Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, Paul Mecurio never harbored aspirations of comedy. “It didn’t even dawn on me,” he says. “The closest we got to entertainment was Bill DeLeo, the TV repair guy.”
It’s not that he was too practical to pursue comedic dreams, or that he wanted to make a pile of dough and retire at 32 to dabble in joke-telling. The son of first-generation Italian-Americans wanted to go to college and liked the massive Midtown Manhattan law firm he suited up for each day.
But while delving into law school text books and, later on, M&A briefs, short film ideas began to percolate in his head. One day, he played hooky to shoot a black-and-white short film. “I said my mom was sick, and then I shot at a place called Something Big and Tall at 52nd and Sixth and it was literally a block-and-a-half from my office and I’m like, ‘What was I thinking?’” Mecurio recalls. “I’m shooting out on the sidewalk freaking out people are going to walk by from work.”
He managed to shoot Gloves, his dark comedy short, without getting caught, but then the film made it into the Aspen Comedy Festival. “I lied to [the firm], told them my mom needed help in her store,” he confesses. “I was supposed to be doing an M&A deal.”
At the firm, Mecurio was a suit, but in Colorado, the likes of Albert Brooks, Frank Lee, and the Hudlin brothers saw a scrappy 26-year-old filmmaker trying to make it. Mecurio began living a white collar kind of double life. “I always kept the two worlds separate,” he says. “I felt like I’d be looked at as some rich kid who couldn’t be taken seriously and I couldn’t tell the firm ’cause you gave your soul to that, right?”
Pulling all-nighters to churn out deals, Mecurio’s brain kept spitting out jokes. Keeping one foot in each world paid off when the firm was invited to a special event with Jay Leno as the private entertainment. “I went up to Jay Leno, and I go, ‘I don’t know if you need jokes, but I’m a fan and you can have these,’” handing The Tonight Show host ten pages of amateur material. “And then [Leno] goes, ‘Hey come back here! You might wanna put your name and your phone number on here so I know how to reach you.’”
One day, the phone rang and it was Leno. He was going to use a joke on the air. “It got a really good laugh and it was the most powerful thing that ever happened to me," Mecurio said. “I’m doing M&A deals that are on the front page for the Wall Street Journal and on Forbes and this $50 stupid little joke grabbed me by the throat and just shook the shit out of me.”
Mecurio became obsessed with writing jokes and trying them out at open mic nights, currying between his marbled Midtown office to dingy dives like Downtown Beirut. (“There was a sign on the men’s room door that said, ‘The toilet seats only to be used to go to the bathroom, not to cut coke. Thank you, The Management.’”) The thought of choosing one road—particularly the one less traveled—terrified him.
Just before he turned 30, Mecurio gained the nerve he needed to return to New York and quit his day job. “I sold my apartment, and I moved to a rooming house, living with two ex-cons, two recovering addicts, a 300-pound phone sex operator who sold herbal diet products door-to-door.”
And...Mecurio was miserable, ultimately accepting a job running a bank and recreated his old life.
But in Mecurio’s world, comedy was as inevitable as gravity. “Two months later, I was back doing comedy again like a drug addict looking for drugs.”
Back to the seedy open mic nights, back to scribbling jokes. He even filmed a small comedy bit that got buried and filed in the “Things-That-Will-Never-See-The-Light-Of-Day Folder.”
And then he walked into the bank one morning and his boss leapt up. “‘Did I see you on TV last night? Doing some jokes?’” Mecurio recounts. The double agent had been caught. “They aired it and didn’t tell me. There was a long pause and then he goes, ‘Hey, everybody! My investment banker’s a comedian!’
“I think I needed that validation from that world. When he said that to me, something like a weight came off my shoulders, like it was OK for me to do it.”
Mecurio quit finance for good. That’s when The Daily Show called. Mecurio wrote for the Jon Stewart show from 1996 until 2002 before working on his own Comedy Central show.
Now, Mecurio warms up audiences for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, but he doesn’t do stand-up; Mecurio depends entirely on the stories of his audience. “I found if you talk to people, you shock them into attention and then you could slip a joke in,” he says.
That conversational comedy, the personal interaction became his calling card and the premise of his Off-Broadway show Permission to Speak With Paul Mecurio playing at the Jerry Orbach Theatre, just two blocks south of the Ed Sullivan Theatre.
But it’s Mecurio’s uncanny sixth sense about people—cutting quick and deep to the humor in their stories—that sets his apart from typical comedian/audience banter.
“You ask a question and you listen, really listen, not worrying about trying to be funny, and just follow the conversation,” he says. “If something doesn’t smell right, it smells like B.S., say it.”
“It’s the best time of the day for me. It’s the freest I am,” he says. “The reason it’s called Permission to Speak is two-fold: 1. You literally have permission to speak. 2. You really have permission to say what you think you can’t say.”
Mecurio’s goal is to create an experience—less comedian call to audience response than extracting people’s wild stories, like discovering the 68-year-old couple who met because one was looking for a dom and the other a sub, or when he unearths the story of the lesbian couple who live with their three kids and an ex-husband in the same house.
“Everybody has a story and if we talk and talk to each other, maybe we connect a little bit and things are a little better so we’re not nameless and faceless when we’re walking down the street,” he says.
But don’t be fooled that Permission to Speak is all Kumbaya. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, let’s all hold hands and get together.’ It’s none of that horse shit,” he says. “It’s like, ‘You walk away figuring this out.’ I’m more interested in art that lets me decide, ultimately, what I feel about it.”
“Life is super entertaining,” he says, “and people’s stories are super entertaining.” It takes one to know one.