When Sal Richards performs, you go for the jokes, but you may come out humming a familiar tune. The veteran comic, who appears 8 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, regularly breaks into song as the spirit moves him.
One minute, Richards might be doing Tony Bennett, the next thing he's cueing up his longtime musical director Steve Michaels for some Nat King Cole, The Platters or if the audience asks –– even Lady Gaga.
"I improvise a lot," Richards says. "Some of the older folks call out Jerry Vale and Perry Como. I do them to accommodate them. I get young kids coming in, calling out rap artists and Justin Bieber, and I play with it and have fun with it."
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native fittingly started out as a singer before moving into stand-up during the height of the nightclub era. Known as Mr. Laughs, he's mainly worked the showroom circuit, save the occasional acting role. His credits include TV's "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" and "The Sopranos" and the big-screen "Rounders."
Richards discusses his decision to tell his life story –– warts and all –– and how he kept going for the laughs, even when his life hit bottom.
Q: You came to comedy through music. Are you ever sorry you didn't try to develop your singing side?
A: I think comedy was my true calling. When I started out as a singer, I would get on stage and sing a couple of songs, and do some shtick with the audience. The owner would say, "Are you a comedian or a singer –– make up your mind." I came to comedy by accident. One day, the comic MC didn't show up. The boss asked me if I could MC the show. I went out and started doing jokes I heard other comics tell –– I fooled around with the audience. The guy hired me as a steady MC to save money and gave me an extra 50 bucks a week.
Q: You captured your life story first through the documentary, "Mr. Laughs: A Look Behind the Curtain," and later in the memoir, "Behind the Laughter, Hidden Tears." What made you want to write the book?
A: I didn't tell it all in the documentary. There are a lot of things I went through in my life when I was making people laugh. I had my son (Sal Jr.) home in a coma due to complications from leukemia. I tried to explain to people what you need to do to overcome these things to survive. Although laughter is the best medicine, there are times when it doesn't help, especially for the person giving the laughter. I felt it was time for them to know where I'm coming from –– what I'm about.
Q: You were recently roasted by the Footlighters Club at Florida's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. How was it to be the butt of the jokes by showbiz pals such as Pat Cooper, Dick Capri and Connie Francis?
A: I was humbled by it a little bit, to see all those friends come out for me. It really made me feel excited, even though they were knocking me down and ripping me apart. They showed me no mercy. I can't repeat anything they said.
I have returned the favor in the past. They roasted Pat Cooper once –– I gave them what-for. Some people you have to be careful about. When they roast a lady, I back off. I make it about the friendship, rather than the vulgarity –– it shows respect.
Q: You try to adhere to a certain comic standard?
A: I've been in the business a long time. I had my faults –– I explain all that in the book. I explain my problems with drinking and gambling. You come to the point in your life, you think people are looking at how funny you are. When they see you off stage and see how you act, that's what they remember more than anything else.
Q: You talk about how you were the life of the party, but it wasn't going to end well.
A: Twenty-seven or 28 years ago, I stopped drinking, smoking and gambling all at once –– now I'm boring. When my son (Sal Jr.) passed away, I was quitting the business. I didn't want to work anymore. He came with me everywhere. When I came back to work, I was suffering. I would go for a drink, I would go for a blackjack game, I was covering my hurt somehow. Then I saw what it was doing to me. I looked in the mirror, and said, "Your son wouldn't be proud of this." So I stopped My whole life changed –– I'm very happy for that.