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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
He Ain’t Just Talking Trash
September 3, 2008
by Tom Deignan
FRANK O’Keefe -– by day, a New York City Sanitation superintendent, whose parents came to the Bronx from Ireland — recalled an event when he was asked to do a bit of his stand up comedy routine. In the crowd was fellow Irish American and Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty -– in other words, O’Keefe’s boss.
Without missing a beat, O’Keefe produced a few index cards and proceeded to scratch out a few jokes, as if to say, “I can’t do that one. Or that one.”
O’Keefe, who was born and raised in the famously Irish Woodlawn section of the Bronx, helps keep New York City clean. But in recent years he’s been aiming to keep the city laughing as well.
At the ripe young age of 58, with nearly two decades in the Sanitation Department, O’Keefe is chasing his dream of becoming a stand up comedian.
He works once or twice a week around New York City. This Sunday, September 7, you can see him at the Comic Strip on Second Avenue in Manhattan (between 81st and 82nd Streets).
“I have a history of late starts,” O’Keefe deadpans, referring to his delayed entrance into the notoriously competitive stand up comedy business. He also did not begin working for the Sanitation Department until he was 40.
O’Keefe says comedy is always something that was on his mind.
“It’s something I always felt I could do,” says O’Keefe, who attended St. Barnabas grammar school and Mt. St. Michael Academy High School in Woodlawn, before raising his own three children in the neighborhood.
Not surprisingly, Woodlawn and Irish Catholics feature prominently in O’Keefe’s routine.
“A lot of my material is also about Catholicism, what Catholic school was like in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of us survived,” he jokes.
O’Keefe comes from a large family. He is the youngest of six. (Tragically, a brother died while serving in Vietnam.)
“My brothers and sisters are all characters,” he says. “I’m a grandfather now, but to this day I could be on the beach and my sister will ask me, ‘Do you have sunscreen on?’ ‘Do you have sunscreen on?’”
About his parents, O’Keefe says, “My parents were both born in Kerry, though they met here.” He credits his mother for his humorous streak.
“My mother had an unbelievably subtle sense of humor. She was very shy and she hated it when she received unnecessary attention. But she was hysterical,” says O’Keefe.
She was also such a member of the Irish old school that, O’Keefe says, “She hated the expression Paddy’s Day. She thought it was disrespectful.”
With a laugh, he adds, “What about all that drinking and carousing (on March 17)? I guess that’s just boys being boys.”
His father, O’Keefe says, was a more serious man who served as secretary treasurer for the paper handler’s union in New York.
O’Keefe took his first step as a comedian in 1993, when a local club hosted a “Funniest Sanitation Worker Contest.”
“There are a lot funny situations about my job,” he says. “I feel I’ve had 18 extra years of high school.”
When he turned 50, O’Keefe said he decided to take a real shot at making it big as a comedian.
That may sound like a heartwarming story, but not everyone was so thrilled.
“People said to me, ‘What, are you out of your mind?’”
But his wife of 32 years, Mary, has been very supportive.
O’Keefe has built himself into a working comic who performs at clubs such as the Comic Strip, as well as private functions and sanitation events.
O’Keefe also takes seriously his role as an Irish New Yorker and “san man.” He is a member of the DSNY Emerald Society, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary. A member the Society’s Pipe and Drum Band, O’Keefe also wants to make sure sanitation workers get the credit they deserve.
Without disrespecting other uniformed services such as the police and fire departments, O’Keefe says, “Our contributions to life in New York are also critical, but unfortunately we are rarely looked at in that light.”
O’Keefe hopes to have a strong career as a performer or comedy writer –- he especially admires the TV work of Jerry Seinfeld and fellow Irishman Denis Leary — but he adds, “It’s a very, very, very difficult business to break into. So, even if it goes nowhere, I enjoy the 10, 15, 20 minutes I’m up (on stage).”
Visit twoohtwoproductions.com for more about Frank O’Keefe.
(Contact Sidewalks at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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