Here at the WrestleCrap Count of 10, a series of ten questions are posed to a wrestling personality, past or present.
In this edition, WrestleCrap is honored to interview the man behind one of our own inductees. Improvisational actor John DiGiacomo first surfaced in World Wrestling Entertainment in the late 1980s as Jameson Winger, a socially-inept geek who became easy fodder for heels (namely Bobby “The Brain” Heenan) to riff on, and sometimes assault. Originally a sidekick of Heenan’s on the legendary manager’s Prime Time Wrestling-based talk show, Jameson migrated toward being an audience member of the revamped 1991 edition of Prime Time, before finishing out his WWE run as the sympathetic manager of The Bushwhackers.
Today, Jameson is still approached by wrestling fans, and participates in fanfests, despite not having been seen in the business in over two decades. The biggest star in his family now is his son, James, who sharp-eyed TV viewers will recognize as “Nate”, the small child who passively taunts quarterback Cam Newton in a commercial for the NFL’s Play60 campaign.
Mr. DiGiacomo (who can be found here on Facebook) recently took time out to speak with WrestleCrap.
1. Almost a quarter century ago, you emerged on WWE programming, playing a stereotypically wimpy geek, as well as the sidekick of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. How did you manage to get your foot in the door with the company?
In 1987, I left the financial world (pension planning) after 10 years, and started doing stand-up. Late in 1988, friends of mine started a theater group that did audience participation murder mysteries. They needed someone to play the character of a vaudeville comic, so I auditioned, and got the part. I had zero acting experience, but very good improv skills, so I got by. The shows were 50% scripted and 50% improv.
Vince was in the audience one night. I recognized him, and during the improv parts of the show, saw him really laughing and enjoying my performance. I kicked ass in his room and introduced myself after the show. He was startled by how little I looked like the character in street clothes, and I know that he walked away thinking I was an incredible actor (I wasn’t) with incredible improv skills. Two days later, they had me come to Stamford to meet Bobby Heenan and they offered me a contract on the spot, to co-host “The Bobby Heenan Show.”
2. As many of our WrestleCrap followers are huge fans of Bobby’s effortless wit, can you share what it was like to work with him on “The Bobby Heenan Show”?
Working with Bobby was awesome. He was so sharp, and it seemed he had a neverending supply of insults and one-liners. He was so complimentary and supportive, even to this day. There were times during taping that I broke him into laughter that had to be edited out or reshot. He was such a pro. For me, he made those shows watchable.
Gorilla Monsoon was a great guy, but was not such a great commentator without Bobby. There were wrestlers that didn’t have a clue with a microphone and a camera on them, but if Bobby was involved in the bit, you didn’t notice because all eyes and ears were on him. Mean Gene was another great talent, but even he was better when Bobby was around. Bobby made everyone better. And I know he could have been a great mainstream comic actor if he put the time and work into it, but he seemed happy enough staying in the wrestling world. By a wide margin, he is the best entertainer professional wrestling has ever had.
3. I understand that you and Bobby largely improvised your shtick on the program. Was it difficult to consistently be on your toes, ready to respond with a punchline or setup?
He had been playing the character for close to 30 years when we met. I on the other hand was literally a few months into a my entertainment career, but had the benefit of trading insults with a live audience 3 times a week. So we had some great moments together. I was also smart enough to know when to give Bobby the last word.
4. Whose idea was the Jameson character, and how did the ideas evolve into the slovenly nerd that you portrayed on WWE television?
The improv group became wildly successful and the producers wanted to write a new show. They felt obligated to give me a role in the next production, since I helped write it, but the only available role was this annoying, hypochondriac, semi-retarded nerd nephew named Jameson. I resisted, feeling they really needed to get a real actor. It was a critical role to the storyline and I just didn’t feel like I could handle it. They convinced me to come to the first rehearsal. I put on a pair of glasses, crossed my eyes, and released my inner Jameson. The character and the show became very popular, lots of press.
5. There are differing opinions of Vince McMahon, ranging from reverent to scornful. How would you characterize your feelings working alongside him (particularly on the 1991 version of Prime Time Wrestling), and how would describe working for him in general?
I have nothing but gratitude toward Vince. He always made me feel like a valuable part of the team. He was generous and cordial. He was always looking at how to use me, even though some of his old-school advisers didn’t think I belonged. When the USA network cancelled “The Bobby Heenan Show” he put me on “Prime Time”. When they replaced that with “Raw”, he made me a manager.
I know people talk shit about him, and I’ve heard some stories, but I never saw that side of him. He was always good to me. And because of the WWF, I was able to get an agent and launch a fairly successful acting career. Funny thing is, I never played a nerd, other than Jameson. I was always cast as a tough guy, like a mafia mook or a gang member, Spanish drug dealer, etc.
6. Your most physical role with the company was serving as The Bushwackers’ manager in their feud with The Beverly Brothers, as you were to serve as foil for the Beverlys’ manager, Lanny “The Genius” Poffo. Did you have any reservations about working in front of larger crowds live?
The big crowds never bothered me. Stand-up comedy is the most terrifying, intimidating, form of entertainment, even if there are only 20 people in the crowd. I always tell young actors to go do a couple of open mic stand-up shows. They’ll never be nervous again. To this day, one of my greatest memories was hearing 20,000 fans chant “Jameson” at Knickerbocker Arena in Albany at the 1992 “Royal Rumble”. I think it was ’92.
7. In your brief time working in front of crowds at TV tapings, between that experience and being on the road, what is your funniest memory of being on tour with the company?
We were in Texas one night, and after the show, we all went to a strip club. Now, mind you, I was never a big drinker, and I would usually go right back to the hotel, smoke a joint, and watch TV. But on this particular night, Vince said “C’mon Jameson, you’re riding with me.” Well about an hour or so into our visit, an impromtu wrestling match started, and guys started moving tables around to clear a big space to wrestle. And Vince was fighting everybody, including Hulk Hogan. It was a hilarious scene.
8. You’ve popped up occasionally at personal appearances and wrestling fanfests, and you’re tagged in a number of fan-uploaded photos on Facebook. Are you surprised to still be remembered after so many years?
I can’t even begin to tell you how surprised I am by the number of people that remember Jameson. Probably around 7 or 8 years ago, people started calling me and telling me that websites were popping up and looking for Jameson. People thought Andy Kindler (JUSTIN’S NOTE: a comic actor who has appeared on Everybody Loves Raymond) was Jameson and friends of mine were incensed that he was getting credit for Jameson. I couldn’t give a shit less, and thought it was pretty funny and appropriate that Jameson just fell off the face of the earth.
I actually went on Wrestlecrap to see what all the fuss was about. Then about 3 years ago, I was managing a nightclub in NYC and one of the regular comedy shows I booked asked if they could use a picture of Jameson on their poster and website and announce that I would be a special guest. Again, I didn’t give a shit, and let them do it. Next thing I know, people were calling the club asking if the “Real” Jameson would be there, and what’s his real name, does he work in the club, etc. It blew me away how people would pay me to sign autographs 20 years later, and want interviews. People come to these fanfests and tell me stories about bits I did that I don’t even remember. It’s pretty funny.
9. You told me about your son starring in a commercial with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for the NFL’s “Play60″ campaign, in which your son matter-of-factly tells Newton, “you can be my back-up.” Can you elaborate a little more about how your son got this opportunity, and describe your amazement at the success of the ad?
When my son was about 3, I could see he had a special talent. We would be at a sporting event or in a restaurant and everyone in our section knew him by the end of the night. He was funny and extremely smart with a big vocabulary. I called a casting director I knew from my days as an actor and asked her what I should do with him. She told me that I should get him into an audition class when he turned 5. I told her that this kid is ready now and she gave me the name of an instructor. The instructor explained that if directors are looking for a 3 year-old, they’ll hire a 5 year-old that looks 3. I begged her to let him in the class and she did. He was the only student that semester that was signed right out of the class by a manager, and he’s been working ever since.
The NFL Play60 commercial was just a typical audition where they see a hundred or so kids, narrow it down, then pick one. He’s done 13 commercials, 4 TV shows, and a music video that premieres Dec.2. Recently he booked his first film, which starts shooting next week. And he does a great Jameson impersonation.
10. When you look back on your experience of working for World Wrestling Entertainment, what’s the one thing you most take from it?
When I look back, the thing that I take from my experience most, is the loyalty and devotion of wrestling fans. Nothing like it.
(Send all feedback to Justin at his Twitter)