The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Spaghetti At Cousin Vinnie's: Bridgeport's Comedian Cooks Up A Comeback

By Ed Komenda | February 1, 2016 6:28am
 Cousin Vinnie
Cousin Vinnie
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Ed Komenda

BRIDGEPORT — Everybody knows Cousin Vinnie.

No, not the character played by Joe Pesci. The neighborhood’s Cousin Vinnie: The Bridgeport-born comedian named Vincent J. Hickey who can barely stroll down Halsted without someone tossing up a window to stick out an arm and wave.

On the stage, Hickey’s known for his quick, no-holds-barred jabs at the funny characters he’s encountered in his life — and, sometimes (like any self-respecting, self-deprecating comedian) — himself.

“I just recently almost lost my life — I flew Spirit Airlines,” Hickey said at a gig in 2014. “I don’t know if anybody has ever flown Spirit Airlines — but it is the Indiana of the airline industry…”

The crowd erupted, and Hickey went on to pick apart our stately neighbors to the east.

At 37, Hickey has made a name for himself as one of the South Side’s funniest stand-up comics, banging out top-notch sets at comedy joints all over the city, witty commentary on local radio and performances in hit shows like “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” and “Death of a Cannoli Salesman.

In the past two years, though, Hickey’s story hasn’t been all laughs.

Cousin Vinnie hasn’t been on the stage in more than six months, spending most of his time in and out of the hospital, recovering from chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant doctors ordered up to battle an brutal form of Leukemia that collapsed his world in 2014.

At a small apartment he shares with his little sister off 31st and Canal, Hickey chokes down 26 pills every day to keep his immune system alive.

“It’s pills, pills, pills and pain,” Hickey said over a cup of coffee on a day he felt well enough to leave his apartment.

After taking a break from performing live shows to battle his sickness, Hickey has poured all the energy he has left onto the page.

“What helps me is writing,” he said recently over a bowl of homemade spaghetti at his dining room table, where you’ll find a stack of notebooks filled with jokes, television show ideas and comedy premises.

Often confined to his couch or dining room table to avoid getting sick during Chicago’s coldest months, Hickey is always scribbling or typing something: A one-liner. A character sketch. A plot point.

Among his ongoing projects is a dinner play called "Who Killed the King," a murder musical where Elvis dies on the crapper and you have to find out who killed him.

He’s also got a YouTube series in the works about the life and times of Russian shepherd named Boris who is outcast from society for an act that seems more scandalous than it really is.

Hickey has spent most of his time developing and shopping around a new television series to national networks.

“That’s my next goal,” said Hickey, who appeared as a gangster in the Starz series “Boss.” “To have a cool series that people will love.”

A Real Fighter

Long before he began his battle with a disease that makes it easy for a common cold to kill him, Vinnie Hickey spent much of his time fighting.

He once brawled with one of Bridgeport’s famous bullies.

That was back in the first grade at Holden Elementary, and that bully's name was Kevin Augustiniak, a future Hells Angel who would later plead guilty to murdering a woman in California.

“We were two little skinny kids, fighting,” Hickey said. “I got my a** beat. He dragged me around by my backpack. I had dirt in my mouth for the first time."

Vinnie ran home, where his father, Vincent, yelled, “What happened? ... He did what? ... Get your stuff!"

They drove to the park and found skinny Kevin. Little Vinnie was excited. His dad was going to beat up the bully.

“You Kevin?" Vinnie's dad said. "Go ahead, Vinnie ... fight him.”

“I’m like, ‘“What dad? I thought you were gonna beat him up!’” Hickey said.

Little Vinnie stepped forward.

“I got my a** beat again,” Vinnie said. “And my dad took me for ice cream.”

He got a little banged up, but there was an old-school Bridgeport lesson to be learned.

"Stopped me from being afraid,” Hickey said. “I’ll tell you that.”

Finding A Way

Here’s the thing about Cousin Vinnie: He’s the kind of bold, fearless neighborhood guy who makes his own dreams come true — even if the path to get there is real-life comedy in itself.

In high school, when he decided he wanted to be a chef, Hickey whipped up a batch of chocolate crepes good enough to win him a culinary scholarship to Washburn Culinary Institute.

After a series of restaurant jobs, he wanted to be a comedian — so he wrote a set full of jokes and booked his own gigs, eventually playing with top acts like T.J. Miller, Andrew Dice Clay and Jonathan Brandmeier.

Then, years after starring in school plays like “Rocky,” “Singin' in the Rain” and “Grease,” Hickey wanted to be an actor.

He got his shot in the most unlikely of places: Outside the Taste of Chicago, where he was selling bottles of water to packs of sweaty tourists in the sweltering heat.

A police officer walked up to him and told him he couldn’t sell water on the street. But Hickey would find a way.

Cousin Vinnie turned to his South Side ingenuity and walked into a nearby Walgreens, where he bought a box of string.

Outside, he yelled, “Bracelets! One Dollar! They come with a free bottle of water!”

Passers-by quickly caught on, bought up the string bracelets and quenched their thirst. Most threw away the piece of string.

The cop walked up, stunned.

“’You got me,’” Hickey remembers the cop saying.  

It just so happened Steve Salemi saw the whole thing unfold.

He’s the actor who played Tony in the popular dinner theater production “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.”

Hickey got an audition for the show a short time later and got a part playing Tony’s father. Cousin Vinnie didn’t have to do much for the part.

He threw on some gold chains and rings he already had in a jewelry box at home, and he was on his way.

He spent five years with the show and performed in its final production. When the show folded in 2009, Hickey felt inspired to do his own dinner theater show in his own neighborhood.

“What did I do when Tony and Tina’s closed? I didn’t take my Virginia Ham and cry all the way home,” Hickey said. “I started writing ‘Death of a Cannoli Salesman.'"

The Best Medicine

For a guy who’s in pain most of the time, Cousin Vinnie laughs a lot.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Sam Ricobene Jr. — the son of famed restaurateur Sam Ricobene — stopped by for a visit. He often shows up to gab, brining with him some eats from the restaurant.

The two neighborhood boys are close in age and spent years working the Ricobene’s booth at the Taste of Chicago and restaurants across the city. Hickey’s mother, Sharon, has worked at Ricobene’s for 25 years. 

“Did I tell you about my T-shirt idea?” Hickey asked Ricobene, who had not, but is always interested to hear his buddy’s ideas.

Cousin Vinnie launched into his pitch.

“One would be ‘Cousin Vinnie’s Diving Club,’” Hickey said. “On the front it has a guy getting thrown off a bridge with cement boots on.”

Sam cracked up, and Cousin Vinnie went on.

Another would say “Cousin Vinnie’s Bat Club,” showing a bloke getting beat down in the street by bat-wielding wise guys.  Then there's “Cousin Vinnie’s Billiards Club,” “Cousin Vinnie’s Aquatics Club," and "Cousin Vinnie's Archeological Club" — a group interested in the study of burying bones in the desert.

"That's so stupid," Ricobene often laughs, tears coming out of his eyes.

Whenever they get together and “sit” — Bridgeport slang for “hang out” — Ricobene and Hickey trade stories of the old days, when Cousin Vinnie worked as a general manager at Ricobene’s and prank-called other shops across town.

For good or ill, even after he left the restaurant, employees kept the tradition going.

The duo is now working together to rollout out a reading program for kids at local schools. The program is simple: If a student writes a book report, they get a free slice of pizza from Ricobene's and a movie from The Video Strip.

"Dinner and a movie," Hickey calls it.

Even if he doesn’t like to admit it, Hickey relies on these visits from friends and family to keep his spirits strong. He's always looking for a laugh.

Say something witty around him, and he’ll surprise you with a laugh that echoes through the house.

Cousin Vinnie turns everything into comedy, including his cancer.

When Ricobene heard Hickey was sick on Facebook — Cousin Vinnie let the world know with a Facebook status — the statement didn’t stick.

“I thought he was messing around,” said Ricobene, the first guy to read the script for “Death of a Cannoli Salesman” before making it an in-house show at one of his restaurants.

Then Hickey landed in the hospital, started a draining regimen of chemotherapy and dropped to 108 pounds.

“It scared me,” Ricobene said.

Hickey has since gained most of his weight back.

Despite the ordeal of the last two years, Hickey has done all he can to keep his humor sharp.

In the hospital, Cousin Vinnie was always joking around with doctors. In his room, there was a numbered pain chart on the wall, each number corresponding with a body part.

“So this is one, this is two, this is three,” Hickey said, pointing to different parts of his body. “This is four. This is 5. This is 6. Just to say where your pain is.”

When he felt the pain, he piped up: “Can I get a number 6?” Hickey asked the nurses, as if he was ordering a burger from a drive-through window.

“My mom would be cracking up, because I’ve got all the nurses saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to give this guy a number 6,’” Hickey said. “It’s so stupid, but it’s all I got.”

His mother, Sharon, is a classic deadpan Chicagoan, often supplying the laughs when Hickey least expected them.

One day at the hospital, doctors gave Vinnie a competency test because the drugs sometimes make the brain go haywire.

“Who’s the vice president of the United States,” a doctor asked Hickey.

“Ask him something he would know!” his mother said.

“It was ridiculous,” Hickey said, laughing.

For guys like Ricobene and Hickey, two South Side guys trying to make good, laughter has been a way to fight forward and stay positive.

“Humor: It just cures stuff,” Ricobene said, sitting in Hickey's living room, where pill bottles cover the coffee table. “If you just look away for a second and laugh, all them pills are gone. Even if it’s for 10 seconds.”

Cousin Vinnie knows all about it. He lives for time with his friends, a time to laugh.

“I like this,” Vinnie said. “Just hanging around and bulls******, you know?”

In August, it will be two years since Vinnie's last round of chemotherapy. If his cancer does not return before then, he'll be considered in remission.

"August 13," Hickey said. "That's a big day."

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: