Vince Punaro, 96-year-old stand-up comic

PHOTO by luke fitz

In his 90s, South Land Park resident Vince Punaro launched a new career. The good-natured Italian comedian with a Southern drawl unspools classic yarns punctuated by his casually delivered, well-timed punchlines. After retiring at the age of 85, the World War II veteran, former restaurateur and tenured family man has stayed sharp, passing his driving test checkup in June and putting his sizable cache of material onto a CD, Invincible, that he sold to raise money for his church, St. Joseph's in Clarksburg. With his signature bow tie and fedora, Vince performs his act free of charge anywhere there's an audience. Plus, he may have been responsible for bringing pizza to Nashville, Tennessee. (Full disclosure: Punaro is the father of SN&R Senior Advertising Consultant Rosemarie Messina.)

How did you figure out comedy was for you?

Ever since I was a kid, I like to make people laugh. I get around a group of people and I say, “Hey, I got a joke for ya.” Then I tell it, then they tell me one. I like to see people laugh because even the doctors will tell you, laughing is good for the body.

So is that the secret to your longevity?

Well, I got three things. First, peanuts. I used to eat peanuts as a kid—I always had a pocketful. They used to call me “Peanut.” The next is slow horses and fast women.

When was your first performance?

Fifteen years ago, me and my wife were on a church committee bus coming back from a trip. It was kind of quiet, everybody had a lot of fun that day. 'Round 5 or 6 o'clock at night, I just opened up with all these jokes, just one after the other, on and on. And everybody on the bus was shocked because they didn't know I knew one joke to tell.

And now you’re out with an album.

We made that CD for the church. They had a fair at the church, so we figured we'd make them and people would buy them, and then people would give all the money to the church. I think we sold about a thousand of them. Sold for $10 apiece. All the jokes I tell on that tape I tell from memory. I can remember pretty good.

Any memorable performances?

I was the opener at [the former New Helvetia Theatre] for a friend who was a comedian, and I opened the program for about 20 minutes, I told jokes. I had my hat on and my bow tie, and I says, “I'm the only stand-up comic with a walker.”

Your raunchiest joke?

Well, I tell a few sexy jokes, like the elderly lady who gave up sex for Lent, and her husband didn't notice until the Fourth of July.

Are you a dirty comedian, then?

Oh, I may tell a few off-color, but I don't go for much of that. You don't know who's out in the audience.

How’d you end up in World War II?

I was in Charleston, South Carolina, building destroyers. When the war broke out, I tried to go, but they wouldn't give me a release. They said I was essential because they had to put out one destroyer every month. But I got to the point, at 22 years old, I said, “Hell, I'm not married, why don't I go and let a married man stay home who's got children?” So I just quit. I just walked out one night and volunteered for the paratroopers.

Tell me about your days running an Italian restaurant.

We used to make 20 gallons of tomato sauce, and 20 gallons of meat sauce every week. That's a lot of sauce. We sold a lot of spaghetti. … We were the first ones in Nashville, Tennessee, to have pizza.

How did people respond to that?

They didn't know what it was, y'know. We had to kinda educate them a little bit. There were several restaurants that used to call me in to help them get their pizza started.

What’s up with the bow tie?

I like to wear bow ties every now and then. As a comedian, I thought it might look nice with a bow tie on. It doesn't help the jokes any.

How do you feel up in front of an audience?

Oh well, I enjoy that. I used to be kind of timid, but I don't know lately, I'll go in front of anybody, whether I know you or not, and tell my jokes.

Anything about younger folks that you don’t really get?

No, there's an old saying, “The only way to keep from getting old is to go around with young people.”

Is there anything you can do when you’re 90 that you can’t when you’re 20?

Yeah, sleep.