Actor and comedian Chris Distefano has always wanted to make people laugh. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Distefano credits his family and city for cultivating his passion for comedy. In a phone interview with The Hoya, the comedian discussed his journey in the industry, upcoming shows and his new special “Size 38 Waist,” which was released on Comedy Central in January. Distefano is set to perform at the D.C. Drafthouse Comedy Theater on March 8 and 9.
Q: Where do you find your comedy inspirations, and how do you think your comedy has evolved over time?
A: I think my comedy comes from, it would be like my defense mechanism when I was like sad or like having like an emotional outburst, instead of like yelling or doing drugs or something like that, I would just try to make people laugh. I want, I’ve been in therapy almost my whole life, and I feel like every therapist is like, “Yeah, your go-to thing is just to attempt humor.” So I got to a point in my life when I was like 24 years old, I was like, I should try to do this as, like, my career in life because it feels like the only thing that I’ve ever — I don’t want to say “been born to do” ’cause that’s corny, but it’s naturally in me to, like my instinct. I instinctually try to make people laugh, as opposed to, you know, trying to, you know, sound intelligent to them or try to be interesting or mean. I don’t do any of that, it’s always like I wanna make people laugh. Like if I see someone sad, I’m the guy, I’m like, I just wanna try and make them laugh. And I think my material really comes from, it’s inspired by my family. I’m a guy, I always talk [about] my family, and for me, like my rule in my head is I only will talk about it on stage if it actually happened to me in real life. I will embellish it to make it funny, think of punchlines and all that, but I’m never going to just pull something completely out of thin air. That’s just because I feel like it’s not organic to me, and then it won’t be organic to the audience.
Q: And your special, “Size 38 Waist,” actually pulls a lot from your background as a New Yorker and your life with your family. How do you feel that background has shaped your comedy and your connection to the special?
A: Well, I feel like growing up in New York, you know there’s so many people here and it’s such a fast, kind of cutthroat city that you know you have to have, like, tools in your toolbox, you know, and how to deal with people. So my tool, like I said earlier, was humor, and my father, who I get a lot of material from and who I think I got my sense of humor from, that’s what he would do. Like, in my dad’s family, like, you know, a big Italian family, 50 people in a one-bedroom apartment for Christmas, like if you’re not being funny at that table, then you’re getting made fun of, so you — it’s kind of sink or swim. It’s either like you’re gonna get joked on or you’re gonna have jokes back and you can command some control of the room. So I think really for almost my whole life, I was being groomed to do comedy because it’s just, I didn’t even realize like subconsciously like that’s just how I was raised. Like some families, you know, they’re quiet at Christmas or they want to hear about each other’s days, like my dad would just be making fun of my shirt at 10 years old, so I had to find a way to defend myself and I feel like I did that with being able to joke back with him.
Q: Arguably we are in a “comedy boom” right now with a lot of young comics coming up in different ways at different ages, different identities. How do you think that the industry has changed to make that possible, and how do you feel about it?
A: Well, I think now there’s the newer comedians, I think it’s a little bit more, like you know when I came up — which is just 10 years ago — it was more of an old school mentality where it’s like you know we gotta have punchlines, every 10 seconds there’s gotta be punchline, punchline, punchline. Now it feels like it’s a little bit more long story, kind of story formatted telling us about an experience that they have that has punchlines in it, but it’s just a different style than the old school, and I think the best comedians are comedians who can find a balance of both. But I think overall, it’s the best time to do comedy because no matter what you are, no matter what kind of comedy you have, your audience can find you ’cause there’s so many different outlets in comedy. Now it used to just be like you know, you have to get a sitcom or else the country’s not gonna know who you are. Now you can have a podcast, you can have a sitcom, you can have a web show, you can have a special on HBO, you can have a special on Comedy Central. Wherever it is, your fans can find you, so I think that’s really great.
Q: What has it been like to get your name out there as a comedian?
A: I do like all these things on my Instagram, you know, I talk a lot like about anxiety. I have this thing I do called #anxietytuesday, and it’s been cool because a lot of people will reach out to me now like asking real questions … like I could help them in a way. Like, ‘Hey, I’m having anxiety today, this video helped me,’ or, ‘How do you get through this,’ so it’s been nice to have like, an open line of communication with people who like my comedy because, you know, as much as they help me, I can help them.
Q: What is that connection like with an audience, because a comedian like you really gets to have a more personal relationship than an actor, but you are also showing them what you want to show them?
A: Well I love doing comedy, and it’s my favorite art form, and I’m happy it’s the one that I gravitated toward because you have to be like, ‘Keep your feet on the ground,’ your whole career. Like, an actor or actress can just become someone and like win these awards and stuff and that’s all great, and they could easily be surrounded by all these “yes people” and they lose track of who they are, what they were when they started. They get really cocky and their heads, you know, they get inflated. With comedy, why it’s so great, the audience will always be honest, so you could be the most famous comedian in the world, but if your jokes don’t work, they’re not gonna laugh at you and the same silence that’s, like, deafening is the same silence that was deafening when you first started comedy and you weren’t doing well. That’s why I love doing stand-up, because we have to, we have to be able to relate to the common person, and we have to keep our feet on the ground or else because the crowd is gonna tell us the truth. Like you could surround yourself with as many yes people you want as a comic. When the special comes out, if the jokes suck, then the people are gonna let you know they suck, and that doesn’t happen with actors and actresses.
Q: What is it like performing stand-up in different parts of the country or the world?
A: Well I think like I’m from Brooklyn, N.Y., so like I’m from kind of the Northeast, East Coast vibe, so I feel like you know New York, Boston, Philly, we have like the same kind of mindset, and I feel D.C. has that mindset too, it’s just you guys are a little smarter. So it’s like you have that East Coast ruggedness, but it’s also, you know, you guys have Georgetown, so I mean these are big-time schools, so I feel like my comedy I’ve noticed when I’m D.C., I still am who I am, but some of the smarter, the jokes that I think are a little smarter that I may not have done in Philly, I’ll do them in D.C. and we’ll see what happens.
Q: So you’re kind of evolving your set as you go.
A: Trying to. I’m one of those, I always have a plan, I always know the first joke I’m gonna do and the last joke and everything in between I just leave up until the moment.
I need to be going a little bit by the seat of my pants for myself and the crowd to have a good time.
Q: What is the comedy community like in interacting with other comedians, being both a fan of their work but also their friend?
A: New York, I can comment on because I live here and I know all the people, it’s very, very, very supportive. Everybody supports each other in New York, like if somebody gets a late night set or somebody gets a big show, we’re very supportive. We’re tweeting about it, we’re writing on their Instagram walls, we’re texting them, we’re throwing parties for them.
The catch with New York is that it’s so cutthroat and there’s so many comedians here that if you’re looking to start comedy, maybe New York isn’t the best thing because it’s so hard that you might get discouraged. I would start in a smaller city and then come to New York when you have some chops, because it’s just really f–king hard to stay afloat here because there’s so many of us, and there’s so many good ones. I mean, New York comedy writers are the best writers, so it can get hard.
Q: Speaking of starting out, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you have learned since starting comedy, and what advice would you give to someone, say, someone starting out in college who wanted to do the same?
A: I would say the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that a lot of people in your life are not going to believe in you, and it’s not their fault. They just, it’s kind of, we’re conditioned as humans to have a negative brain because of evolution, so, you know, even your close family members and friends will just, won’t actually believe in you in the beginning until you kind of prove it. So I think, even though it’s corny, like you have to believe in yourself and if you think it’s funny, and you think it’s worth it then just do it. Don’t get too many outside opinions, because a lot of people will tell you, will give you their advice and it’s just wrong.
Q: Do you like that you get to have a different experience in [Stupid Questions, his recently extended Comedy Central series]?
A: Oh yeah, it’s a totally different vibe. First of all, we film that show, we start it at 8 in the morning, so like to trying to be funny at 8 a.m. is a challenge. But you know, I love doing it because it’s like, it’s a lot, you know, I have to ask a question, listen to their answer and have a funny response. So it’s kind of like, it’s kind of like prepared stand-up mixed in with improv, mixed in with interviewing, so it’s a challenge. It’s skill sets that I’m getting better at and I’m sharpening. So, ’cause I think, like, as a comedian or as anybody in entertainment, you want to have as [many] weapons as possible, so “Stupid Questions” has definitely given me more weapons, which I’m happy about.
Q: What was it like developing that special [Size 38 Waist], did you have kind of a goal in mind for what you wanted to get across in it?
A: You know, it was like, you know, it was my first hour special, so it was kind of like 10 years of all my comedy, so I kind of wanted to, you know, tell the story about my life a little bit, talk about my family and where I’m from. I had Chaz Pometary introduce me, so he’s always been like, a “A Bronx Tale” was like my favorite [thing] ever growing up, so it was an honor to have him introduce me. And yeah, I think the only thing I wanted to get across is that, you know, I’m funny, I’m not scared to say something that could be considered edgy or over the line and my comedy is just coming from a place of truth, no hate, and my comedy is not about some political message or making you change your mind about something. It’s just about, you’re just watching this guy be funny for an hour, and you’re forgetting about your problems because you’re laughing along with him, that’s all I want.