Mr. Shapiro will someday get a chance to
perform on a network like HBO, where he wouldn’t be as
"His stuff is outside the realm of commercial TV,"
Mr. Shapiro’s latest almost-hit-the-big-time saga
wasn’t the result of his own doing—it was just pure showbiz bad
luck. In late February, he was set to star in a highly anticipated
Off Broadway show: a word-for-word reproduction of Lenny Bruce’s
legendary Carnegie Hall performance of Feb. 4, 1961. The word was
that Lenny, created by original Carnegie show’s producer, Don
Friedman, would propel Mr. Shapiro to fame and fortune. Then, with
little warning, some of the show’s backers pulled their funding, and
Mr. Friedman was left with a star, a script and no money to put on
the show. A few weeks later, because of personal problems unrelated
to Mr. Shapiro, his manager quit the business and left New York. The
status of Lenny now remains in limbo, and Mr. Shapiro is
plugging away at clubs like the Village Lantern and Stand-Up New
York, turning down offers from new managers and waiting for the
right one to come along, hoping that if he chooses wisely, the
decision might lead, finally, to his big break.
Mr. Shapiro was so nervous, walking onto the set at
his second appearance on Tough Crowd the next Thursday
afternoon, that he stepped past the spot where he was supposed to
sit. His hair was neatly brushed, and he almost would have looked
presentable if not for the rip across the knees of his jeans. Mr.
Shapiro sat with his elbow resting on the back of the chair, like he
was "about to get up and leave," supervising producer Ken Ober told
him after the show.
On Tough Crowd, Mr. Quinn and four comics
argue and joke about current events, and during the taping, Mr.
Shapiro competed with comics a decade younger than him for airtime.
Many of their jokes bombed—the producers edit out the least-funny
material before broadcast—but most of Mr. Shapiro’s one-liners got
big laughs from the studio audience. During a discussion of sex
workers near the Mexican border, the roaring laughter from the crowd
when Mr. Shapiro said, "Well, if you’re a consumer of handjobs, I
believe that—" nearly drowned out the rest of his commentary.
"Rick’s killin’ ‘em," Mr. Quinn said to the
audience near the end of the show.
Mr. Shapiro’s jokes were slightly tamer than his
standup act, but they were also shorter and snappier. On every
issue, Mr. Quinn motioned toward Mr. Shapiro, giving him the chance
to weigh in. He was clearly the evening’s alpha comic.
"I don’t think I’ll ever be that normal comic," Mr.
Shapiro said in yet another diner after the show. "There’s all
different types of comics. In a way, I’m carrying a sword, I’m
cutting through a bunch of bullshit—whether I make it or not. I hate
people saying how brave we are because we’re comics. In this
business, you’re afraid all the time," he said. "I think I’m gonna
make it. I gotta not worry so much, I guess."
Mr. Shapiro chuckled to himself and took a sip of
his coffee, his hand shaking slightly. Then he rushed into a cab. He
had another show to do at the Sidewalk, and if he didn’t hurry, he
might be late.
This column ran on page 1 in the 5/17/2004 edition of The New
COPYRIGHT © 2004
THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
There are many New York heroin addiction treatment centers dedicated to helping people addicted to the opioid kick the habit.