Inside Tony G’s in South Hackensack, sunlight glints off a parody poster of Brando as Don Corleone offering a slice that can’t be refused. Across the table from me sits an elegantly bald, broad-shouldered and blue-eyed man whom many locals recognize as Judge Vincenzo August Sicari. Or perhaps they know his alter ego, rising comedian Vince August.
A bearded patron in sweatshirt and baseball cap leaves his bar stool and approaches, hand outstretched. “I had a case with you in court,” says the man. “You were very fair.”
Fair or not, Sicari’s days as a South Hackensack municipal judge are over. In September, the State Supreme Court in Trenton ruled that his dual personae could be perceived as diminishing the integrity of Sicari’s office. Forced to choose, Sicari opted for comedy. Although he presided over the local municipal court a mere 10 to 15 hours per month, ruling on traffic offenses and minor violations, his story made headlines from Arkansas to Australia.
Sicari’s professionalism and character were never in doubt. He had made sure South Hackensack officials were okay with his alter ego. He also had alerted the state’s Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities to his sideline, effectively blowing the whistle on himself. The legal establishment’s concern: What if someone ends up facing August in court after seeing his slightly unbuttoned club act or catching him on the ABC hidden camera show What Would You Do? in which he has portrayed a racist and other disreputable characters? So the court gave Sicari an ultimatum: the mike or the gavel.
Actually, Sicari says, he never used the gavel. “The people coming before me are nervous enough,” he says, slipping into the present tense.
Sicari, who made $13,000 a year as a part-time judge, still has a solo law practice. He had just come from a client meeting in the local jail before digging into his chicken parm at Tony G’s—one of his regular haunts.
As a youth, Sicari, now 44, was mesmerized by his TV comedy idols, Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor. At 14, he convinced his older brother Mario to take him to acting school in Wayne. “I had maybe $400 in cash, money Italians give kids for confirmation and holidays,” he says. Since it was his own money, Sicari figured his parents couldn’t say no. But Pietra and Vincenzo Sicari—hard-working Sicilian immigrants who owned Hackensack’s landmark Foschini’s Bakery—put the brakes on his plan. They thought their introverted youngest son needed a dog, not acting lessons. At their insistence, Sicari stuck to a traditional track, attending Fordham University and New York Law School, bound for a legal career. His dream of being a comedian was mothballed—until he listened to an unlikely champion.
As a child, Sicari had visited family in Palermo, Italy. His aunt Lucy pressed him about what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I told her, Superman,” he says. “You will be Superman,” she replied.
His aunt died soon after, but her words stuck with him. When an accident left Sicari with titanium plates in his legs and—and months later, man-of-steel-like, he defied doctors and ran a marathon—he felt her presence. When someone he barely knew gave him a Superman key chain, he thought of her. Then one night in July 1996, when Sicari was feeling blue, he heard her voice. “She said, ‘It is time.’” He knew she meant comedy because of her encouragement when he was a kid, and at four in the morning, “I started writing.”
He made a cassette of his jokes and gave it to his friend John, then a supermarket stock clerk. “He played it over the loudspeakers one night and told me, ‘You gotta do this.’” Sicari killed at ShopRite. Vince August was born.
T-shirt casual, August appears on stage as a slightly annoyed, ironic observer of life, drawing much of his material from his Hackensack Italian-Catholic background. There are bits about him and his siblings dodging their mother and her wooden spaghetti spoon, and enduring other tribulations of youth: “Our crossing guard would sit in an aluminum folding chair all day and yell to us, ‘Okay, run!’”
Sicari’s fiancée, Eileen Tessalone, a personal trainer and group fitness manager with whom he lives in River Edge, is funny fodder, too: “We have a king-sized bed,” he says, “but she sleeps in a starfish position and I’m on the hem of the mattress hanging on like a mountain goat.” Often, he acts the curmudgeon. “I don’t want to bring kids into this world,” he jokes. “Not because the world is so bad, but because kids ruin everything.”
Carmen Lynch, a Letterman alum and, like Sicari, a regular at Carolines on Broadway in New York, says of her friend, “Vince is so good no one wants to go on after him.” Louis Faranda, the club’s general manager, adds, “When it comes to connecting with people, no one does it better.” In fact, Sicari claims to have great intuition. “I’ve guessed people’s names just by looking at them. Where they’re from, their occupations, the names of their kids.”
Recent media attention hasn’t hurt his performance aspirations. For the past year, he has frequently had the opportunity to warm up the crowd for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. He is scheduled to close a pair of New Year’s Eve shows at Carolines, where he performs every Monday night. And he continues to take meetings for possible talk shows and sitcoms.
Although he calls his latest show “Disrobed,” the material steers clear of references to the legal profession. “Superman doesn’t talk about Clark Kent,” he has been quoted as saying.
Uttering the judge’s oath of office in 2008 was a proud moment for Sicari, but for August, now is the time to start living his dream. “People talk about missing their calling,” he says, “but the phone’s ringing. They’re just not picking it up.”
Elly Schull Meeks is a freelance writer based in Montclair.Click here to leave a comment