If there is any more proof needed that following your passion is always the right move, Brooklyn-born comedian Chris Distefano — who comes to the Atlantic City Comedy Club for a string of five shows from Friday to Sunday, Feb. 12 to 14 — is a shining example of what good can come from it.
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Less than a decade ago, Distefano was practicing pediatric physical therapy full time and earning a stable income doing it. But his itch to be on stage telling jokes eventually won over and ultimately paid off. Now he is a headlining comic with hordes of fans and several successful podcasts to boot. We had a chance to speak to him about his journey into the funny. Here is what he had to say.
Atlantic City Weekly: What were you like growing up? Were you the funny one around the house and in school?
Chris Distefano: As a kid, I would use my sense of humor to mask certain feelings. It really started after 9/11. My mom worked downtown at the time, and I didn’t know where she was, and that really scared me. She survived and was fine, but everyone was really scared and my defense mechanism was to try and make people laugh. And one of the teachers in the school said to me, “You should either get into comedy or become a lawyer, because you have this certain charm about you.” So that was when I first got the idea to be a comedian, but I didn’t have the balls to get onstage and do it until I was around 24.
ACW: You were practicing pediatric physical therapy full time until 2013. What made you want to switch to something as uncertain as stand-up comedy?
CD: Yeah, I got a doctorate in physical therapy, and I was working with kids first. Helping mentally and physically disabled kids is something I love to do, and in 2010 I started to also do stand-up comedy. But I was burning the candle at both ends, doing open mics and any type of gigs I could get at night and then going into work at 7:30 in the morning and working a full day as a pediatric physical therapist.
Then in 2013 I got on David Letterman and eventually I had to make a choice of what career I wanted to do (full time). And when I chose to do comedy, it was interesting because nobody really believed in me other than those kids who I had helped in physical therapy. They were always telling me to go do it and were so happy and proud of me. And I am so happy that I did it. I don’t want to be on my deathbed one day and have regrets.
ACW: Comedically speaking, who are your some of your heroes?
CD: Sam Kinison, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn – mostly guys that were big in the ’90s. With Colin Quinn it’s cool because I was always such a fan growing up. We are both from Brooklyn, and I would watch him on “SNL” and now we are personal friends. It’s really cool for me.
ACW: How has your career been since COVID began?
CD: Thank God I have the podcasts (a solo podcast called “Chrissy Chaos” and one called “Hey Babe” which he co-hosts with ‘Impractical Jokers’ star Sal Vulcano). Because of that, I haven’t had to rely on my income only coming from stand-up. And the stand-up shows that I have been fortunate enough to do have been all in outdoor settings or theaters, where I could safely get hundreds of people there socially distanced and still make a good living. But the podcasts are what kept me afloat during all of this and have given me so many opportunities. I am so grateful, because I don’t want to do any of these Zoom comedy shows. I know many of my peers have to do them and I get it, but I have been fortunate.
ACW: Comedy is one of the only arts that isn’t usually taught in the traditional sense. How do you craft your technique?
CD: I took a comedy class when I first started at Gotham Comedy Club and I learned a few things: how to hold the mic and what jokes to avoid and stuff. But with stand-up comedy you can really only learn by failing. You just have to throw yourself into the fire and figure out what doesn’t work. Because you don’t really learn anything when you kill. The growth only happens when you absolutely bomb. I think that is the thing that deters most people from going into comedy. They think ‘what if I bomb?’ but the only way to know how good you are at comedy is if you can gracefully bomb.