Joey “Coco” Diaz, a comedian who hails from North Bergen, may be best known for his brash approach to stand-up comedy. What remains largely unknown is that Diaz, a Cuban immigrant, achieved success after a tumultuous life of hardship riddled with decisions that sometimes landed him behind bars.
Having recently made a guest appearance on the CBS show “The Mentalist,” Diaz is known best for his recurring role in the now-defunct television series “My Name is Earl,” playing “Jhoey.”
Diaz has also appeared in various movies, including “The Longest Yard” and “Taxi.”
“All I did was take a little piece of all of them, and that’s who I am today.” – Joey Diaz
A rough but grounded upbringing
Having lost his parents at the age of 15, Diaz was left to fend for himself. He was taken in by a series of North Bergen families, including police officers Robert Bender and Carmine Balzano.
Frequent run-ins with the law kept Diaz from remaining in one place for too long.
“I lived with four different families, but about 20 helped me out,” said Diaz. He cited Anthony Vanieri, the owner of the Vanieri Funeral Home at 5923 Kennedy Blvd., as one of the North Bergen residents who lent a helping hand. Diaz said that because of his reckless nature, such as his tendency to get in fights, he often had to move from one family to another.
“People would pick me up and take me into their homes,” said Diaz. “These people became my family. This is what I want to show in this documentary,[that] these people in North Bergen are very special people.”
From prison, a star is born
According to Diaz, he left North Bergen on June 1, 1985, enrolling in the University of Colorado at Boulder. But Diaz’s progress came to a screeching halt when he was arrested for kidnapping and aggravated robbery. He declined to elaborate, except to say that he was thrown out of school and forced to serve time.
Inside prison, Diaz’ career as a comedian took off.
“Thursday night was movie night,” said Diaz, “and the projector would always break. So I would go up and talk.”
Although his material was improvised, the other inmates eventually began to look forward to his weekly shtick. According to Diaz, the inmates requested that he begin writing down his material so he could go into standup.
“I looked at these guys and said, ‘This is how you got into trouble, with these dreams,’ ” said Diaz.
After he was released, Diaz moved to Los Angeles and began performing his material at open microphone events.
“I got into standup to buy me time,” said Diaz, “until I could figure out what I really wanted to do.”
As he gained popularity, Diaz began performing in other places. He was eventually spotted by a CBS talent scout, who offered Diaz the opportunity to work in a pilot for a new television show.
Although the pilot never came to fruition, Diaz’ career took off, garnering him appearances in “Law & Order” and “Spiderman 2.” His biggest break was perhaps in the 2005 film “The Longest Yard,” a remake of a prison football movie starring Adam Sandler and Bert Reynolds.
Diaz’s recent roles include appearances on “The Mentalist” as well as the family movie “The Dog that Saved Christmas.”
“I was [recently] in an episode of “Supah Ninjas,” said Diaz, adding, “I was [also] in the worst movie of all time, ‘Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star.’ ”
Diaz said his bold and outrageous style of comedy was highly influenced by the Italian and Irish families he grew up with.
“The people I grew up with are all comedians,” said Diaz, adding that their sense of humor is what inspired him. “All I did was take a little piece of all of them, and that’s who I am today.”
Although currently residing in Los Angeles, many of his mornings begin with calls to the North Bergen families who took him in.
Diaz hopes that his documentary, which will feature interviews from many North Bergen residents, will pay tribute to the town that helped him make a name for himself.
“The people who made me [successful] are just regular people in North Bergen,” added Diaz, “and I appreciate that every day.”
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.