President I ceo / Principato-young entertainment
Drew Kugler: So here I am in Beverly Hills California on the ninth floor of a very nice office building. It houses an organization called Principato Young Entertainment. Peter Principato has been a client, as has the organization, of mine for now—I was figuring out, I think, our first retreat was in 2009. So Peter has been nice enough to join us... the mission of the show is to talk about the effect conversations have on our lives, regardless of the industry we're in. And Peter is really sort of the first one into the water here on Tell Me What To Say about the entertainment business. You can read on his bio and you can read up on his company; but they are, to say the least, a significant player in the business and I'm excited. Thank you for for hanging out with me today. A pleasure. Thanks! So as as the listener knows, the first question—just as a complete warm up. Whatever the answer is is is totally great and they're always interesting. What did you want to be when you were a little kid when you grew up?
Peter Principato: I think this is going to surprise you. I wanted to be a pediatrician. And since I was young—I loved my pediatrician, and he was just somebody that I would always go to. He was entertaining and of course he gave lollipops, you know. And so, from ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a pediatrician and then through high school I volunteered in hospitals and the candy striper program for at least four years. Then when I went to college—I went to college for pre-med and I still volunteer in the hospitals—and I worked in the science labs and really dedicated myself to that path and wanted to do that. I was a lazy student, you know; where if I didn't study, I was very lucky to pull off a B, or B+ in the class. So I felt like [if] it's good enough... But if I actually did study, because I would sometimes fail things and then have to come in take a make up test—it would always be at a one of the higher grades. But I didn't love but I didn't have the discipline or the patience for studying. and when you are going to be a doctor—not only after four years of a program at a university—it's seven years. Beyond that, four years of medical school, two years of an internship, one year residency. And I just was looking at that future and thinking I don't know if I have that in me to truly have that discipline that it takes to study. In my junior year of college, I was taking a class where you had to keep fruit flies alive in a test tube. It was a genetics class. And to keep a fruit fly alive, it's dropping some sugar water into a test tube—and I killed all my fruit flies. And I felt like that was the defining moment—I'm not going to be a doctor because if I can keep a fruit fly alive... You know something that I think makes me good at what I do at my job now ...I'm an empath... If I was in the hospital and somebody was telling me about an accident of breaking their arm, you know—literally, you're seeing this right now—my arm would start to curl with pain... and if somebody was having an operation on their liver... I would actually, physically feel the pain. And I felt like that might not be the best—
DK: —path. Right—
PP:—to go into.
DK: Go into when you when you when you saw the dead fruit flies and came to the epiphany that perhaps medicine was not your path. Get beyond that sad story and onto where you shifted to other—
PP: It was a set a story for me because I was doing so much in college at the time, like, I sometimes feel like college isn't necessarily the place to learn and pursue the path that you think you're supposed to be on. It's sometimes the experience in the path of learning what you're not supposed to be doing, as much as what you're supposed to be doing. And that's where the education really comes in. Just trying to figure out, “Oh, I'm not supposed to do that.” You know, I think is as as an important experience... So it wasn't a sad experience for me— other than feeling like I've just volunteered seven years of my life in hospitals. And I love science. I love figuring out puzzles, and the science aspect of my brain is still, you know, sort of active. Because it's just about trial and error and solving problems. The labs of science were always interesting to me because you were discovering things and figuring it out. The people who were most disappointed, obviously, were my parents. Both my parents—my father didn't finish college and my mother didn't go to college. And so, I was sort of the great hope of the family—of somebody that was going to be a doctor. So, telling my mother that I wasn't going to go to medical school, I wasn't going to be the doctor that I thought I was going to be—she immediately was just very disappointed and angry. And was yelling at me that she was going to stick her head in the oven because she's so upset and disappointed. And sticking the head in the oven in a certain period of time in America was because the ovens were gas ovens, and you would turn on the gas and kill yourself. Basically, we had an electric oven and so this probably led to my path of how I chose mostly the comedy space to sort of work into. I said to my mother, “You are more than welcome to put your head in the oven. The best you're going to do is get a tan.” And she did not find that funny.
But that sort of led me to my true passion and the things that I was working on. I was just fascinated—I was such a student of film and television and comedy. And my father, who put away all things childish when I was born, like dropped out of college because, I think, I was a surprise to my parents. And went to work right away to support the family. But he had all these comedy albums he hid in a closet that I found when I was a kid. And it was like Bob Newhart and Lily Tomlin and the Smothers Brothers and Richard Pryor and all of these things—and I would just incessantly listen to. My grandparents lived in our home and it was just like seven of us in a little Cape Cod house on Long Island. And my grandfather was a great student of loving watching television and film. He was the one that would take me to the movies as a kid. My parents never really took me to the movies. My grandfather always would, and I would sit up in his little apartment in our house and just watch TV with them; like The Carol Burnett Show and the Smothers Brothers and all of the sort of television of the Seventies and things like that. So as I was in college, the path just started. Because I was also president of the student body. I was a bartender in the—they still had bars on campuses then—The Ratskellar. Well, I was a bartender. I was also on the student activities board and I ran and managed the game room. You know, to do things. But I was in charge of budgets for student activities, and bringing shows and things. So I was bringing concerts to the campus. I was doing fashion shows. I was doing talent shows—things along those lines. So these were all things that were interesting to me. And then that started to formulate, like, “Oh.” Because I was present in the student body and I was also doing all this work on the student activities, there was a couple of paths I could take—I thought maybe politics. I was a people person. I was good with people. I thought maybe I would go into politics. I was in the political system of the university and then I was also doing entertainment related stuff so the first path was let me pursue politics. I had no idea how to get into politics I didn't know what it was my father had some strange connection.
So my first job—I went to work for the attorney general of the state of New York. My father worked—was the highest ranking civilian member of the New York City police force—he ran the motor transport division. He ran their fleet services. So all the cars that were part of the New York City Police, all the transportation, all of that stuff my father was in charge of... [He] started as a mechanic and worked his way up through the police force. But he wasn't a cop himself—he was a civilian. For most the most famous thing that he was recognized for by the city of New York was he built the first Popemobile when the Pope was coming to town. So the bulletproof thing, and he got a nice citation and... my dad was one of the people building the first Popemobile that that became famous. But I went to work for the attorney general in New York State in their seat belt coalition. So my job was basically being an advocate for safety belt use. Now this is—remember—this is in the Eighties. So it was people weren't wearing a seat belts. There was the “Click It or Ticket It” or, “Buckle up. It's the law.” All of these programs weren't put in place yet and so my job was to take this half-hour death tape of car accidents and go to companies and corporations in New York City and play this death tape to educate these people on why they should be using seat belts, and why the law is important.
DK: You had a presentation that a company or were you used to press a button..?
PP: I simply was a body used to do things in florescent-lit conference rooms where the lights were buzzing and putting in this death tape.
DK: I mean, there's such a mish-mosh of experiences that now make, of course, complete sense, even for me who only somewhat knows you. But can you think and describe—as we say the conversations on the show—the conversation though that turned it into moving toward where you are now. Right, I know you were in New York. And working in some various entertainment type of things, but can you really highlight a time that sticks in your head that really shifted it?
PP: I'm sorry my phone's ringing.
DK: And it was buzzing, and that shows we're really really working. and so.. just react to me [to] that question because the phone... that works that works fine and he [the sound engineer] is amazing on that end, if we have to pause. What... began to turn you toward specifically toward the entertainment industry as a professional?
DK: Along the lines of doing all that work, what can you think of the conversation that began to turn you towards the entertainment industry as a profession?
PP: Well I think it was probably an internal conversation first— a conversation with myself. You know those conversations are almost as important, if not more important, than the actual physical conversations where they have with other human beings. It was that conversation of... I was sitting in this place, and it was more of a public relations type of job; and I thought public relations into the politics was the way to go at the time. And I was realizing experiencing this is not what I want to be doing. I didn't love the job. The job was a little depressing. The people that work there were lovely, and I always had a great time, and met some great people. But it was literally an office on the Whitestone Expressway, which is right near the Whitestone Bridge in New York City, and which is just a thoroughfare. It's literally an expressway. And it's a little building that the Automobile Club was housed in and then this office was basically two women, me and maybe one other person. And that was it. And the conversation just started like, “Oh, this I this isn't an inspiring environment.” And and it was a job, it was a job [to] step into something. So the conversation [was] internal as well as the conversation with some of the people who work there. And some of my friends that that were off to medical school, that were off to business school, that were off to law school. I was making I think twelve or thirteen thousand dollars a year at this P.R. job. And I think the conversations just first were about this is, OK? This is not what I wanted to do. So I did I did this for about six months—I always give it—wasn't like an immediate thing—it took six months to realize, like, OK, I need to step up from this. Now I've taken this job and talking to some of my old professors at the university, and going to the library at the university—so I was still living at home and my school I went to was four blocks away from my house basically.
And so, it was just that in that beginning inner dialogue—my parents always did say something to me growing up, which parents all say, that it's the thing of, like, “You could be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it.” One of those things which is just out of the handbook of how to be a parent. My father is a very smart man that gives very practical advice. So it's always advice like, “Work hard; do the work.” “If there's a battleship sticking out of your ass and somebody asks you about that battleship, your only response is, what battleship?” Things along the lines of very just practical life advice of growing up in and going into the workforce. My father worked really hard. Like he, I think, he made—God bless him—sixty-five thousand dollars a year and owed money to nobody; except maybe had a little mortgage on the house and had a family of seven—basically in a small house and on Long Island. And even at the time, I didn't know how to appreciate that, but I would have these conversations with him: “I just don't know if this is what I want to be doing.” Of course his advice is, “You just stick with it, and just work hard, and put your nose down.” And other people were like, “Opportunity will present itself.” So the inner dialogue was—I wasn't happy. It's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to elevate. I wanted to be doing something special. So I went to the the library and I talked to some of the sort of librarians of the university library, “This is what I'm doing. I'm doing this public relations thing And they said, “Maybe you should get a job at a P.R. firm in in Manhattan, or try to working at a top ten P.R. firm. And I'm like, “OK, that's an idea.” I did all this research, sent out resumes and got a job at the number seven P.R. firm; a company at the time called KCS&A—King and Corbin, Shoepack and Aronow.
PP: There are now—I can't believe I remember. Public relations and they did a lot of corporate P.R.. So that, and they also did some entertainment P.R. They had the stuffed animal company, Gund, and you know they had an audio company, Polk Audio, and they did a little bit of entertainment P.R. for some other companies, but mostly it was about corporate P.R., and and so that's I think the first conversations about all this stuff were probably just that inner dialogue.
DK: And what happened finally, that through all of that, you got to the P.R., I remember the story—You told me a while ago, or I read it, about you working with Lorne Michaels—two names—Lorne Michaels, Jon Stewart. And these are names that get the attention of the listener, obviously. From P.R. and then to them, approximately?
PP: Well, approximately. Yeah, I mean well , there was a whole life between that—I mean Jon Stewart was a part of the life, but there was seven years between the P.R. to Lorne Michaels. What happened was the company so this is around 1988 at this point; the stock market crashed. The company I was working for was going to have to do some layoffs because all of the corporate clients that they had were in some trouble. So they—basically the support staff goes in a situation like that and I was one of the newer sort of employees. I think I was there for a year or something like that. And so I remember on my birthday in 1988 they told me, “You're fired.” Or laid me off, and I was horrified. Absolutely horrified... When you get laid off, you get paid by the state unemployment insurance. It wasn't done through the mail; you had a go to the unemployment office. You had to be looking for work, and this was a bleak sort of period. You know, I'm a year out of college at this point now, and I'm on the unemployment line already and I'm getting paid off a salary that was like fourteen thousand dollars a year. I'm still living at home, and I was going to be a doctor. And I was really frustrated. I was taught—my grandfather who had a great deal of influence on my life was just somebody that always had a sensitive ear. Like I said, my father was a was a practical man and you know was sort of like, “Get over your shit and move on.” And, “Just do what you got to do.” I wasn't afraid of hard work... worked myself since I was twelve. I was working in a pizza parlor, I had newspaper routes, and then I had four jobs during college. One of my best friends would always tell me he thought I was lazy. Then I would think I was lazy, but I had four jobs trying to scrape together anything I wanted. Because we grew up moderately and anything I really wanted—if I wanted a stereo, if I wanted a bike, I had to buy it myself. For the most part my parents provided what they could; and my father owed money to nobody, so there was never any in over-extension or anything. And my father was the practical man—“You want something, go work for it.”
And so at this time on the unemployment line, talking to my grandfather who loved the movies... and he started encouraging me a little bit, “Well, maybe you should try to pursue what you're passionate about. What are you passionate about?” I really didn't know anybody in the entertainment industry, but one of my friends was going to go to Europe for like a month or three weeks, or a month. And I thought, why not let me go back to backpack through London and France with my my college friend? And one of our other college friends was going to come with us, but before we did I'm like, let me just get out as many resumes into the entertainment industry. The only thing I knew about the entertainment industry was what I would see on television. Or Ricky Ricardo was with the William Morris Agency or things along those lines. So I went to the library, did all my research on getting in. The scientific side of my brain was research. I did all this research on who were the record companies in New York because I was helping a friend of mine D.J. I was an assistant D.J., which meant I carried the records. I was playing around with music in LA. I loved singing in bands and things along those lines; and so, I always had an attraction to the performing arts. I always had an attraction to the arts itself, and I certainly had an attraction to the comedic arts.
And so I just did all this research of record companies, production companies, studios, networks, all of these things. And I discovered talent agencies. I didn't know what a talent agency was except for the fact that Ricky Ricardo was with the William Morris Agency. And I did all this research and I discovered there was training programs at some of these talent agencies in New York City, and I only sent my resume to four talent agencies; but I sent about one hundred twenty resumes out to the entertainment industry, but for two talent agencies and they were the William Morris Agency. I.C.M. (International Creative Management ), A.P.A. (Agency for the Performing Arts), and a smaller agency called Abrams Artists because when I called them and said, “Do you have a training program?”; they were like, “Well, if you're here for two years, you become an agent.” I'm like, “That sounds great!” So I sent these hundred twenty resumes. I went to Europe for three weeks. Talking to my friends, just trying to figure out...one of my friends was into the arts, but he was becoming a teacher. And my other friend... I'm not sure what he wound up doing. We came back and I had basically one hundred seventeen rejection letters—a big rejection ball that everybody, you make with all of those letters. But I had interviews, people that wanted to meet me at three of the talent agencies. Which is weird. I only sent four resumes and I got interviews at three of them. It's a pretty good thing and it's weird. It's like, I think it's probably that my resume spoke about this P.R. experience; so that's about communication. It's about people, being a people person. And I had this these student activities that I did at the university where I was president of the student body you know booking the show so the talent agency somehow felt like oh he's at least a candidate to come in maybe be an assistant here. And so I went in for these interviews and I interviewed at I.C.M. and A.P.A. and the small company Abrams, not William Morris and. I didn't get offered a job in A.P.A. I got offered a position at I.C.M. in the training program but they—the Writers' Guild had just had a strike, so they had a hiring freeze at the company for six months, but they wanted to hire me and I wasn't sophisticated in savvy enough to be like, “Okay, let me take that job and go pump gas for six months and come and take the job.” And Abrams Artists offered me a job answering their phones, again for thirteen thousand dollars a year, to sort of start there. And I thought that's a thing, and so I took the job. I took a job, my first job in the entertainment industry, which is now thirty years ago—not that I like to talk about that—was at Abrams Artists.
DK: So, come forward, to here. Right? I mean everything is so consistent in what you're saying; that how this notion of conversation affected you at so many turns between your relatives, and between your colleagues, and between your friends. So you were truly guided—influenced heavily—which, you know, Score One for the premise of the show. But I met you in 2009. Trying to help you think about leadership communication and these sorts of issues. And you were my first real exposure in this kind of work, along with some studio stuff, to the unique world of The Business (capital B). And the town. The listener knows what they see. They know what they read; certainly these days it's on the front pages. But what are the some of the unique communication challenges that this business faces for one to become successful.
PP: Well, I think when you grow up in a business like this, the communications—it's all about communication. It's all about the way you present yourself. It's all about the way you interact with the people that are above you. It becomes imperative—to really rise through this business, you have to be somebody that has a personality. That has an intellect. That has a way of understanding people. Being able to navigate, being able to read a room, being able to read a person. Know when to shut your mouth. Know when to open your mouth. And and also not be afraid to do the work, and not be afraid to put the hours in and put the time in, and not have any expectation that you deserve anything. And so if you're doing that, and you're just putting your head down and doing the work, and talking to people, and being inquisitive and asking questions and not being afraid of having an opinion and sharing that opinion in a respectful way—not in an argumentative way—but in a respectful way. And sometimes I think I think that's what's done me a great service was a little bit of personality. The ability to connect with people. The ability to look people in the eye and have a conversation with them. The ability to have an opinion, but also know when to listen. And know when to speak. I think that aspect of communication people don't get right, and that's where the mistake is. They don't know when to voice their—what's on their mind. They don't know when to listen. Listening is as important as talking. If you listen and you pay attention, and then you're able to interact and talk to people, that creates a vibe. And it also creates an education and it creates an opportunity of people taking a liking to you. Because what you're trying to do when you first get in the business, is get noticed. You want to get noticed in a way that people don't find it offensive. People don't find it threatening, but they find it intriguing and they find it encouraging; meaning, you have an intelligence to know how to present yourself. You can communicate well. You can communicate your thoughts well, and you also can listen and take something in, and change. And not be so reticent in the way you feel or what your opinion is, but being fluid.
DK: So I want to take the liberty of pulling in something you said a few minutes ago to emphasize for, if nobody else, the listener. Because at the heart of this show is hopefully people learn. Hearing what you just said should be replayed a number of times by people. But you said something earlier that, when in combination, is the lack of it is incredibly hurtful, and the combination of it can be incredibly powerful, and that's the story of the person telling you about their broken arm; you and your arm seizing up as they were telling you, the empath. The empathy for the other person, somehow being able to reflect, to somewhat feel and to stay productive—not to be disabled by it—is something I know that the best of the people in your business are good at—are great at. And that's a very, very powerful combination in every kind of work.
PP: Well, I think between therapy, between the help that you provided us as an organization, and me myself as as a leader in the organization. In the fact of things that you taught us of looking in the mirror, taking responsibility —I learned this later, probably only five years ago. So I've been in the business thirty years. It took me twenty-five years to learn what I'm about say. I try to get everybody here who works for me and with me, and who helps me run the organization understand this concept of what you just said—that empathetic understanding without—and that's really being able to put yourself in the person opposite your shoes and truly see the point of view from their perspective. Not your perspective. I call that the three-sixty effect because most people in the communication arts go ninety percent; which is about me. How does it affect me? Me? Me? Me? Me? Me? Me? Me? The ninety degree angle. The one eighty is okay. It's still me, but I want to hear you. What's going on? What's happening with you? And I'll listen to it. The two-seventy is tell me what's going on, but you're still seeing it from your perspective, so you're listening. You're getting better. You're listening, but you're still seeing it through your lens. And then the three-sixty effect is listening and truly being able to put yourself in their shoes so that you can better understand what they're going through. And then you can have a much better dialogue with them, both in a constructive way, as well as when it has to be a negative conversation.
DK: So, what a segue you just gave me to our last question. 2009, we were in Santa Barbara at a retreat which you—and it the first one you invited me to—and some feedback got given in the room early on the first day. And you turned to the group—I may get the tense of it wrong—but you said, “The shit just got real.” And S.G.R., “shit got real” has followed me—
PP: —And even when it's probably far as "shit got reh."
DK: That was even better. You said it. What did you mean by that then, and does that still follow you today?
PP: Yes, absolutely. We were still —we were in our adolescence at that time as an organization, and people didn't know how to be honest with each other. Be transparent with each other. Talk to each other in a way without feeling fear of retribution; feeling like if you said anything about something, you were just going to hurt somebody's feelings. And it was difficult. And you're going to get to a fight. And so we were still in our adolescence, I think, as an organization. So that retreat was one of the first experiences through the guidance of somebody that was specialized; that people were finally starting to tell the truth, to be candid, to be transparent and to say things. And talk about things in a way without that fear. So that was the shit getting real. People were getting real for the first time in our sort of history at that point.
DK: And now, eight years later, are you as an organization—let alone you as the leader—are you better at it? Or is that struggle—ongoing?
PP: Oh, I don't know—
PP: It's always ongoing. You always learn from it, but I think it's gotten better as we've evolved, as we've gotten more successful. As a leader of an organization—I've said this to you a number of times—I have a lot of Alphas in this organization and they all hate authority. All of them. They all—they rip, rage against authority. Because they just, they're really good at what they do and they they want to be acknowledged for it. And they're really special people and they have their own way of wanting to do things. But I represent the authority in the organization, so there's always just that little bit of push and pull. And so, yeah, we've gotten better at—like, I'm able to have conversations because of the three-sixty effect I just talked about. As well as the “shit getting real” concept that you helped us sort of discover, of being able to sit down and have honest dialogue with people for the most part—the most you know. You can always improve. We're not perfect. We're also human beings. We're not perfect, but I think from a standpoint of where we were eight years ago, it's night and day.
DK: It's good to hear. It's good to hear. Peter, thank you. This has—people will read on the website about all how successful you and your company are. And they'll now, fortunately—based on what you've shared today—they're going to understand what it really took. The advice you received. The risks you took to get to not only where you are, but as I can tell where you're going. And it's been a real pleasure sitting here with you here today and going through it.
PP: Well, this was effortless. Thank you.
DK: Thank you. I'll take that any time.