Rocky LaPorte was waiting in the wings when Jay Leno announced his name. The Chicago comic wrung his hands, looked up, and prayed he wouldn't screw up his four-minute spot on The Tonight Show. "I was a nervous wreck," the 45-year-old comedian says of the October taping. "Laura Bush was there, and all these CIA guys were walking up and down the halls. That alone is tension."
Taking a couple of deep breaths, LaPorte bounded onstage and rattled off a string of zingers about a dim-witted defendant standing in front of a judge without a lawyer. ("The judge told me to get a thesaurus. I go, 'They're extinct.'") The audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. "It hit me in the middle of my set, and I'm thinking, I'm on The Tonight Show!" says LaPorte, who started his stand-up shtick in 1988, after he was shot and stabbed on his truck-driving job. "[Leno] pointed to the crowd and said, 'You see that? A standing O! We want you back!'"
After the show aired, LaPorte's lucky streak continued. He was named Male Comedian of the Year at the Las Vegas Comedy Festival. Funnyman Tim Allen recruited him to play a cop in a remake of The Shaggy D.A. And in a rare move, Leno himself asked LaPorte to come back for an encore next month. "Man, I was having a good week," he laughs.
Between TV tapings and movie shoots, LaPorte maintains a rigorous touring schedule, which brings him to Cleveland this week for a five-day run. "I've met so many people [in Cleveland] that I have friends for life," he says. "When they found out I was Italian, they took me to Murray Hill and brought me into their homes for home-cooked meals. If I ever had a chance to do my own Showtime or HBO special, I would actually tape it in Cleveland, because that's how much I love the city [and its] good, blue-collar people."
Those working-class folks also prefer their jokes on the clean side. "I don't offend anybody," offers LaPorte. "I don't talk about pussy. Once in a while, you drop the f-bomb or say shit. But I don't talk about graphic content. I have enough clean stuff that I can do television, and people can come out and see me in the clubs."
Some of his latest material is about his recent divorce after 18 years of marriage. LaPorte has moved from Hollywood back to Chicago to be closer to his four kids. And for the first time in a long while, he feels that his life and career have come together. "It's fun having no ties," he reflects. "You come home, and no one's yelling at you. Maybe it'll wear off in a year or two. But right now, I actually like it. If I go where I'm supposed to go, everything falls into place."
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