Standing up for more than just comedy

From sauce day high jinks to salami-making weekends, James Liotta’s hilarious anecdotes about growing up in an Italian-Australian family have resonated profoundly with audiences.

Like Joe Avati, George Kapiniaris and Tahir Bilgiç, James Liotta’s stories about his ethnic roots have not only struck a chord with immigrant communities, granting them representation on stage, but have also given the wider Australian community a better understanding of diasporic experiences across the country. Liotta explains the role of ethnic comedians as he sees it, especially in representing immigrant communities.

We, as ethnic comedians, always remind audiences that we are not making fun of ethnic people, but are celebrating them. With comedy, you need to exaggerate! We are telling stories of people that we love and what we went through. The average person who used to look at us and say, “Oh, you’re Italian,” and call us all kinds of names maybe didn’t think we would amount to anything, but we have amounted to a lot and given back to our communities–everyone has their path.

James Liotta with Joe Avati

Liotta’s Italian family heritage and traditions have influenced his on-stage material and artistic career. Apart from owning pizzerias and restaurants, Liotta’s father, Sebastiano, wrote and produced plays for the Italian community under his production company, La Comica Variety, where a young James got his start.

Sebastiano was a very good writer and would write in his native Italian language for the Italian community. He did this for over 20 years, and he worked with a cast who would just do it for love and passion. When I was around seven or eight, he started writing characters for me. I always loved performing. I grew up in a family where I would see my father perform–even for his friends. He was just a great joke-teller. He loved telling jokes and putting on characters, so that was my first entry into performing in Italian.

Liotta spent the next two decades performing in his father’s plays, and as he matured, he also ventured into directing. “Never work with your father if you’re directing plays,” he jokes.

It’s very difficult, especially with an Italian father. They don’t like to let go, and it’s like, “Well, I’m the director now,” but it was a wonderful experience, and it was beautiful to start performing in the Italian language. But performing is performing. The rules of the craft of performing are the same. The language you speak doesn’t matter.

James Liotta with his father

Liotta regularly collaborates with fellow ethnic comedians Avati, Kapiniaris and Bilgiç. “We work altogether because we realize that our stories are relatable, and as we’ve been discussing, we can bridge the gap with our stories between how we grew up, and how our nonni grew up and what they brought here.” However, with the passing of older generations, the relevane of these stories is diminishing for young people, so he continually reinvents his approach to keep his material fresh.

Comedy has changed and will continue to change, and unfortunately our nonni are fading away, and it depends on whether their traditions are being upheld. You can be funny in that area only if your stories are relatable. You have to find a way to talk to young people and get their interest by taking them back to a time before they were born, “this is what it was like then, and this is what it is like now.” This comparison is what creates humour.

Liotta’s father, who immigrated from Sicily, wrote plays blending Italian and English to accommodate his Italian-Australian audience. “He would piece together a word in Italian and a word in English to bring us together.” Much like his father, Liotta finds himself modernising his craft to mirror changes within the Italian-Australian community.

We have to find new avenues for the audience to relate with. We have to look at other ways people are growing up, and we have to start looking at a different generation of Italo-Australians and what they are doing and extract comedy from there because, little by little, things are changing. You can only do so many jokes about sauce day.

James Liotta (left) with Tahir Bilgiç and George Kapiniaris

Liotta credits Italian-Australian comedian Joe Avati as an influence in his new direction. “Joe no longer tackles just Italian topics. He has a show tracking anything and everything from the perspective of an Italian person. You use your Italian character to look at the world differently,” he says on the evolution of his comedy. Nevertheless, as Liotta’s comedy continues to evolve, his comedic flair, energetic performances, and unique observations as both an “insider” and an “outsider” will undoubtedly keep audiences gasping for air from their laughter.

Images provided by James Liotta