By Josh Hammer
January 10, 1983 12:00 PM

It was an encounter that Joe Piscopo won’t soon forget. During the spring of 1981 the young stand-up comic, sometime impressionist and longtime Sinatra fan was floundering about in a replacement lineup on Saturday Night Live. One Saturday John Belushi, who had left the cast of SNL two years earlier, was hanging out backstage, and the two comedians clicked. “After the show,” remembers Piscopo, “we went down to the Blues Bar [a private club Belushi and Dan Aykroyd owned in lower Manhattan], and he said to me, ‘I got something I want you to listen to.’ At that point I was really intimidated by him because we’d just met. So he puts New York, New York on the jukebox, and we were doing ‘Dueling Sinatras.’ Every time we got together after that, he’d just look at me and go ‘I’ve got you…under my skin…’ ”

Today Belushi’s fellow doobie-doobie-doo brother Joe Piscopo, 31, has landed, with Eddie Murphy, on top of the comic heap in a newly revitalized Saturday Night Live, where his celebrity caricatures have scored repeated satiric bull’s-eyes. Most memorably, Piscopo has gotten under the skin of Sinatra with a series of inspired sketches featuring Piscopo as Ol’ Blue Eyes doing duets with various rock superstars from Mick Jagger (played by Tim Curry) to Stevie Wonder (Eddie Murphy). From that has blossomed his recently released novelty record I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, in which Piscopo croons out a medley of such Sinatrified hard-rock classics as Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb. Sales are approaching 100,000, and Piscopo, who made his first non-SNL appearance as Sinatra on the HBO-televised Catch a Rising Star’s 10th Anniversary show last October, has proven his crowd-drawing ability with concerts at Radio City Music Hall and New Jersey’s Meadowlands Byrne Arena.

“When I do Sinatra, it’s very special to me,” says Piscopo. “My father’s such a big Sinatra fan, and I guess it sort of rubbed off.” The Sinatra shtick is also, Piscopo admits, his biggest challenge. “Sinatra is almost the opposite of who I am,” he explains. “He’s so confident in everything he does. Doing him gives me confidence.”

Confidence is something Piscopo was short on during that first dismal year on SNL, an experience he remembers as a nightmare. “I never really wanted to do the show. I knew that it would continually be compared to the old one, and how could you possibly follow that act? People would come up to me on the street and say, ‘Hey, you’re the new guy from Saturday Night Live.’ I’d say, ‘Yeah!’ And they’d say, ‘You suck! Get outta there!’ I did it anyway, and it was the disaster I thought.”

In March 1981 Dick Ebersol, who had helped create the original show, became SNL’s executive producer, and this change marked a turning point for both Piscopo and the show. Ebersol fired everyone in the cast except for Piscopo and Murphy and encouraged Joe to develop his one-man repertory company. His staccato sportscaster (“Hello again, everybody. Joe Piscopo. Live. Saturday Night Sports. The big story?…”) became a popular fixture, as did Or Blue Eyes. “I think Joe surprised himself by how much he could learn,” says Ebersol. “I never doubted him, but he had an innate fear that’s gone away over the past year.”

This year, in fact, Piscopo has emerged as “everybody’s big brother” on SNL, says Ebersol, 35. Indeed, although Joe himself shies away from the appellation, he seems ready-made for the role, coming across offstage as a friendly, jocky and unassuming kid from the suburbs who’s still slightly dazed by his success, rather than a high-powered cutup in the Belushi-Robin Williams mold.

His new self-assurance has been vastly helped, he says, by his close friendship and collaboration with Murphy, the 21-year-old comedian whose impressions of Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby and Buckwheat have become Saturday Night Live classics. So tight is their relationship that Piscopo has said he may quit the cast after the 1982-83 season if Murphy leaves, as rumored, to pursue his now flourishing film career. “It wouldn’t be as much fun without Eddie,” states Piscopo, who doesn’t view himself as necessary to SNL’s survival. “The money [$160,000 a year] isn’t a factor. Eddie is the one guy I really see eye to eye with there because we went through the first year together.” Murphy returns the compliment. “Joe is the only person there who keeps me sane,” Eddie has said. “I think he is one of the most talented guys in the world.”

Piscopo grew up in stable, happy circumstances in the upper-middle-class suburbs of New Jersey, where his father is an attorney. He had “a heavy drama background” in high school and wanted to go to NYU to study acting, but his grades were poor and he wound up at Jones College, “a high-rise on an expressway in Jacksonville, Fla.” There he spent most of his time surfing, doing a straight radio show and hanging out with his girlfriend, Nancy Jones, whom he met in 1970 and married three years later. He graduated with a degree in broadcast management and worked the dinner theater circuit before settling with Nancy near Princeton, N.J. For the next four and a half years he worked as a stand-up comic at Catch a Rising Star, the Improvisation and other Manhattan haunts. NBC spotted him in 1979 and put him on a $25,000 retainer for eight months. His successful audition for Saturday Night Live, in which he did Sinatra’s I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, took place the next year.

Today Joe, Nancy, 32, and son Joey, who turns 4 this month, live in Alpine, N.J., a serene New York City suburb that offers Piscopo a haven from the frenetic pace of Saturday Night Live. He stays in good physical shape by running 30 miles a week and credits Nancy with keeping his mental outlook healthy. “She’s terrific. She’s stable,” he says, “and she cannot for the life of her understand why anybody would want to be in this business.” Busier than ever, he’s discussing the possibility of doing a variety special for NBC and is planning another comedy record for release in March. “I want to be a recording star, a sportscaster and a major league baseball player,” Piscopo insists. In the meantime he’ll try his hand at female impersonation, mimicking comedienne Joan Rivers in a Saturday Night Live sketch, with Lily Tomlin planned for later this month. “We experiment every week,” he explains. “As Sinatra would say, ‘It’s mah-velous.’ ”