More than 20 years after debuting his irreverent Sinatra impression on Saturday Night Live, Joe Piscopo is standing up to negative Italian-American stereotypes in showbiz — sort of. When friends and family nudged the Newark, N.J., native to protest HBO's The Sopranos, the network made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

"On a production, acting and writing level, I think The Sopranos is absolutely brilliant," Piscopo tells TV Guide Online. "But some of my friends [who are investors in my production company] asked me to go to HBO and demand a positive look at the Italian-American people."

Hence, he pitched them Bloomfield Avenue, which the cable net accepted. The miniseries — which he's co-writing and producing with Chazz Palminteri — will follow the evolution of a New Jersey street and its Italian-American inhabitants, from the early 20th century to the present.

Meanwhile, Piscopo's also reaching back to his roots in the indie flick Bartleby — opening in limited release tomorrow — based on a Herman Melville tale. He plays Rocky, a womanizing, tough-talking clerk in a dreary public records office. "Rocky is actually my cousin Frankie," explains Piscopo, who arrived at his audition in a white Cadillac and dressed in a sharkskin suit for added effect. "He's stuck in an office job and he thinks he's a tough guy, but no wiseguy would ever hang out in an office like that."

Because Rocky comically emulates the Mafioso image instead of actually being one, Piscopo feels he's erring on the right side of the fine line between parody and insult. "If it were an organized crime kind of setting," he notes, "then you have to double-check yourself against stereotypes."