Two asthmatics got together for Oscar-related laughs (as opposed to asthma attacks) at Cigar Jones in Wayzata. The cigar bar is one of comedian Jeff Cesario's favorite haunts when he returns to the Twin Cities, where he lived in the early 1980s while getting his standup career off the ground at the now-defunct Mickey Finn's. His career, now well aloft, got another lift when Billy Crystal hired Cesario to join the team of comedians writing for Crystal's 2012 return as host of the Academy Awards, airing tonight on ABC. For some reason, being around cigar smoke, unlike my problem with cigarette smoke, did not trigger my asthma problems -- or Cesario's, who provided comic commentary, after taking a hit on his inhaler, about combing the activities on my startribune.com/video. This cigar bar, an elegantly cool establishment, may become my new hangout in the months leading up to June, when a Wisconsin club known as the "Cigar Babes" has booked a gathering there. Ladies, the restroom, despite most of the users being men, was cleaner and tidier than some I've seen in upscale homes.
Q Had you met Billy Crystal before getting this Oscars gig?
A Once before. We were playing hoops. Really enjoyed playing with him because he's a gifted athlete. Great baseball player. When he played hoops he was like Ricky Rubio, dishing the ball everywhere. The softest hands and passes. His passes would just drop in your hands. But we didn't really have a chance to talk. Now I'm getting to know him a little bit. We've had a couple of meetings. Really looking forward to this. This should be a blast. Billy's put his team together, and fortunately they had a free-agent slot. I wrote up a packet and they dug what I did and I'm on the staff. I'm tickled to be the new guy, to sit there and learn. We'll just keep writing and writing and writing. It's fun writing jokes. He's a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of guy. Very unpretentious. Not going to be a lot of diva drama with Billy Crystal. He wants to hit a big home run, as he's done eight times hosting the awards already.
Q How many are on Crystal's team?
A I think there's a staff of about 10 to 12, depending on how many of the guys from New York can participate.
Q Is this how we dress to write?
A Exactly. This is the perfect writer's outfit. This is a nice shirt, but one on which I am unafraid to spill something as I'm wolfing pizza down. I get an idea while I've got food in my mouth -- not unusual for an Italian -- boom, right down the front, bang, right in the washer. In fact, we have a washer and dryer right in the writers' room.
Q You're kidding me.
A Yes, I am kidding.
Q Will you be at the show that night, writing jokes while Crystal is on air?
A I don't know. That's strictly in his hands. He's got guys I've written with on other award shows and projects [who] are just lightning fast off the top of their heads. I'm no slouch, but when you've got guys who know your voice... I imagine he'll have backstage two or three guys, his consiglieres, who have been on his team for 20 years.
Q You've been on a comedy team before?
A I was on Dennis Miller's team. Garry Shandling. You get a team you trust, guys you love, who understand your voice. It's almost like putting a baseball team together. You've got a guy who can give you 150 pitches a game, a guy who can throw heat in the last few innings. Billy put his team together, and fortunately they had a free-agent slot.
Q What have been some challenges as you tried to grow as a comedian?
A I didn't have the guts to start talking about myself. That was a step up that [I had] to take if I was going to evolve as a standup. And I still didn't take it for another 10 years. Garry Shandling really led the way for me to do that.
Q What is your process?
A For me, joke-writing is a muscle, and if you exercise it, you're in better shape, thinking quicker. You are getting the jokes a little faster.
Q Who's your favorite Botox-lipped LA TV anchor?
A Wow. You can't deny the Minneapolis transplant, Paul Magers. Paul's probably not into the Botox, at least not into the lips yet. I think he's had a little neck work. Here's why I still kind of feel for Paul: He's on the CBS affiliate out there. He's good at the little stupid transitional interplay to get from one story to another. He's good at that because he's genuinely interested in other humans, like a Midwesterner. They [Magers' on-air colleagues] don't know what to do with that. They'll just look at him like a deer in headlights.
Q Tell me about dating women who act.
A I met a good woman back here, 20 years ago. Definitely make it clear that the women I may be referring to, some of them fictitious, are a long, long time ago, Honey [a reference to his wife, Michelle]. You've got to focus all your energy on your career. So you're out on a date, and a producer walks by, and they turn profile because they know that's their good side. I didn't have the brains to do that. That's probably why my performing career isn't as far along as it could be. It's a little tough to date someone who's as narcissistic as you are.
Q Who makes you laugh?
A Billy Crystal, Dennis Miller, Garry Shandling, Richard Pryor, Leno, Seinfeld, [the late] Steve Landesberg, Patton Oswalt, Lizz Winstead, Neal Brennan. Jeff Foxworthy may be one of the most underrated writers ever.
Q You seem too nice to tell me of any comedians you don't like.
A Anybody who steals. Now, I don't know Carlos Mencia personally, but there seems to be enough evidence out there that he's at least borrowed pretty heavily. [Mencia's Wikipedia entry even mentions this allegation.]
Q You lived with Louie Anderson near 37th and Cedar. What is one of the culinary tips you learned from Louie? [Anderson is appearing at Brave New Workshop March 10.]
A Yeah, when I was doing standup comedy, I got into the rotation at Mickey Finn's pretty quickly. I wrote a lot of stuff, and comedy was just getting hot. Louie needed a roommate. I thought, "I've got to save some dough." Louie -- great roommate -- taught me you can scrape the cream filling of a Suzy Q out with a potato chip. I was this little anal retentive dude out of Wisconsin, born and raised Italian Catholic, [saying] "You can't do that.... Oh my God, this is incredible! [making wolfing-down noises]"
Interviews are edited for space and clarity. C.J., who is at 612.332.TIPS or firstname.lastname@example.org, can be seen questioning everything on Fox 9 Thursday mornings and other times.
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