Chicago comedian James Anthony Zoccoli is a walking study in cultural contrasts — half Italian and half Polish, born on the South Side and raised on the North Side. He’s also given to bursts of zaniness that inform his latest undertaking, “The Game Show Show … & Stuff!” But he’s a serious student of comedic craft learned from many, many hours of watching TV as a kid.
“I was watching Steve Martin and Richard Pryor way too young, and always had a big yen for comedy because of who my parents were,” recalls Zoccoli, 39. “Because things didn’t go well for them (they divorced in 1975), I was always trying to look at the brighter side of things. I was a huge game show fan, and tried to escape reality. During the good and bad things, I’d try to keep things light.”
In creating his own entertainment escape, Zoccoli has a bona-fide hit on his hands: “The Game Show Show … & Stuff!” was named Best Late Night by Chicago Magazine two years in a row and began an extended run at the Mercury Theatre in Fall 2011. Describing it is a challenge, even for Zoccoli: It’s a show with games, music and bizarre takes on burlesque comedy that has run at multiple venues over the past six years and was on the Chicago Reader’s Best Kept Secret list in 2008.
“It’s kind of like a variety show that meets a game show,” say Zoccoli, who acts as the emcee. “One of our main things is to get people from the audience up on stage, playing games and winning fabulous prizes. But to satisfy people’s needs for instant gratification, we have a live band that plays during intermission.”
With roots in Santo Stefano di Aspromonte, Zoccoli can trace his great-grandfather’s immigration to Ellis Island via the SS America in 1914. His father, he says, was “a big funny dude” with a soft spot in his heart for the underdog: “I grew up being a huge fan of the Rocky movies, and was into this urban immigrant against all odds stories. I think that’s partially because I knew that my family had come over from Italy pretty recently.”
He’s also has some film credits under his belt, with appearances in “The Express,” “Klya’s Law” and “A Perfect Manhattan.” Besides his comedy, writing and film pursuits, James also teaches improvisation, writes poetry, makes art — and is an ordained minister. “I’m part of the Universal Life Church,” he says. “I got ordained online.”
For now, Zoccoli’s content to be a high priest of wacky late-night fun. “As a comedian, I love to get up and do funny stuff — but I also get to stand back and watch the audience laugh and shout,” he says. “I’m having a tangible effect on people and they’re having a good time, they’ve never seen anything like it.”
For more information on how to catch “The Game Show Show … & Stuff!” in 2012, visit gameshowshow.com; learn more about Zoccoli at jamesanthonyzoccoli.com.