By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
Jeremy Piven, an award-winning actor best known for his role as a high-powered talent agent on the HBO series Entourage, will perform stand-up comedy June 30 at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis.
His concert is part of the Minneapolis Comedy Festival, which runs June 24-30. In addition to Piven, performers include Bob Newhart, Dax Shepard, Seth Meyers, John Crist and John Leguizamo. George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley will perform together June 28 at the State Theatre.
During a phone interview from a Los Angeles coffee shop this week, Piven told the Jewish World that, as a Chicago-area native, he feels “very connected to you guys, being from the Midwest. And I’ve always loved Minnesota.”
He added, “I’ve had awkward exchanges with Prince, so I don’t know if that counts.” He clarified that he was a big fan of the late great musician, and once attended a Nike-sponsored event with former NBA great Michael Jordan where Prince performed.
Regarding his upcoming Minneapolis show, Piven has been performing stand-up comedy, in the United States and Israel, over the past two years. He has a background in sketch comedy, and has numerous acting credits, winning three Grammy awards and a Golden Globe for his role as Ari Gold, the Hollywood agent, on Entourage, which ran for eight seasons. (Critics saw the Gold character as a parody of Ari Emanuel, the talent agent and co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, an entertainment agency. He also is the brother of former Obama White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.)
So how does Piven come to stand-up?
“I think that all roads lead to stand-up, it’s the last form that I haven’t done. Having a background in improv comedy can lend itself [to doing stand-up], because you’re basically writing on your feet.”
Piven mentioned “growing up in the theater,” the Piven Theatre Workshop, which was the family business. His parents, Joyce Piven and the late Byrne Piven, were actors and drama teachers. His sister, Shira Piven, is a film director; her 2014 film Welcome to Me starred Kristen Wiig.
He explained that “decades of performing and improvising” give you “a good base for stand-up. In any case, Piven said that trying to describe his approach to stand-up — “to you, my Jewish brother” — is “very awkward. It kind of feels like you’re at a dinner party and you’re explaining a joke.”
His suggestion is that “anyone who is remotely interested to come out [to his stand-up show], because it is my honor to perform for an hour and make people laugh and forget about every bit of worry and stress and heaviness in their lives. It’s my job also to deliver: In the very beginning they’re clapping because they know me, and they have a reference for me as an actor; and that goes for about 30 seconds, in terms of I can say anything and they’re going to laugh, and then I got to deliver. And I love that.”
Following up on information from Piven’s publicist, I asked him about a recent visit to Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jews were shot to death on Oct. 27, 2018. Piven was performing in the area and decided to visit the synagogue and “connect and say hello to these brave people.” He noted that the Tree of Life and the congregations renting space in the building are “rebuilding, and it’s not cheap.” Piven offered to perform in a benefit fundraiser for the shul.
Regarding his decades of performing, Piven, in addition to movie, Broadway and off-Broadway theater roles, played a writer on The Larry Sanders Show, acted in Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen, and starred in the PBS series Mr. Selfridge for four seasons. In the latter series, Piven played Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947), the flamboyant Ripon, Wisconsin native who founded Selfridge’s, the London department store.
Piven’s most recent prominent TV role was in Wisdom of the Crowd. CBS canceled the drama series after ordering 13 episodes, amid sexual misconduct allegations against Piven from at least three women.
In late 2017, Piven responded to the accusations on Twitter, saying that they are “absolutely false and completely fabricated. I would never force myself on a woman. Period.” He offered to take a polygraph examination; and he wondered how anyone could “prove something didn’t happen.”
I wasn’t aware of the groping and sexual harassment allegations against Piven; I happened to hear about it from my dental hygienist early on the day of our scheduled phone interview. The controversy has been documented on numerous entertainment websites, USA Today, the Washington Post, etc.
Piven acknowledged the claims against him and said, “In the words of our brother, Martin Luther King, ‘No lie can last forever.’”
He commented that “the biggest tragedy of the [#MeToo] movement is the collateral damage, and I was part of it, unfortunately. I’m only too happy to take one for the team, if that means we can draw attention to the empowerment of women, and that’s basically what’s happened.”
There has been an upside to sexual misconduct claims that have brought down show business titans like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, et al. Piven pointed to efforts toward pay equity and hiring “more female directors than ever. That’s a really great thing that came out of it.”
Piven told the Jewish World, “Now in my particular case, none of [the alleged sexual misconduct] actually happened. And that’s a reality.”
The actor then said, “I really appreciate you asking me about this; and yet, you know, I think we need to let it go. I think we need to move on. As decent people, we can take a look and not be sheep, and take a look at what’s real and what isn’t.”
He suggested that “there’s a rush to judge”; and some people are being tried, so to speak, “in the court of public opinion,” which is influenced by irresponsible press outlets.
I mentioned the case of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who resigned his Senate seat, on Dec. 7, 2017, amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. Many Minnesota supporters felt that Franken was railroaded, forced out of his Senate seat without a proper investigation of the charges brought against him. Franken recently stated that he will address the sexual harassment controversy in the near future.
For his part, Piven said that he and Franken “were targeted at a time when it was very profitable for outlets to cash in on people that are [clickbait on the internet].”
It’s hard to know where the truth lies in these matters. And allegations of sexual misconduct brought by women should be given a fair hearing, and considered in the light of a sorry history of women who have suffered sexual abuse being shamed and silenced.
At the end of our conversation, Piven expressed misgivings about how this aspect of the story would be cast. Minutes after saying, “I really appreciate you asking me about” the sexual misconduct allegations, he remarked, with a tone of reproach: “I’m surprised that you asked me about that. I’m not going to lie to you.”
I explained that a serious journalist would consider this as a valid part of the story. Also, the allegations against him are in the public record; if you type “Jeremy Piven” in a Google search box, the articles about his alleged sexual predation appear.
I assured Piven that my story would be fair.
Jeremy Piven will perform stand-up comedy 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 30 at the Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave., in downtown Minneapolis. For information and tickets, go to: minneapoliscomedyfestival.com/jeremy-piven.