Bankrate: You certainly disproved the stereotype, having grown up in Bensonhurst and gone on to college and successful careers in business and entertainment.
I grew up very poor. We were on welfare, actually.
I got loans and went to Brooklyn College when
it was still inexpensive, but I still couldn't
afford it. I left New York in 1980 with $1,400
and a 1969 Javelin, drove across the country in
July with a friend of mine and the air conditioning
went out in Pennsylvania. I got to Vegas with
a grand and a place to stay but no job. I worked
some crappy jobs -- pizza delivery guy, deli counter,
dishwasher -- then became a bouncer, a manager
of a nightclub, a maitre d' and eventually became
an entertainment director. Even before the acting,
I was doing fine. I bought an acre of land in
1987 out there for 25 grand, which is now worth
a half a million dollars.
Bankrate: You wound up at the Riviera, right?
Schirripa: At the Riviera, yeah. I started at Paul Anka's delivering pizza, which was still making quite a bit of money back then. I mean, I was a bouncer making 40 grand a year in 1982. That was pretty good money then.
Bankrate: I guess you were a pretty good bouncer?
Schirripa: I was a good bouncer, yeah. I wasn't as big then. I was more a "you-try-to-reason-with-them" kind of bouncer -- "Come on, pal, you've had a little too much, come back tomorrow." That approach.
Bankrate: How did that segue into performing?
I started running a comedy club at the Riviera,
The Improv. They were paying a fortune to this
Improv guy, and he would pocket all the money
and pay the comics very little. They came to me
and said, "Can you do this?" And I said,
"Of course, I can," because I had been
working there for so long. I had to learn on the
go. I learned contracts, the money, did a lot
of research on how much acts get. That's the big
secret, how much do they actually get. A lot of
networking, calling. I caught on pretty quickly.
Nobody in the mid-'90s in Vegas
was doing it then. They had the clubs, but they
weren't on to Drew Carey and Ray Romano and Damon
Wayans and those guys, that next tier of comics,
so we started doing it. And because the Riviera
is obviously a second-tier hotel, we couldn't
afford the big money, so we would make door deals
with them; I would pay 10 grand plus the backend,
like 80 percent of the door, so they could make
a nice payday, and a lot of them did: Denis Leary,
Pauly Shore, Kevin James, the Wayans brothers.
It was at the Top of the Riv. Some of them, like
Drew Carey and David Spade, got big enough to
go down into the ballroom. We really picked up
steam, and soon Caesars and the Hilton and the
MGM came along and started paying $50,000, $60,000
a show to guys I was paying percentages to. I
gave a lot of them their first shot at the big
room. I only asked them to give me just one more
shot before they went for the big money, and every
single guy kept their word.