Julia Scotti is a comedian, author, and speaker. She rebooted her career as at the tender age of 59 and rose to stardom in 2016 with her groundbreaking appearance on America’s Got Talent. More on that later.
Her first 28 years she was known as “Rick Scotti” and shared billing with such greats as Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy, but something wasn’t right inside. Julia tells her authentic, powerful story in a documentary, six years in the making, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way. The movie is streaming on major platforms including Apple TV and Amazon. She is genuinely funny and endearing, as I found out when I spoke with her.
Out In Jersey magazine likes to showcase the best that New Jersey has to offer and you’re definitely on that list.
Julia Scotti: I’m honored.
Could you share your earliest memory of making people laugh?
JS: I loved comedy, you know, even as a little little child. I really identified with Lou Costello; I would guess like most kids back then. But I liked him because I kind of identified with him. There was a sadness to him, as there was with me as a child, and I felt like he spoke to me. His character spoke to me. I began to imitate him, and I found that I could make my friends laugh by doing stupid stuff. Lots of slapstick kinds of stuff. Early on, I started out as a drummer, but I really wanted to be a comic. I just didn’t know how to go about doing it.
A drummer? Did you do that in school or…?
JS: I was a drummer for a long time, for 20 years. I did it professionally, for a living. Yeah, I have these great talents for making absolutely no money whatsoever.
Yes, but you get a lot of joy out of it.
JS: Yeah, I think at some point you have to make a decision: do I want quality, or do I want quantity? You know, it’s nice when you can get both, but I’ll always opt for quality first in my life. While I’m not rich, it’s been a high-quality life and I’ve enjoyed every second of it.
You began your transition around 28?
JS: Actually, it was more like 29. The beginning of that year.
You were already doing the comedy circuit and you had your family at that time. Would you tell me what the moment was when you realized that you really needed to be your true authentic self and become Julia?
JS: I had struggled for many years with an issue that I didn’t know there was a name for back then, for me anyway. I just knew that something was still out of tune, you know, nothing made sense. I thought I was gay, but every time I attempted to prove that to myself, it would end disastrously. My partner at the time, Kate, helped guide me through this horrible night when I was with this guy, and he just left me in the middle of everything. I was devastated and she said to me, “You know, it doesn’t sound like you want to be loved by a man, it sounds like you want to be loved like a woman. You are a woman.”
I had heard this before from other women I had been with, previous wives, but it never connected for some reason. This time it did. When she said it, it all made sense. It was almost like, what’s his name on the road to Damascus? Saul, with the bush, gets knocked off the horse and all. It was kind of like that. Very instantaneous. From that point on, everything seemed right inside.
What a beautiful way to put it. It’s not that you want to be loved by a man, it’s that you want to be loved as a woman. I understand you took a break from comedy at that point and went into teaching.
JS: I went to college in my late 40s with the intention of getting out of comedy altogether because I was “middle age” and now all my friends, that I started out with, were very successful in the business. It kind of felt like the parade had passed me by, so I went in with the intention of being a teacher. I majored in education and English. I taught in Freehold Borough for seven years.
But I wound up back in comedy again. Comedy is, I always say, like the song “Hotel California,” you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Was that when AGT (America’s Got Talent) called?
JS: A bit later, about a year before that, a friend of mine, a comedian friend named Chris Rich. She wanted to have lunch because I hadn’t seen her in a few years, and she had never met Julia. We decided to meet for lunch, and we were having a grand old time. At one point she goes, “I have to pee” and I say, I’ll come with you! We were laughing, she was in one stall, and I was in the other. I said, “I never thought this would happen!”
Toward the end of the lunch, she asked me when I was coming back to comedy. “I’m not coming back. I’m 60-something years old.” So it happened that she was working at a club in Bristol, Pa., where we both had worked for many years, and she arranged for me to have a guest set and that was all I needed.
I began doing gigs again, I contacted some old bookers that I knew, and I still had to go audition, even after 20 years of being a headliner and that’s when AGT found me.
My manager at the time, a friend named Kathy Caldwell, had put a website together for me because I was starting to get some press.
AGT has talent scouts that scour the Internet looking for potential acts, and they sent a note to Kathy asking if I’d like to have an audition. I didn’t have to wait online for hours and hours and hours. But I told Kathy I didn’t want to, it’s a game show. She said, “Are you effing nuts?!”
So, we drove up to Queens College and it changed my life.
How did it feel to get that standing ovation? To get all that love and adoration from your comedy and then for you to come out as transgender immediately after and get even more love and acceptance?
JS: I didn’t want to come out before. I wanted to do the set first and let it stand on its own. Even after the set, I wasn’t sure I was going to come out, and it wasn’t until I started opening my yap and thought, you know this could help people if I do tell them who I am. I’m old, what the hell are they gonna do to me? So, I did it and the place went nuts. I got all choked up. Just because I came out. All the people heckling me, all the horrible places I’ve played over the years, it finally all paid off!
Has what you considered funny changed since you transitioned?
JS: Yes, if you saw the movie, there is a horrible scene in there where I’m watching myself with my son doing this anti-trans material and it horrified me. Horrified me and I’m so ashamed of it. But I found out later that a lot of trans folks go through that to protect yourself. I still had no idea what the problem was at that point. I thought I was still in that, “I must be secretively gay” kind of thing. So, the best way to hide from that is to poke fun at it. So, to answer the question, yes it has changed a lot, and not just in that regard, but seeing the world.
Seeing my comedic world from both genders, having lived with what I call “both tribes,” my perspective is different. I can understand both. Yes, it has changed a lot.
I was actually going to ask you that since you’re one of the rare people that has actually seen both sides of the coin in the green room backstage.
JS: I think it’s a little better now. People like my friend Carol Montgomery, who has produced a show called Funny Women of a Certain Age, she’s done three specials on Showtime. I tour a lot with that group. You know it’s rowdy backstage, whether it’s women or men. It’s the best comedy backstage. You never get to see it. But I think men, even those I’ve known for 100 years, there’s a difference in how they act. Sometimes they’re sexist but for the most part, they’re well behaved. I’ve had a couple of times where guys feel like they had to step in and do their thing. I got to admit, I know it’s not very feminist, but I kind of like when somebody treats me old-fashioned ladylike. I guess it’s a function of my age and having grown up in a different era. But when I get shut out, believe me, my mouth opens. I still have the “guy skill set” and if I have to go all street on you, I will. You don’t want Italian Nonna Street!
Your movie, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way is getting great reviews. I mean, you’ve got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
JS: Did we really? I need to give kudos to Susan Sandler. I was up in Nantucket working in a theater up there and she has a place there for summer. She teaches at NYU. She came to the show and she introduced herself. We went out for drinks afterward, her and her husband, and one of the other comics. At that time, I was thinking of doing a one-woman show. and she offered to assist me. She asked for some archival stuff and about a month later, she said, “This is more than a one-woman show. Have you ever thought about a documentary?” I’m like, no, I mean, who thinks about that? Then she said, “Because I’d like to take a shot at it if you wouldn’t mind.”
You know how people in the business are: full of shit. They promise you everything but then a couple of weeks later, a film crew shows up at my house and they start filming. Over the course of six years, I didn’t know about AGT at that point, we didn’t know that I was going to have open-heart surgery, none of this but she happened to be in the right place at the right time. She’s a wonderful, wonderful, brilliant woman.
Let’s talk about what’s happening right now in your life. What’s on your horizon that you would like our readers to know?
JS: I’ve written a play. We had a staged reading earlier this year in Jersey. I’m working on some revisions and I’m hoping to see a production of it. It’s an interesting story. It’s fiction, but it’s based on fact. I can tell you that it takes place in 1969. It’s about an interracial lesbian love affair in an Italian-American family. So, you can sort of find the conflict there. I’m excited about it. It’s different because I don’t have control of the performances. You know, when I do my stuff, I know exactly how I want it done. If I wrote it this way, I have to trust the actors.
So, you’re completely back behind the scenes in this.
JS: Yeah, I’m not in it. Hearing it read like that, it was a lot, you know, I got to watch the audience. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d been in the play itself. I’m very content to be in the background, yeah.
Is there an ETA?
JS: I was up in the Berkshires this past weekend working up there at a place called The Foundry and Amy Brentano, the woman who owns the place, expressed an interest in doing another reading up there in the fall. That would be fine because I’ve made some changes and I want to see what it looks like.
I’m going back out on the road and doing some work with Carol Montgomery’s group too, Funny Women of a Certain Age.
The road is hard. It was hard when I was young. I did a Pride show in West Hartford, got up the next morning and drove to West Stockbridge, Mass. to do the show, then drove home on Sunday. A lot of driving for an old lady.
I really appreciate you taking the extra time to speak with us today.
JS: I wouldn’t miss it for the world.