By Ian Krietzberg
Jeremy Piven, the Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning actor, was first pulled onto the stage and into the world of acting at a young age, through his parents’ theatre company.
“I was very lucky and I was privileged and let me explain that privilege. We were technically — on paper — living below the poverty line, and yet I was incredibly rich because I was allowed to go on stage and create and improvise,” Piven said. “My parents had this theatre called the Piven Theatre, which still exists. And so I thought that every kid had a theater and a playground like that, and obviously, that’s not the case. So I was up on stage, having fun, and I just loved it. There was no pressure. I wasn’t doing it as a means to an end to become an actor, and so I was having fun with my friends on stage and people would come and laugh. It was a great outlet.”
From there, Piven pursued the art and has gone on to star in many films and TV shows, notably HBO’s “Entourage” where he played the harsh and intense character of Ari Gold.
The ability to walk the line between doing a character justice and stepping away from that same character when the cameras stop rolling is a gift Piven has always had.
“You want to honor these characters and play them fully, and then it’s your job to shed them and stop playing them. You have to let it go at the office and really sage yourself off and compartmentalize and move on with the rest of your life,” Piven said. “I guess — and I don’t know why I’m able to do that, maybe it’s something to do with the way I was taught — that it’s just an honor to be able to create, and tragedy and comedy live in the same moments sometimes, and you don’t have to separate them. You just let it go.”
And this ability that is unique to the performing arts to adopt and shed skins, seemingly on a whim, is one that helps make life outside of his work even more honest.
“I talk about this on stage in my stand-up — I was talking to someone and they said that they never date actors because you never know when they’re acting,” Piven said. “I think when you meet actors, there’s a misconception about them. But why would we act when we’re allowed to act for our livelihoods? We’re hopefully very present in life like we are in our work. You would never bring that skill set and use it and try to deceive people. It’s the healthiest thing to do to shed these characters.”
More recently, the actor has undertaken a new challenge; transitioning back to the stage as a stand-up comic. For Piven, the writing process behind these comedy shows begins by simply telling the truth.
“It’s like you’re talking to a friend and a bunch of people are there. You’re relating to them and it’s a dialogue with them. Not necessarily a monologue. You’re playing off of them,” Piven said. “Some of them could be rants and sharing an insane story. We’re literally filming right now in a prison. There’s a lot of craziness that goes on — working on “Entourage,” stories from that, from my childhood — there’s a lot to play off of. We’re all storytellers. It’s just an honor to be able to do it.”
“And also, people say, ‘isn’t this difficult?’ The bar is set in a certain way because of your acting, isn’t that daunting? And I think no, it’s actually really inspiring. If they have high expectations, it’s my job to meet it and beyond, and that’s an honor and I love that.”
This journey that Piven is undertaking, from the screen to the comedy stage, is a homecoming for the actor who got his start improvising and having fun on stage.
“I’m a stage actor; I’m a stage performer. That’s who I am. And I had to figure out how to do that in front of a camera,” Piven said. “For me to get up on a stage and perform for you, that’s more who I am than anything. I guess that’s why people tell me after my stand-up shows, ‘I had no idea you were this funny.’ It’s an interesting back-handed compliment, but I’ll take it. All that matters is they’re laughing.”
Inspired organically by an undertaking to speak to stand-up comedians and learn some of the craft, Piven recently developed a new podcast: How U Livin’ J Piven.
“I was running around the country interviewing stand-up comics — selfishly because I just wanted to take it all in. Everyone was so gracious and open with me; I learned so much,” Piven said. “There I was on the road doing about 250 shows a year, and sitting down with all these comics: Jamie Foxx, Tom Segura, the list goes on and on. And I just thought, ‘oh, there’s a podcast here.’ I’m just very curious and respect these people and those are important variables in an interview.”
And despite the many facets of his career, having played such an impactful role in the form of Ari Gold in "Entourage," Piven has often been strongly connected with the character.
“People to this day think that I was just improvising all of ‘Entourage.’ It's such a compliment because that’s exactly what we were going for,” Piven said. “That’s the work as an actor, to make everything feel improvisational. And it was all written by Doug Ellin — there’s some confusion there; I guess when you play a character authentically and you live in people’s living rooms for a decade, there’s some confusion that you maybe are that character.”
And therein, Piven points out, lies the greatest difference between acting and stand-up, as well as the greatest strength of performing as a stand-up comedian.
“You are yourself. You can enter into stories, but everything comes from you,” Piven said. “So selfishly, people will get a sense of who I am on stage, doing stand-up. It’s really great to be in a room with people making them laugh. There’s no greater honor.”
“It’s almost like taking everything that I’ve done, creatively, and somehow being able to use all of it and put it all up on stage at the same time,” Piven added. “That’s a miracle that I’m honored even to attempt.”
Jeremy Piven is performing his stand-up comedy show on August 14 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA.