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Tony Luke Jr. (left) and his friend/comedy mentor, Craig Shoemaker
Tony Luke Jr. (left) and his friend/comedy mentor, Craig Shoemaker|Tony Luke Jr.

A standup guy: Cheesesteak king Tony Luke Jr. bringing his comedy act to Hard Rock Atlantic City

Telling jokes is just the latest aspect of the entrepreneur’s multi-faceted life

Chuck Darrow

Chuck Darrow

Philly cheesesteak avatar Tony Luke Jr. is learning that laughter really may be the best medicine.

A couple years ago, Luke--whose creative-arts resume already included singer-songwriter and actor--was just dipping his toe into the standup comedy waters when the unthinkable happened. His son and namesake, Tony Lucidonio Jr., died of a drug overdose.

The tragedy galvanized Luke into becoming an activist targeting the stigmatization of drug addicts. But it also derailed his nascent comedy career. After all, it was understandably tough for the grieving father to find humor in anything. But then, his close friend, veteran comic Craig Shoemaker, set him straight.

“A few months ago, Craig called me up and said, ‘Tony, man, laughter really does heal.’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I know, but I don't know if I want to laugh.’ And he said, ‘I understand, but when you make other people laugh, it helps heal you as well,’” offered Luke, who will open for Shoemaker Aug. 19-22 at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club inside Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City.

“I said, ‘I'll give it a shot, and let me see how I feel.’ And I did. And I hadn’t done any comedy for two years. I opened for him in Pittsburgh. I got up there and people started to laugh and I felt better. I really did.”

Shoemaker, he continued, then told him, “‘You’re not only healing other people by making them laugh, but you're healing yourself.’ And he's right. And now, I've been opening for him everywhere he goes. He’s been a godsend to me.”

As for his comedic style, Luke described it as “self-deprecating. I kind of make fun of myself. I make fun of the struggles that I have with weight, my struggles with relationships, my struggles growing up—what was it like growing up a heavy-set kid?

“I basically talk about how I kind of go through the world, and the way sometimes the world sees me.

“I'll tell you what I don't do,” he added. I don't do politics because in real life, I don't do politics. I don't make fun of people's shortcomings or handicaps or any of those things. That's not my style.”

More than just offering moral support to Luke, Shoemaker also provided practical advice.

“Craig taught me that comedy is truth exaggerated; there's always some truth in comedy, but it's blown way out of proportion,” he recalled. But that wasn’t the only advice Shoemaker, whom Luke befriended “seven or eight years ago” after radio sports-gabber Tony Bruno introduced them, proffered.

“He's been mentoring me and working with me and really teaching me how comedy works, how to think, how to write bits” he said. “How you come up with these things and how you develop them into something more.”

The road isn’t the only place you’ll find the duo collaborating. They recently travelled to the Davis Estates Winery in Napa Valley, Calif. and taped four episodes of a TV show they are now shopping.

“It's called Comedy Kitchen and it is really hysterical,” he immodestly proclaimed.

The premise is that Luke teaches standup comics how to cook while Shoemaker tutors famous chefs in the art of standup. Then, each person’s creations are judged by a panel of experts who determine, said Luke, whether “your comic is a better cook than my chef is a comic.”

So, when will we get to see Comedy Kitchen? Luke hinted that several television entities have expressed interest in the show, but things are still in the early stages. “It’s being edited now,” he said. “It's still up in the air where this thing is going to go.”

Sound Waves, Hard Rock Hotel Casino, Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue, Atlantic City; 8 p.m. August 19-22; $22; for tickets, click here.