Although profanity and sex humor are almost prerequisites for a successful standup comedy act these days, John Pinette's built a 26-year career in the business while almost completely avoiding those elements. Where other comics would go for expletives and tales of sexual mishaps, Pinette's particular pleasure is good clean comedy about food. "It's a common ground," he says. "I try to make a point of talking to people at the shows as much as I can. I was really starting to find out how much effect clean material had on them. Now it's to the point where I just don't see myself onstage working really blue."
It's clearly paid off for Pinette; he's produced multiple comedy specials and albums, done numerous film and TV appearances and played the role of Edna Turnblad in the touring cast of Hairspray, in addition to his steady standup work. "When I first started, I wasn't the standup I wanted to be," Pinette says. "But it was early on that I chose to be a man for all people. It just worked out, and again, it was no conscious decision. It just kind of evolved."
As he worked through that evolutionary process, Pinette's formative years brought some remarkable early opportunities. His first big job in the biz was hosting the TV show Grudge Match alongside Jesse Ventura and Steve Albert, in 1990. "That was the first gig where I said, 'OK, I'm not going to be homeless,'" Pinette says. 1992 brought an even bigger break, as Pinette got a series of gigs opening for Frank Sinatra, whom he refers to as "Mr. S." "From a live perspective, there was nothing like touring with Mr. S.," he says. "It really propelled me. It was a lot to take in, because I was 29 years old, but I think I wrapped my head around it pretty well."
As he developed his material, Pinette says building local support across the U.S. was key to his success. "I was selling out clubs, but I wasn't so much a national name until I began to do six shows a week," he says. "Everyone says New York and L.A. are important, and there's certainly truth to that. But it's because of the local people in many areas, certainly like Detroit, that came out time after time. There's no question about it."
Pinette's still riding out the success of that well-established material and well-established fanbase; he still tours steadily and he premiered a new Comedy Central special and DVD, Still Hungry, last summer. Despite his lengthy experience, he says creating the special involved a long process of careful refinement. Although he doesn't use writers, he brings in a team of trusted fellow comics for input whenever he's working on a special to make sure he's not "missing anything." "You're not shooting a special unless you're going on tour for three hard months," Pinette says. "By the time you shoot, you should be very comfortable with the material and it should be very much a part of you, and that way you can kind of throw things out there."
For this food-obsessed comic, working up new material can involve some field research. Pinette says he's a huge fan of the Food Channel, particularly Andrew Zimmern. "He's like the kid you would dump all your trays on in grammar school and give him a buck and he'd eat it," Pinette says. "And he turned it into a career, God bless him." Although Pinette may talk about grub a lot, he doesn't quite share Zimmern's undiscriminating tastes. "I'm actually a pretty fussy eater," he says. "You put me in Uganda and give me a goat's ass to eat, I'm still hungry. I'm not happy with that." | RDW
John Pinette • 6/14, 8 p.m. • MotorCity Casino Sound Board • 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit • 313.237.7711 • motorcitycasino.com • $35-$43