When Chris Distefano and I connect by phone, he’s in good spirits, though he’s worried he won’t have enough time to play outside with his daughter. It’s the beginning of the quarantine and the uncertainty surrounding lockdowns and people’s mobility is at its zenith. Fortunately, Chris is able to enjoy a few minutes of solitude as we explore his unique path to comedy, his fast-rising career and his strategy for staying at the top of his game.
Growing up in Brooklyn, what first attracted you to comedy?
Chris Distefano: My father’s side of the family is very funny. Old school Brooklyn-Bronx Italians. As soon as you walk in the door to a family gathering, they’d start making fun of your sneakers, start making fun of your haircut, start making fun of anything about you. If you didn’t have quick come-backs, you were gonna die and get abused.
I would spend two weeks at a time between my dad’s place and my mother’s house in Queens. [At her house], everything was quiet and reserved, things were on the up-and-up. Whereas, at my dad’s, there were criminals in there, people abusing you, giving you nuggies, calling you a “rich fuck.” It’s crazy, I was “rich” because I lived in a house, as opposed to all them living in apartments. Just because I wasn’t in jail they thought I was a goodie-two-shoes. I’m like, “What? You guys are criminals.”
I think I developed a sense of humor very naturally and organically. I didn’t start doing stand-up comedy until I was 24 or 25, but it felt like I was acting like a comic for most of my upbringing in order to survive. Subconsciously, it was always a defense mechanism. Like when 9-11 happened, so many kids in my high school were affected by it. My mom worked in the second tower that was hit. She survived, thank God, but nobody knew who was dead or alive for like 12 hours. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, a bunch of tough guys, and everyone was crying. My natural instinct was to try and make people laugh.
One of the teachers, Brother Regis, two or three weeks later was like, “You know, you have a natural ability to make people laugh and be kind. You should either go into comedy or be a lawyer. You’re going to want to charm people in an audience in some way.” I didn’t have the balls to get on stage for a while, and instead went a whole other route and got a doctorate degree in physical therapy.
What triggered the shift?
Chris Distefano: I loved doing physical therapy. It was great, it was gratifying, it’s a position of helping people. But even my physical therapy classmates were like, “You make so many people laugh, what about comedy?” I’d always say, “I can’t do both, I can’t do both.” But my last year of physical therapy school I was like, “Fuck it.” I remember talking to my dad and he was like, “At least just try.” So, I went to an open mic and bombed horrifically, but became addicted to the rush of getting on stage.
I played basketball in high school and college and would look forward to practice, the drills and the games. When I got to graduate school, there was no basketball and the rush was gone. Stand-up comedy kind of replaced basketball [and that rush] in my head, and then I just stuck to it. I kept going and kept going, working as a physical therapist everyday, 7am to 3pm, and then would hit comedy open mics from 5pm to midnight every night, burning the candle on both ends. I was losing relationships with girlfriends, I was straining relationships with certain members of my family, working all day, being exhausted. I wasn’t going to the gym. I just really loved comedy so much.
It got to the point where I got on an MTV show—“Guy Code”—and it became really popular amongst high school and college kids. One day MTV was basically like, “We want to give you an overall deal, but you’re going to have to leave your physical therapy job and jump two feet into this.” They wanted me to go out to Los Angeles for a month and shoot a pilot, so I had a decision to make. I spoke to my father again, and he was like, “Listen, just go for it. You already have your degree and your physical therapy license, put it on hold and just go.”
It was crazy too because with the New York City Board of Education, if you didn’t show up for work—if you called out sick—and were found to actually not be sick—they call it “theft of service.” If your school principal really wanted to be a motherfucker, they could call a part of their Department of Education law enforcement—which are like retired detectives—who work to try and sniff out “theft of service.” From their perspective, you’re stealing money from the city and could go to jail for it. That’s how crazy it is.
A couple of times I called out of work and said I was sick, but I would actually go on the radio or do a comedy gig out of state. The day that I resigned with the Board of Ed, that afternoon, I’m home and get a knock at the door. It’s two off-duty police officers and they’re like, “We’re from the Board of Ed, theft of service. We know you called out sick.” I was like, “Look, I just resigned today.” They were like, “Why would you resign?” I’m like, “I’m a comedian.” I had just done comedy on “The David Letterman Show” like a week before, and the cue cards were in my living room waiting to be framed. The officers were like, “What are those?” I was like, “Oh, those are cue cards, I just did ‘The David Letterman Show.’” One of the cops was like, “Can you make us coffee? Let’s watch the set.” So I made them coffee, we watched “The Letterman Show,” and talked for 45 minutes. That was March of 2013 and I’ve been doing comedy full-time ever since.
It must have been a pretty freeing feeling at that point because you had nothing to hide.
Chris Distefano: It was one of those things where I was more scared at first, but I was like, “You know what, man? I don’t want to regret anything. Let me just jump two feet into this.” It’s interesting, just a couple days ago, I got an email from the American Physical Therapy Association being like, “Hey, with this coronavirus pandemic, would you be willing to renew your license because we need as many health care professionals as possible.” And I was like, “You know what? Maybe I will.” Just to be of service, especially if I can’t do any comedy and all the clubs are shut down. I was thinking, maybe, just in this time, going to do that.
You started comedy in 2009. 10 years later, you’ve had your own specials and the overall deal you mentioned. Did you ever foresee this happening?
Chris Distefano: No. I remember it being early 2012 and seeing a comedian at Carolines who had just gotten a half-hour special on Comedy Central, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, that’s so cool. If I even got a Retweet from Comedy Central, I would not be able to sleep.” And then, a year later, I was doing a half-hour special for Comedy Central. Four or Five years after that, I was doing a full hour, and now I’m doing a second hour for them.
I am always only in competition with myself. So I never really look at things like, “Oh, I don’t have this, or, look at how well I’ve done these past few years.” It’s really about everyday, I’m competing with myself. Is this day better than yesterday. I only get reminded of some of my success when someone brings it up. When someone is like, “Oh wow, you did all that in a short amount of time.” But for me, I’m just competing with myself. There are plenty of people who I started out with who are lightyears ahead of me, and some people I started with have since quit because things didn’t come to fruition for them. That’s why I only compare success against my own success.
I don’t try to think about what anybody else has. [That perspective] is especially important with entertainment and comedy, because it’s not a sum game. It’s completely subjective. [Comedy] is not a thing where the most points wins. People will get things fairly and unfairly, and not get them fairly and unfairly, and I’m aware of that. So I’m like, “Hey, man. Control what you can control.” And [what I can control] is trying to be proactive in my career, coming with new material, and being prolific with my material. I just try to be as funny and interesting as I can and that’s it.
If all you’re doing is focusing on being the best “you” and competing against yourself, it probably separates you from others who might get caught up in what everyone else is doing. What works for some may not work for others.
Chris Distefano: Sometimes I’ll get messages from my peers or from people who want to start comedy asking for advice. I always give them the website badslava.com where all the open mics are in the city. If they’re a more established comedian, I’ll just be like, “If I tell you what’s funny or if I tell you what to do, I’m really just—in a subconscious way—telling you to be more like me. And that’s not what you want.
Bill Burr is far and away my favorite comedian. I love him, I laugh at everything he does, I admire everything he does. But I know if I got advice from Bill Burr, it would just be Bill telling me to be more like Bill, when I’m only going to succeed and be able to—hopefully one day have half the success Bill Burr has—by being myself. It’s interesting, in basketball, I can say, “This is how I work on my jump shot, this is my form,” but for a subjective art form, the more individualistic I can be, the better I’ll be. So I can emulate certain people and take certain things. Like, Bill Burr always has a theme about clearing out a population. There’s a theme of, “We gotta get people off this planet.” So what I’ve done is, my specials are always about punching people in the face, or needing to hit people. And it’s very subtle. All the jokes kind of deal with me hitting someone or more likely, me getting hit because of things I do or don’t believe in. I try to do little things like that to learn from the people who I respect. Pick up the little things they’re doing that are shareable, but also be different from them in as many ways possible.
How did your “History Hyenas” podcast with Yannis Pappas come to be?
Chris Distefano: Yannis and I met about eight years ago through comedy. We’re both from Brooklyn and we both love history so much. And we both come from neighborhoods where you could never really be honest with your friends [about it]. If I said, “I love history,” my friends would be like, “Do you like guys?” It was just that kind of thing. [My friends] were very macho, had a lot of bravado, all they wanted to do was talk about the Yankees and the [football] Giants. Whereas, I knew all about Alexander Hamilton before the musical. I was fascinated by the Revolutionary War. Yannis was more into Greek mythology and non-American history, [and when we discovered we both loved history] we were like, “We should do a podcast.”
Around the time we were thinking about this podcast and wondering what it would be about and what it would be called, Yannis had just read an article about how fascinating the hyena animal is, how it’s a female driven society, the girls have penises, and how they give birth through their pseudo penis. We then read all these other crazy articles and decided we should call the podcast “History Hyenas.”
What’s beautiful about having a podcast, especially now at a time like this, is there’s nothing you can take away from us. We put it up, we put it out, and then the fans dictate if it’s successful or not. A company is not going to make a choice, an executive can’t cancel it. We’re putting content up there and updating it every single day. We’re putting up all this content and the fans are keeping us afloat. Of course, we encourage anyone if they got laid off or if their job’s closed for the next month, absolutely cancel your Patreon or freeze it. But for people who can afford it, they’ve already said, “We’ve been quarantined for two or three days and your content is helping us through. Your podcast is helping us through this.” We know we’re one of hundreds of podcasts that are helping people through this stuff, and we’re most proud—both individually and in our careers—of the podcast.
You’ve done a lot of hosting spots for different sports networks. Does it scratch your itch for your love of sports when you take those gigs?
Chris Distefano: Playing sports you always have that thought of, “Did I stop too soon?” What’s great about hosting some of the stuff I’ve done with athletes is standing next to them and realizing I never had a chance. You can tell by looking at them even in regular clothing. I could have practiced every single day and taken steroids and I was never going to look like Rob Gronkowski. I was never going to have as great a jump shot as Steph Curry. For an athlete who was born to play ball and make it to the NBA, I’m hoping that’s how it is with me and comedy. Where I was born to do [comedy] and now I’m doing it and that’s why I’m seeing success. And hopefully it continues. Working with athletes puts that into perspective. I feel like I am doing my calling as they’re doing theirs, and I just hope to have continued success with it.
What role does cannabis play in your life?
Chris Distefano: I’m not really a big cannabis guy, but I have nothing against it at all. I’ve taken CBD oil a couple of times, like when I went to Denver, or even in New York, I used to put it in my coffee or tea and would find I’d be a lot more relaxed. When all my friends [when I was younger] were smoking and using cannabis, I was playing basketball, and was constantly getting drug tested. So I had that part where like, I would have gotten into it. I just didn’t.
It’s one of those things where I took an edible once in my life and it was a wild experience. I went to an Islanders game and I thought I was having a stroke. [Laughs] It was the most horrifying experience I’ve ever been through, but also, if you asked me to take an edible right now, I’d do it again because it was also kind of fun.
All my friends and peers who use cannabis now, they’re all chill, they’re all doing great. So I’m not ready to say I’ll never do it, but for right now, I just don’t. For somebody like Doug Benson though, he didn’t start using until later in his life, and maybe that will be my story too.
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