You wouldn’t think that a guy who was once a Wall Street lawyer and investment banker for Credit Suisse would find himself doing standup at a bar with a two-drink minimum. But that’s more or less what comedian Paul Mecurio will be doing at The Punchline for the next four nights.
Originally from Rhode Island, Paul received a law degree from Georgetown University and went to work on Wall Street when he got out of school. However, he always felt a creative pull, making films and writing jokes in his spare time. His efforts eventually landed one of his short films in HBO’s US Comedy Arts Festival, held in Aspen in the early ’90s. A while later, he was at a private Wall Street function where Jay Leno performed. Mercurio approached him after his set and passed him a few of his own jokes.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m a lawyer and a banker. I don’t know what I’ll do with them. You can have them,’ ” Mecurio says. “So the next day, I get this phone call and it’s Jay Leno. And he says he wants me to write jokes for the Tonight Show monologue and he’ll pay me $50 a joke.” Mecurio says that Leno told him he “wrote like a lawyer — too wordy,” and to trim the setup and get to the punchline more quickly.
Mecurio accepted the gig, but continued working on Wall Street, leading a shadowy double life as a joke writer for the same late night television show his colleagues were watching over tumblers of scotch as they reclined after a long day working in tall buildings.
Leno told him to start working out some of his material at open mics around New York, and the contrast between his two professional lives became all the more striking, sneaking out to shady dive bars to do comedy during dinner breaks he’d take from the office.
“I couldn’t tell anybody in either world what I was doing, because the Wall Street people would have said it wasn’t proper behavior, and I couldn’t tell anybody at these dive bars because I probably would have gotten rolled for money or something,” Mecurio says, relayoing a story about a time a guy got stabbed at place where he was performing and proceeded to throw a bloody napkin at him on stage in rebuke of his act.
Mecurio had to explain his blood-spattered shirt when he returned to his colleagues, whom he described to be alarmingly unperturbed by what appeared to be evidence of foul play.
“It was like something out of American Psycho,” he says.
Eventually, oscillating between being a suit and being a comic became too much to bear, and Mecurio left his high-paying job to become a full-time funnyman. He landed his first big writing gig in 1996 at what was then a plucky, bootstrapped program casting shade on news and pop culture: The Daily Show.
“It was fun, because in the beginning we didn’t really have any budget, so we’d copy sound bites off NBC and use them without their permission and they’d yell at us and say, ‘Stop or we’ll sue.’ Then we’d go get stuff from ABC. … It was kind of the Wild, Wild West. If was fun,” Mecurio says.
Mecurio won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody for his work on The Daily Show, and when Jon Stewart resigned, he moved over to Late Night with Stephen Colbert, a long-time friend of his. He still works there as a warm-up comic for the live audience, does on-air standup, and appears on various segments.
These days, you can catch Mecurio as a commentator and host on various programs on CNN, CBS, NBC, Fox News, MSNBC, and other channels. He also hosts a weekly podcast, 2 Chairs and a Microphone, in which he interviews A-listers like Bryan Cranston, Judd Apatow, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Rob Reiner, and Paul McCartney.
And of course, you can catch him right here in San Francisco starting Thursday night at The Punch Line.
“I love San Francisco, I’ve been coming here for a while,” he says. “San Francisco’s a hip town, and it’s just a great place to be creative and get a lot of work done. Your work is respected, and people have a really good take on the whole vibe of standup. They really appreciate it as an art form.”
Paul Mecurio, Thursday, March 30 – Saturday, April 1, 8 p.m., at The Punch Line, 444 Battery St. $22; punchlinecomedyclub.com