If you were to compile a list of “that guy” stand-up comedians—as in, “Hey, isn’t he that guy from so-and-so?” and “Where I have seen that guy before?”—John Pinette’s name would be near the top. The big man has appeared on the big screen (The Punisher, Junior, Dear God) and the small screen (most famously as the carjacking victim in the Seinfeld finale, as well as several successful stand-up specials on Comedy Central). The Boston native and former Las Vegas resident has also shown up on Broadway (playing Edna in Hairspray) and taken his stand-up act around the world, both as a headliner and as the opening act for everyone from the Pointer Sisters to the Chairman of the Board. “Something always seems to come along for me; I’ve been very lucky,” Pinette says. “I just kind of pop up like Forrest Gump in different places.”
Fresh off a two-month stint in Canada, Pinette, 50, brings his self-deprecating brand of humor to the Orleans showroom Nov. 9-10. (Buffet managers, you’ve been warned …)
What’s the one thing about Las Vegas that always makes you laugh?
Well, the one thing I base my act on—I always thought the buffets were a riot. It’s just a bunch of people scrambling around like they’ve never been fed before. Coming originally from Massachusetts, I’d fly into Vegas and see a sign: Breakfast buffet $2.49. And I’m thinking, “I can eat $2.49 worth of toast.” When I started working Vegas in ’89, my idea was if I lost money gambling, I’d get it back at the buffet. But now they have these fancy ones, like “all-you-can-eat for five grand.” Well, I’m out. I don’t think I can do any damage there.
Do you have a favorite Vegas buffet?
I really don’t go to buffets much anymore, for health reasons and restraining orders. I actually loved the buffet at the old Sands—they had a great buffet. But when you think about it, I worked at the Dunes, and they blew that up. I worked at the Sands—that was my first headlining gig on the Strip—and they blew that up. When I got to the Sahara, I said, “They’re probably packing dynamite around this place right now.”
You opened for Frank Sinatra in the early 1990s. What was that experience like?
I did three sets of arena tours with him. I did Foxwoods in Connecticut; I did the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles; and we did Vegas, [including] his second-to-last date at the Desert Inn. It was amazing to sit at the side of the stage and hear him and the orchestra. It was still that old kind of Vegas thing when you had a comic, then the musical act; that was the template from the ’50s on. So I opened for the Pointer Sisters, I opened for the Four Tops, the Oak Ridge Boys, Liza Minnelli, Steve & Eydie, and it was a great experience and really helped me learn. But Mr. Sinatra, I would say, was the most welcoming as far as just being one of the crew. You’d be invited to dinner afterward, you hung out a little bit more. It was every bit the experience that I would dream of.
Did he give you any career lessons?
If you’re going to do it, do it with class. Also, he [frequently] came in and out of retirement, and he taught me that you could say that you’re retired, but if you’re a true performer, it really calls to you.
When you landed the part in the Seinfeld finale in 1998, did you know immediately that you’d be part of pop-culture history?
Well, it had a huge buzz about it before it was even filmed. And the script was very hush-hush; in fact, I only had two script pages, but those had to be signed out and returned, and you signed a nondisclosure form. But it was neat. And of course, that courtroom scene was pretty amazing; it was the history of Seinfeld in one room.
But I was just terrified that I was going to get fired. I thought, “I’m going to call someone and tell them I’m in the last episode of Seinfeld, and I’m going to get cut out.” But the first day we shot that carjacking scene, [executive producer] Larry David was nice enough to tell me that that [scene] was definitely in. And then I just had a small [part] in the courtroom scene, but I needed to be there as part of the background for several days. So I knew right away that it was something special; just to be on Seinfeld was something special.
You’ve dropped a lot of weight in recent years—are you in Speedo shape yet?
Not unless they drastically reshape the Speedo! And you know what? I may very well never be, and that’s OK. I do have to have that abdominal-plasty done in mid-2013—I have to have the loose skin removed—and there is enough loose skin to make me a wife. And I’m pretty happy about that.
I think I was in my best shape right after I left Broadway, and now I’m back to the gym. In fact, I did 45 [minutes] on the elliptical today. I actually brought out the old panda outfit—I have this black velour Sean John sweat suit; I mean, it’s fucking ridiculous, it really is. Women are petting me at the gym. So I brought out the sweat suit today, and my road manager who is staying at my house looks at me and says, “What the fuck are you wearing?” So I looked in the mirror and said, “Well, time to get new sweat suits.” I look like a gangster panda in this thing.
What’s on your bucket list?
My bucket list or my anti-bucket list? I’ll tell you what’s on my anti-bucket list, and it rhymes with bucket: zip-lining. Because gravitationally, I don’t zip. I’ve tried it, and let’s just say the zip line had a little give to it. I basically just walked across the jungle floor.
Are you addicted to exercise yet?
No. I think I can quit anytime I want. I have found that exercise is not a gateway drug to healthy eating—or to self-help programs of any kind! Actually, my house is behind this health-plex, a state-of-the-art fitness facility. And that’s why I bought it, because if I look out the window, I can see it. So it’s hard to sit in a chair and eat a piece of pie when you’re looking at the gym. I start again on Monday with the personal trainer, and you know how that goes: Some quit; some turn to drugs and alcohol. Apparently I’m not easy to teach. And now they have these trainers who are like 20 years old, and they’re like, “Give me a sit-up!” and I’m like, “Hey, go get your dad. Why are you talking to adults like that?”
What do you make of the whole gluten-free movement?
Oh my God! Listen, I was just in Canada, and gluten-free is mainstream there! It is taking over; it’s now hip to be gluten-free. You know there are people in L.A., if they’re not gluten-free, they’ll say they’re gluten-free just to fit in. I’m sure [New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg will get around to banning gluten. He’s kind of attacking fast food, and I can understand some of it, but if I want a large Big Gulp, I’m getting one, and that’s all there is to it.
I will say this: They make really good gluten-free cookies and brownies now. But if you eat 27 of them, they still go right to your hips.
What’s the one food you could never live without?
[Long pause.] Pasta. I have yet to find a good gluten-free pasta. Pasta is the one that calls to me. It says,“You know, you haven’t been around for a while, and you need to come and visit.” And I obey the pasta.
Is it safe to assume you’re looking forward to Thanksgiving?
Oh, absolutely. It’s just a normal Thanksgiving with a 100-pound turkey and 27 side dishes. We don’t do anything fancy. I’m on the road obviously all the time, so my sisters make the dinner—there’s about 10 of us—and I call my sister and say, “I sent you $500; get a turkey,” and she says, “How big a turkey?” and I go, “You know, like 100, 125 pounds. Make sure there’s enough left for sandwiches.”