November 15, 2019

Jeremy Piven Tries His Luck at Stand-Up

Jeremy Piven

Playing the predatory agent Ari Gold for eight seasons on HBO’s “Entourage” and one film,  Jeremy Piven generated plenty of laughs and more than a few cringes. After four decades spent working largely in film and TV, the classically-trained Piven has turned to the comedy circuit to try his hand at stand-up. Piven, who will be at the American Comedy Company in San Diego on Nov. 23-25, has engagements booked through March of 2019 including a pair of January dates in Israel. 

The 53-year-old performer spoke with the Journal about personal journeys, foiled expectations and the need for laughter in turbulent times. 

Jewish Journal: What made you decide to give stand-up a go?

Jeremy Piven: I’d always been fascinated by stand-up and I’ve watched since I was a kid. I grew up in the theater. I did TV and film and I’ve hosted things but I’ve never done this. I really do feel like all roads lead to stand-up, and it’s been incredible.

JJ: Stand-up is still not necessarily what audiences might expect from you. How has the reception been so far?

JP: It’s going really well. Just having a background in straight theater and sketch comedy and improv allows me to just work hard, have fun and progress in this form. Audiences are basically saying to me afterward – and it’s an interesting, double-edged kind of backhanded compliment – they said they had no idea I was this funny. I’m so happy to be able to entertain them. At the same time, I’m well into this career and they didn’t know I was this funny? Does this mean I’ve been viciously mediocre in 70 movies?

JJ: Comedy-wise, do you consider any subject off limits?

JP: I think that nothing should be off limits, and yet I think it’s a case-by-case basis. People are there to laugh and what I really noticed is that even if an audience doesn’t necessarily agree with a stand-up’s ideology, they can still laugh and enjoy themselves. I think we need to come together to laugh now more than ever and be able to have people investigate what’s going on these days. If you’re incapable of changing your mind, then something’s wrong.

JJ: As you have interacted with people on stage and off, has anything taken you by surprise?

JP: Not at all. In fact, what’s fascinating to me is I think there’s a disconnect from the major cities like LA and New York. I’ve been all over the country and it’s just been incredible. People come out and I’m honored that they show up for me because they don’t have a reference for me doing stand-up. People will scream different lines, or scream “Lloyd.”  I think they’re a little taken aback by who I actually am, that I come from a theater family and that we grew up very modestly. 

Basically, my parents are hard-working artists and there were times when we were living in a retirement home to save money and I remember coming home and the couch was stolen and the coffee table was gone. I said to my mom, “We’ve been robbed!” But no, [we were] actually using it for the set of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” We used our own furniture and our own wardrobe. And nobody knows my journey maybe because I’ve played a character who was in a position of power or maybe because I’m viewed as a white guy who has come up through a privileged lifestyle. There may be some misconceptions about me. So it’s just an honor to be able to travel and speak my truth on stage.

“People said they had no idea I was this funny. I’m well into this career and they didn’t know I was this funny? Does this mean I’ve been viciously mediocre in 70 movies?”

JJ: Are you yourself on during your stand-up or are you playing a version of yourself?

JP: That’s a great question. In life, are we ourselves or are we playing ourselves? I am myself and I think that’s one of the great gifts of this particular time in my life. I think no matter how many interviews you do, in different forms of interacting as yourself, nothing will be as revealing or impactful as being your authentic self on stage. 

JJ: You mentioned your mother who ran the Piven Theater Workshop. When you started doing stand-up, did you bounce ideas or routines off her?

JP: She came to see me at the Laugh Factory and I was so nervous. Her opinion means the world to me. She was my acting teacher from the time I was a child and I just respect her as an artist and a person.  I was very nervous and she just had some really great, confirming things to say. 

JJ: You have a couple of dates scheduled for Israel. Will you adapt your set at all for those shows?

JP: The act continues to grow and change. That’s what this is all about: evolving and trying to find the best show possible and the best way to perform it and navigate that space. So I talk about my experience during my bar mitzvah for instance in my act currently, and I’m sure I will expand on that when I get to Israel.

I had an incredible experience there a couple of years ago. I went with some NBA players and I was bar mitzvah’d again at the Wailing Wall. The [NBA players] had never experienced a bar mitzvah. There were people of all different backgrounds that had never been in a temple. I talk about that onstage. I will probably heighten all of that material when I go to Israel.

JJ: Are you still observant?

JP: My father was incredibly religious. Even now I think theater was his temple as much as anything, but he passed away and we’re not as diligent as he was in terms of visiting temple. We’re just there for the High Holy Days but at the same time I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who are more observant, and also I get to witness many different ways to observe the holidays. When I’m in London, Marcus Weston who runs the Kabbalah Centre has been incredibly good to me and a brilliant mentor while I was there doing “Mr. Selfridge” for four years and he continues to be.