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Before A.J. Benza was the infamous Long Island goomba guy on "E!'s Mysteries and Scandals" and "The Howard Stern Show." He was a columnist for The Daily News' "Hot Copy," where under the tutelage of then editor Linda Stasi he became one of the most visible (and successful) reporters doing the gossip beat. His sordid, amusing tales amassed from the late nights with models, music moguls, and Mickey Rourke even made him tolerable when he got a little cocky on Stern's show.

Now, Benza's back on TV again hosting a reality show called "Cold Turkey" on PAX. (It's not the Spanish channel. We checked.) We thought Mr. Benza would be a great choice for the Rock and a Hard Place. I mean, this Q-and-A juggernaut deals with gossip folk all the time. And I'm sure he'll be entertaining. Plus, I'm kind of Italian. And I'm an A.J. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, until Mr. Benza sent this warning: "Just......dont be an asshole. Get as down and dirty as you wish and I wont skirt anything. But if I see you trying to get cute....I'll have you hurt. For real. Consider this a refreshing threat/promise from one of the last cowboys within a world ruled by the politically-correct police. Let's be men. And judging from your last name.....let's be Guineas about this. You WONT ever get a better interview."

Get cute? An asshole? Come on! I'm a journalist!

Funiculi. Funicula.

BT: Alright, pally, what's the goddamned deal with you these days? Are you doing anything interesting and profitable? Are you writing anymore? Or are you beyond that silly typing stuff and focusing on being a full-time talking Guinea head?

AJ: At the moment, the most important thing to me is working on being a new husband and father to a little newborn girl. Those things hit bullseye to your heart and send your head thinking in directions and ways you've never ever pondered. You begin to wonder how the hell your own father took his wife and three kids out of Brooklyn and into a home on Long Island, and began working 7 days a week, 13-hours just to keep everybody happy. I now realize, no matter how much unbridled and insane fun I have had in my life, I now no longer have the right to die anymore. So that's where my head is at these days. And it's a beautiful spot. I've gone from strip clubs to strip malls.

You bet your ass I'm doing something profitable. Otherwise, little Roxy, wouldn't be eating. I just wrapped hosting a reality show for PAX called "Cold Turkey." It airs in October. I hate most reality shows I see ... but, frankly, this had a cool premise and I was thankful for the gig. Ten people are unwittingly stuck in a house for a month to quit chain-smoking cold turkey. And I'm there to see to it. It's a cool show. And, let's face it, there is no escaping accepting a reality show job the longer you are in the business we call "show."

I'm also writing my second book for Talk/Miramax Books called, Star Trip. It's a no-bullshit road map on how to negotiate your way through attempting a career in Hollywood. It'll be a must-read for anyone who really wants to know the straight dope on acting, hosting, screenwriting, auditioning, pitch meetings, etc. It's my personal experiences after 8 years in that town wrapped around actual advice.

And, honestly, I want MORE than anything to come back home to NYC and write a column again. Nothing I have ever done -- making a movie, hosting a TV show, writing a book -- was EVER as cool as having New Yorkers read my words every morning. It was an honor and I crave it again like Hell.

BT: Do you think Italian guys cry more or yell more? And what's the deal with the seven fishes on Christmas Eve? And most importantly do you think Lorraine Bracco's vagina hole smells more like anchovies or smelts?

AJ: First of all ... if you had posed the Bracco question to me in person I would've smacked you like a little bitch. Lorraine Bracco is Italian royalty. Watch Goodfellas again and focus on her beauty as she bolts out of the car and verbally attacks Ray Liotta when he stood her up on a date. And then tell me when she accepts the bloody handgun from him that this is a woman you wouldn't kill for? Whatever she smells like, a real man would eat through it and get to rainbow.

I cry MORE than I yell. Maybe because I often learn that my yelling hurt the feelings of a person I love very dearly. At any rate ... I think most Italians are the kind of guys who are willing to kick your ass and then are overwhelmed with the idea to pay your hospital bills.

As far as Christmas Eve goes ... I don't know why the fish dinner is what it is. But I do know that there is no holiday among any ethnicity that compares to that night all Italians get together and eat until their pant buttons bust off. As long as I live ... I will NEVER miss that dinner at my sister Rosalie's house. It's sacred.

BT: So, what are your impressions of how the gossip game's done these days? Do you think anybody's doing it well? And do you think you got more beav than any gossip columnist in history?

AJ: It's done the same way as it's always been done. It's being done good-enough, anyhow, that I still stay awake till 1 a.m. in Hollywood just so I can read The News and The Post online editions. Not to mention a few bloggers who can write real tight. It's funny, I haven't filed a gossip column in eight years, but I can still put the nuts & bolts together most of the time and figure out which story came from which publicist or which agent or which manager. And so on, and so on. The faces change, but the names behind the faces don't so much.

What I do find fuckin' boring with today's gossip pages is the amount of column inches set aside for these so-called reality TV "stars." That's gotta stop. Enough already with fuckin' Adam, Omarosa, Ryan and Trista! Gimme some more Mick Jagger shit. Those stories are still out there. You think Mick Jagger has stopped making waves because he's a grandfather? No. It's just lazy reporting. I guess it's easier to pick up the phone from the guy who couldn't get Omarosa's pants down in high school and listen to his "tip" on her past.

I always say what I'm about to say: Page Six still reigns for its juice and its cachet, although I wish it attempted some more humor. Richard Johnson is a funny guy with a few pops in him. Cindy Adams knows her shit more than anybody. There isn't a story she hasn't heard, and she truly IS New York City. She's The Queen. Liz is what Hollywood needs for protection, though I like her much better when she speaks her mind. Rush & Molloy, to me, are the best reporters in the gossip game. I don't know them to ever rush a story before it's cooked just right. Musto is the funniest motherfucka in the biz. I used to read his column religiously before I got into the game and I wanted to BE him. He's bright, honest, hysterical and has the biggest balls around. But I still think when me, Michael Lewittes and Linda Stasi were running, our column was the most informative/sarcastic/funny/ballsy column in NYC.

Did I get the most "beav?" Well, I was a single guy so I had the edge on the married guys Rush and Johnson. Might've played out differently if the situations were reversed. I know this though: I did sleep with some women -- some very beautiful, famous and influential women -- for the good of the column. There was a lot of "Night Moves" to those days: "I used her, she used me and neither one cared ... we were getting our share." It was never because I was the most handsome gheez in the club. But let's face it. Walter Winchell dangled more pussy than participles in his heyday.

BT: Was it tough to be taken seriously if you were hanging around the people you were writing about? Like, how could you really say anything -- even if it was the truth -- negative about your friends? I mean, that's like hardcore dago shit that you can't fuck around with.

AJ: I dont know how old or young you are ... but I was taken seriously. If I hadn't been ... why would you be interviewing me? No matter how much fun I had after dark or personal drama I stirred into the column, both columns I wrote "Hot Copy" and "Downtown," were widely-read. And, yes, at times it was tough to write something about somebody I admired or was in awe of. So, as a columnist, I tweaked my opinions just right and to the point where I went for more laughs than gasps. But to think gossip columnists over the years have never been close to the very people they write about is insane. Everyone knows the game. Were there close calls? Absolutely. There were times when I had to bash a studio head, make nice to a local mafiaosa and break a divorce concerning a friend of mine. If ever a story was too close to me ... I dished it off to another columnist. Believe me, I could've had a lot more "wood," but it behooved me to never burn a true friend or a source.

BT: Would you rather wrap your balls in prosciutto and let a pig eat them or kill a random homeless person?

AJ: I know a lot about pigs. I know from some inventive people that when you want to dispose of a dead body, you drop it off at a pig farm because pigs can digest even the biggest human bones and make a corpse disappear. So knowing that a pig wouldn't stop chomping after my nuts-with-prosciutto appetizer, I'd have to go with the homeless person. I'm a self-preservationist.

BT: Now, when Pete Hamill was editor-in-chief of The Daily News, he canned you. Apparently he didn't want the entertainment blather in the paper anymore. Do you think that was a poor decision on his part? Do you think he was short-sighted in making that decision because he hated gossip? Or did he just think you were a prick?

AJ: I do think Pete's decision to cut back on entertainment news was a mistake, but in the long run, he opened up many doors for me when he cut me loose. I talk to Pete all the time. He was my inspiration to become a writer and that hasn't changed. It was as much an honor to report to him as it was being fired by him. And no, he never mentioned thinking I was a prick. He does, however, still send me very cool e-mails from time to time asking what I'm up to. I'll never say a bad word about Pete. We should all be half the fuckin writer and man Pete was and still is.

BT: Alright, here we go: Do you think that punch you threw at Stuttering John ruined you at all? Do you regret doing that? And why do you get all chesty at the slightest provocation?

AJ: First of all, it was a left-handed slap with the tips of my fingers. And, I had warned him that if he broke my balls one more time I was going to march into his office and smack him. So, in the world I'm from, he was properly and honestly warned and he elected to suffer the consequences. If I HAD thrown a punch, it would've been my balled-up right hand and he might still be down.

Yes, I do regret that day. I like John a lot. I LOVE the Stern family and having been considered as a replacement for Jackie Martling's seat, I felt honored. But that day is a long story. Here goes: The new honchos at E! -- specifically the asinine boss Mindy Hermann -- came into power after my talk show "AJ After Hours" was already being developed and taped. But two weeks in, she cut the advertising budget for the show to about $20 a month. No one knew it was on, or when it was on or anything.

And I'll tell you ... had it been given a shot with the proper advertising and network backing, it'd still be on today. It was the closest thing to the old Hugh Hefner "Playboy TV Show." But it was too hip for the room occupied by the E! nitwits. Only problem was when Mindy cancelled it, I was still under contract with E! to get handsomely paid for another year at a heavy six-figure price. So I couldn't publicly say jack shit about the asses at E! But when John kept the anti-AJ calls coming in ... it was like poking a tiger in a cage. I warned him I'd smack him if one more call came through. He elected to prank a call to the studio. And at that point, I followed through with my promise.

Unfortunately, I think it did hurt me. But that puzzles me. Here I was smacking a guy who has made a career out of humiliating the biggest stars in Hollywood and one smack from me, and everyone got worried. There should've been a parade for me down Sunset. But me, John, Howard and everyone are cool. We were cool a few days later. I love those guys. I regret that day. But let it be known ... it was a left-handed smack from a strong guy who is right-handed.

And, I dont get "chesty" at the slightest provocation. But there are times when you dont want to hear an anonymous prick call you an asshole. Sometimes ... those guys need to get smacked. A punch in the nose is the universal language. I can go to Rhodesia and pull some tribesman out of a tree and punch him in the nose. And the first thing he'll think is, "Shit, did I say something wrong about this guy?"

But now with my baby daughter ... I dont rear back any longer. I am luckier than I ever imagined. One smile from her beats the hottest lap dance in your life.

BT: I thought the universal language was Spanish? Anyway, you said you'd want to write again in NYC. What kind of column would it be? How many times do you think it would contain the words "ziti," "stunod," or "affanculo?"

AJ: Correction. I will write again for the people of New York City. At this point in my life, I'd come back for a gardening column. And, let me tell you, I know my fuckin peonies. Seriously ... I still have the itch to write a gossip/society column. I know too much. I haven't filed a column in close to eight years, but I still hear and see everything. I break stories before they even hit the papers. The bottom line is ... after 42 years on this Earth the thing I am best at is writing a column about what's going on in Hollywood. And especially now with an eight-year education here. I earned a fuckin Master's Degree out here on Hollywood. So ... I suppose what I'd be best at is taking the stories that spin out of Hollywood every week and become national debates and putting my expertise and spin on them. I got inside a lot out here. Sitting in a tight booth with a star at Bungalow 8 is one thing. Staying awake with five stars in the Hollywood Hills is another.

And, asshole, you call yourself an Italian? Check your spelling for the last term you mention. You must be what we Guineas call a "Merigan."

BT: Would you rather let Lloyd Grove man paste you in the middle of the San Genarro festival or have Liz Smith strap one on and go dog on you n the middle of Yankee Stadium during the World Series?

AJ: You're a sick fuck. And by the way, which one of your uncles stuck his finger up your asshole when he was babysitting you? I pray you're gay, otherwise there's no reason for a straight man to pose these questions. Actually, everyone knows Lloyd "Cherry" Grove has a problem producing" man paste. AND, last I heard La Liz doesn't eat in my type of restaurant. If I had to choose with a gun to my head ... I'd choose the Liz scenario simply because it's be a bigger story and she'd begin it with "PATA the handsome writer I had the honor of pounding during the 7th Inning stretch yesterday at the House That Ruth Built...."


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