Mario Cantone: An Artist Who Fits No Mold

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By Gunjan J. Sewhani

Photography by GETTY IMAGES/Andrew Walker

When Mario Cantone is asked about the genesis of his career, he can’t really pinpoint how it all started—for a couple of seconds he lists various mediums and platforms he had as a budding artist: “There’s Broadway…and standup comedy… and….” he trails off and, after a bit, resigns. Finally, he reveals: “You know, it’s really all just about the audience.”

It was a roller coaster of a conversation: at times, revealing of an artist’s method and at other times, downright hilarious. It’s clear that Mario Cantone is a man of the people. While his audience may be the crux of his focus, the exact demographic that he appeals to the most is hard to describe. Today, he is an openly gay man both on and off the camera. Yet, to label his audience as solely the gay population would hardly scratch the surface. He tells us of his audience at an Atlantic City show he did recently and how the audience spanned an unexpected range of ages, races, and genders. He bluntly discloses while trying to describe them: “It’s women but also a lot of men. And straight guys like me much more than gay men.” People of all ages, races, and demographics attend his shows.

It’s obvious that just about everybody gets a kick out of Mario Cantone. But, how did he come to New York and became such an “it” comedian? He recounts a time during his nine-month span in Los Angeles doing stand-up comedy at the onset of his career. He says: “When I left college, I went to LA for nine months and it was just horrible. I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have an agent; I was walking up to the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip.” Today, he is best known as a comedian, impressionist and singer—he has appeared in four Broadway shows and even has done his own show in AC. Entering the American and, even, world media firmament through “Sex and the City” and “The View”, Mario has always found his place on stage by connecting with his audience on a comedic level.
After hearing tales of his adventures in the business, it seems that people approached him at every level of his career, whether he was a stand-up comedian or a man with his own show, and excitedly tugged him toward new ventures. That’s how he ended up in the mega-hit “Sex and the City” series and both movies, by far one of his most-recognized roles. Mario tells us: “ Michael Patrick King directed most of it, [“Sex and the City”]; we did stand-up together in 1983 and he always loved what I did. He called me up in the third year and said ‘I want you in that part.’ and it was just for that one episode. It went over so well that he just kept having me back and having me back and it ended up being 17 episodes and I also did both movies.”

Similarly, it was his long relationship with Joy Behar that brought him to “The View”, one of the longest running national daytime talk shows in the United States. When asked about his time on “The View”, he says, “ I knew her [Joy Behar] ten years ago and she got me on “The View” a couple times and her executive producer really liked me and they just kept having me back. I’ve co-hosted, I’ve been the lead guest, I’ve been the second guest, I’ve done comedy segments, I’ve done commercials, music numbers—I’ve done everything on that show.”

One of Mario’s most famous impressions is that of the iconic Liza Minnelli. His longtime relationship with Minnelli began at his first Broadway show in 1995. He tells us: “The director was like, ‘Come to Joe Allen’s, Liza Minnelli is there and I want you to meet her.’ and I met her and two weeks later she came to see me at Caroline’s and I was being managed by the same guy that she was and we hung out afterwards. I didn’t start ‘doing’ [impressions of] her until I sat down with her and I went ‘Ohhhhh. That’s what this is.’”

His subsequent, and delicate, relationship with Liza Minnelli is telling of an artist’s sensitivities and true passions. Mario thoroughly enjoyed doing impressions of Minnelli and had to teeter a delicate line in his impressions of her dynamic with her mother, Judy Garland. He tells us of their relationship: “Judy’s a funny, funny person and she has her opinions and that’s why that conversation between her and Liza about the singers of today is kind of what I want to get across. It’s all I want to do. It’s all the portrayal of it that’s cutting and a little deep.”

Mario’s magnetism and people skills seem to have been the driving force behind his career.  He speaks of hosts, Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg, and executive producer, Bill Geddie, of “The View” as if they are family: “ I just hosted Joy’s last show which was great. Whoopi grounds the show a lot and Joy was there forever; I’m really upset she’s gone because I love her on the show. Bill Geddie just really gets it. There’s another straight man that I really like–and a Republican on top of it, how ironic is that!”

While these are the roles that Mario is most known for, his shows are far more varied.  When asked about the various components of his show, he has quite the laundry list for us: “ Well, it’s music-heavy.  There’s musical numbers that my husband has written for some of the impressions that I do and I also sing as myself and do impressions and talk about what I want to talk about—sometimes pop culture. I’m slightly political but I’m not hugely political. I’m a gay man but I’ve talked about the whole thing about gay people having children and marriage and shit like that—people know I’m very Obama.”

While many are shy about touching the subject of politics while in the public eye, Mario approaches it as he does all things: loudly and bluntly! An obvious advocate for gay rights himself, he married his partner of twenty years, Jerry Dixon, in October of 2011. Artistic as well, his husband is a director who is going to be making a return to Broadway shortly after having performed for the last time twenty years ago. Mario speaks fondly of his partner’s creative involvement with his work.

Mario now lives in New York City with his partner. It has been thirty-three years for him here in the city. Save for a couple times a year that he retreats to a house on the ocean in Beverly, Massachusetts, he tells us: “ I just don’t want to live anywhere else.” And for Mario, this is more than just a convenience thing or a love of the skyline. It is in New York that Mario’s art is most deeply understood. He has evolved into a force that is inextricable with the New York entertainment scene and even, New York itself. He says: “ I’ve never felt more comfortable doing comedy here.” New York is Mario Cantone’s audience. •

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