Editor's Note: Each week, Robrt Pela writes about the people and places that define Phoenix.
Over a glass of white wine in a downtown bar, Tony Tripoli admitted to hating two-way traffic on Seventh Street. “It might be the only thing I don’t love about being back in Phoenix,” the 48-year-old stand-up comic said of lanes that change direction at different times of day. “I’m always waiting for some asshole to come at me, going the wrong way.”
Tripoli, who wrote for Joan Rivers until her death in 2014, returned to his hometown last year. “I was raised in Phoenix,” he said. “Born at St. Joe’s, went to Central High. Right after graduation, I moved to L.A., and I lived there for 30 years. So I’m better than you.”
Tripoli’s reminiscence was padded with patter, quite a lot of it pro-Phoenix. “It’s so much better here than when I was a kid,” he said. “Even your Trump supporters are nicer than the ones in L.A.”
Like many showbiz types, Tripoli was bullied as a kid. “I came out of the womb wearing a tiara,” he said. “Even in slides, you can see my hand gestures. A total sissy, always being threatened by other kids. My parents did this amazing thing. They said, ‘This is going to be the rest of your life. Don’t change, because we love your different-ness. Just figure out the best way to deal with people saying mean shit about you.’”
Tripoli sang in the Phoenix Boys Choir for a decade, and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena. “I couldn’t act,” he said. “But if you had a 30-inch waist and a high B flat, there was no shortage of work. I sang on every cruise ship in the water, at theme parks, between strippers at Chippendales.”
The comedian Margaret Cho introduced Tripoli to Kathy Griffin, who later hired him to write for her reality show. He appeared in the first season as her best friend, but by the time the show aired on Bravo!, the friendship had ended.
In 2007, while he was co-starring with Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek in a nighttime soap opera called Fashion House, Tripoli’s manager booked him a stand-up gig at a charity event.
“But I wasn’t a stand-up comedian,” he said. “My manager kept saying, ‘You write for other comedians. Every time you’re in here, everyone is on the floor laughing at whatever you say.’”
Tripoli took the job. “It was 12 minutes at the Laugh Factory,” he said. “I walked off stage and thought, ‘How many years did I waste not doing stand-up?’ You’re the writer, the editor, the star.”
Tripoli continued to write for TV. He did three years at E! News’s The Dish. When the network rebooted Fashion Police in 2010, he was called in to pen promos for the show’s host, Joan Rivers. She fell in love with Tripoli, who’d stayed up all night writing quippy one-liners for his childhood idol.
“Joan Rivers got me through high school,” he said. “Other kids were listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. I was lip-syncing Joan’s new album into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. I knew the whole album by heart.”
Tripoli worked for Rivers for five years, writing jokes for her show and opening for her on live tours. Before her death, Rivers sent a letter to Tripoli’s mother, telling her she’d done a marvelous job raising him.
“Joan was the best,” he said as he sipped wine. “Pushy, but only in the most wonderful ways. She was always trying to fix me up with rich old guys who didn’t have long to live. ‘Tony, he has more hair in his ears than on his head, but he won’t live much longer and then you’ll have such a nice life.’”
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Tripoli, who’s performing at House of Comedy all week, wondered what Rivers’ career would be like today if she had lived. “She was friendly with Trump,” Tripoli said, “and she liked the idea of him running for president. I want to believe she would have eventually said, ‘Okay, enough’s enough,' but if not, it would have ended my relationship with her.”
He supposed there might be backstage nastiness in the local comedy scene, but he hasn’t seen any of it. “There are so many great comics here,” he said. “I’ve been welcomed with such warmth and generosity. In L.A., everything is fear-based. People act like anything you achieve came at their cost.”
In Phoenix, he’s surrounded by family. On weekdays, he fetches his teenage niece from school. Her younger sister brings him jokes for his act. At a recent family gathering, Tripoli thanked his mother for that long-ago wisdom about the value of being different.
“Oh, that,” Tripoli said his mother replied. “I totally pulled that one out of my ass.”