WASHINGTON — We loved him in “Rescue Me,” “Nurse Jackie” and Comedy Central specials.
“I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s the audience’s turn,” Ferrara joked on WTOP. “I always look forward to coming to D.C. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s one of my favorite cities. … It’s not just the monuments; the last time I was there, I saw diplomatic plates on a Honda Civic! I don’t know what kind of broke ass country that was, but that made me laugh out loud.”
Growing up in Huntington Station, New York, he collected comedy albums from such legends as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Robert Klein, Don Rickles, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.
“When I was a kid, Richard Pryor was an idol of mine,” Ferrara said. “I was 12 years old and I remember saying out loud, ‘Look what this man can do!’ … ‘Pryor Convictions’ was the book I read. [He said] he looks at exactly what scares him and writes about that. It takes the claws out of the monster a little bit. [For me], I wrote about my dad dying because it’s inevitable. That was a big fear for me, so when I started writing about it, it kind of diffused everything.”
As such, Ferrara has developed a comedy routine about his late father’s passing.
“He bought a crypt: ‘This is where your mother and I are gonna rest in peace.’ [I said], ‘Rest in peace? You don’t get along in a four-bedroom house! You’re gonna spend eternity in a concrete bunker?’ My mom’s convinced my father’s ghost [isn’t] talking to her because he’s upset. [She said], ‘He’s in the other room pouting ’cause he thinks I’m gonna apologize first.'”
Ferrara says his parents factored into his decision to do standup in the first place.
“I got out of college and told my parents, ‘Well, I’ve done one of your things, now I’m gonna try one of mine!” Ferrara said. “I went down to an open mic night on Long Island and it was one of those moments where, you know when you hit a golf ball right and you just feel that ping? … I said, ‘I don’t know where this is gonna go, but I want to come back and do it again.'”
So, he started officially doing standup on July 13, 1988. Bouncing around from bar to bar, he quickly realized that there was a difference between Manhattan and Long Island comics.
“There’s a definite difference between a city comic and an island comic,” Ferrara said. “Long Island comics, we’re very animated, we’d tell stories, we’d do voices, we’d use the entire stage, we’d walk around. City comics were suit-and-tie comics. They were ‘Tonight Show’ comics: setup, punchline, segue. They’d stand in front of the microphone. They’re more cerebral.”
He remembers some of the crowds being brutal.
“There was a club in Yonkers [and] there was a city comic on stage and they were just ripping him apart,” Ferrara said. “They were just heckling him, he couldn’t get a laugh and finally he just snapped and said, ‘Listen, I don’t need you guys to laugh, I know this stuff is funny, I’ve done it on TV!’ And from the back of the room you heard, ‘He’s wounded! Let’s get him!'”
What was the worst gig that he himself ever played?
“Some corporate gigs can be terrible,” Ferrara said. “I had a gig at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami for cancer doctors. The guy introducing me was a doctor. … He’s got two slides on stage and he’s pointing to these two cells: ‘Benign, malignant, benign, malignant, remember there’s still no cure, we have to keep working hard, our comedian is Adam Ferrara.”
He transitioned into TV as Needles across Denis Leary on FX’s “Rescue Me” (2004-2011).
“There’s not a lot of veil or pretense with Denis; he’s that guy,” Ferrara said. “Denis’ trailer was the barracks. We all hung out in the barracks. … He had an open-door policy, ESPN was always on, so we’d sit around, smoke and watch TV. … It was funny because the smoke would just be billowing out of his trailer. It looked like we elected a pope, the smoke just billowing out.”
In all seriousness, the firefighters of “Rescue Me” helped the nation move on after 9/11.
“He attacked the fear, he looked the monster in the eye, so it was nice to be a part of that and be included in that and to serve a greater purpose. They weren’t afraid to address certain subjects and trust the actors to be emotionally where they needed to be to tell the story.”
After that, he played Frank Verelli across Edie Falco in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” (2009-2015).
“She was great,” Ferrara said. “She’s just so authentic and so generous as an actor. You know her as Carmela [Soprano], but when you walk in the room it’s a totally different person. Just to be there in that space with her, your game gets really good whether you like it or not. You know when you play tennis or golf with a better player, you get elevated? She has that kind of gift. She’s got that Tom Brady ‘I’m gonna make you a better receiver’ kind of energy.”
He also hosted History Channel’s “Top Gear USA,” the American remake of the BBC original.
“I was a big fan of the English version,” Ferrara said. “‘Rescue Me’ was coming to an end, we were on the tour bus and Denis said, ‘What do you guys think of doing one more season, then we’ll call it quits?’ I’d done another show for History about cars; they didn’t pick it up but they liked me. They told me they had the rights to ‘Top Gear.’ … We did six years. Had a great time.”
Between his career gigs, he spends time with his wife, indie actress Alex Tyler, who’s featured on the DVD cover of his “Funny as Hell” special. He’s Catholic; she’s Jewish; cue the jokes.
“Food, family, guilt,” he joked. “In her family the guilt’s better; in my family the food’s better.”
He continues to mine comedy out of his married life to this day.
“I’ll start the day with good intentions. I’ll spend the entire day in my gym clothes. [My wife] came home the other day and I was asleep on the couch and she said, ‘Are you laying on the couch in those sweaty clothes?’ I was like, ‘Relax, they’re clean. I never made it out, honey.'”
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