Every year, Comedy Central hands out half-hour specials to up and coming standups as part of its series The Half Hour. NYC-based comedian Chris Distefano has the honor of kicking off the new season of The Half Hour, with his special set to air this Friday at midnight. Distefano rose up via NYC’s comedy scene before making the jump to television. He performed his first network standup set last year on Letterman, is currently a regular on MTV2’s Guy Code, Guy Court, and MTV’s Girl Code.
I recently caught up with Distefano to discuss setting his doctorate in physical therapy aside to focus on comedy, finding out he got his special during a bad breakup, and wanting to create an edgier Everybody Loves Raymond.
Congrats on The Half Hour. How are you feeling about it? How did the taping go?
I feel good. I’m from New York but [the taping] was in Boston and at first I was like, “Oh shoot, are they gonna hate me because I’m from New York?” But it was such a great crowd, my kind of crowd, like blue collar, and I had a really good time with them, and it was really cool to be a part of.
It’s a big moment for your career. What was it like finding out you got the special?
It was. It’s weird because when I found out I got The Half Hour I was going through a really painful personal problem with a breakup and stuff. And I had just gotten some unwanted news about it, and I was crying, I was just emotionally a wreck. My manager called me like, “You got The Half Hour,” and I was still crying from that. He was like, “I can’t believe how happy you are. It’s really good to see a guy this happy.” And I was happy, but I was really crying because I got dumped. It was this weird thing where I always envisioned if I got a half-hour I’d tell my parents like, “Oh, we’re so proud of you!” But instead I was just crying alone with a half-drank Corona in Times Square. Like, I almost got arrested. I was crying about the breakup, but he thought it was about the Comedy Central Half-Hour. So he doesn’t know that yet, so shout out to Conan Smith: I wasn’t crying because I was happy I was crying because I got dumped.
So you’ve already brought up your parents, and you draw a lot from personal experience in your standup, talking about family and friends. How do they feel about that?
Every comedian, every artist has a different vision, and I’m cool with all that, but I really just care to talk about my family. I guess I make fun of them, but I’m laughing with them. I make fun of myself, I make fun of my mom, my dad. I try to self-deprecate myself because that’s always been my sense of humor. I’m Italian-Irish Catholic from New York City, that’s all we do, beat the shit out of ourselves and guilt trip ourselves. That’s the family background I come from. My dad has always been supportive. Both my parents are very supportive now. But my dad, anything I wanted to do — if I wanted to quit comedy and be a ballerina, he’d be like, “Well, I know a guy, get you a good deal, whatever you want to do.”
With my mom… I have a doctorate degree in physical therapy. I pushed myself to do that kind of for her. I was happy doing physical therapy, I was a pediatric physical therapist at a school, so it was cool to work with kids in need and all that. But I really just did that for her so she could let me pursue my dream. I can be like, “Mom, there’s nothing you can say, I have a frickin’ doctorate degree. What else do you want me to do about it?” At the beginning, she was like, “I can’t believe you’re going to throw away your doctorate degree to be a clown.” All upset about it. But then I did the David Letterman show and the other guest was John Travolta, and she’s the biggest John Travolta fan. So she was like, “I can’t believe I got to meet John Travolta. I’m so happy.”
Now she’s all about it. Any events I go to, if I get a plus one, I try to bring her and she loves telling people at work about who she met and who I know and all that stuff. So now she’s supportive. My dad though is trying to live vicariously through me now. He’s in his late 60s just sitting there with frickin’ diabetes yelling at the TV because the Yankees lose. He likes whatever I tell him I’m doing. I’m happy now that both my parents are on board. Even though I joke about them, they both know what I say about them is kind of true but I really embellish it. And some things I just flat-out make up. I was an only child. Like, I had no friends because I was the weird kid. My older cousins would just beat me up. I had nothing to do but my imagination. I had like seven imaginary friends. In the beginning, that was where I got my comedy from.
When did you start doing standup?
In April of 2008 I took a comedy class at Gotham Comedy Club where I’d go every Sunday and some guy, some comedy teacher, teaches you how to be funny. I don’t think that you can really teach that. You’ve just got to put yourself in the fire. I took this eight-week comedy class and I just did standup only on Sundays at that class. Then I didn’t do it for a year and a half because I was like, “Oh, it’s just too hard,” or whatever I said to talk myself out of it. But really in August of 2009 was when I did my first open mic and haven’t looked back since. I’ve been doing it like every night. Since August 2009 to now, there definitely hasn’t been more than three days where I haven’t been onstage at least once.
Now, standup’s become like an obsession, you just need to get onstage. I try to look at it like being a professional athlete. If those guys don’t practice, they’re just not going to succeed. Especially not doing standup in New York, like if I’m not doing it every night, pouring my whole life into it, then what’s the point of even doing it? I would never really make it where I want to make it if I don’t put 1000% into it. That’s kind of the way I look at it.
What was it like juggling doing standup every night and physical therapy, especially once you got Guy Code?
It was hard. My days were like wake up 6 am, I had to be at work at 7 am helping kids get off the bus. I worked from like 7 am to 3:30, and then I’d do my first open mic probably at 5. However many open mics as I could do. I had mostly midnight shows because I was a newer comedian. That’s when they put you on, the spots that no one else wants to do. So my days were from 6 am to 2 am by the time I got home and then wake up and do it again. So I just had to sacrifice everything: sacrifice girlfriend, sacrifice exercise, sacrifice time with my friends. I poured everything into comedy.
And then it got to a point about a year ago, I quit my full-time job last March, so a little over a year ago, where the kids I was treating started to notice me because they watched Guy Code. I treated kids where the youngest was five and the oldest was like 12. So the 11, 12 year olds, they aren’t supposed to be watching that, but you know, of course at that age, they would watch it and be like, “Yo, are you that dude from Guy Code?” And I was like, “Uhh… no?” I didn’t know what to do. So the principal called me in and was like, “Look, you’ve kind of got to make a decision here.” And then I just made a decision, I was like, “All right, I’m gonna quit.” I don’t want to sound corny, but I did feel like it was kind of a universe thing. I was like, “I’ve been doing this physical therapy/comedy for two years now, and I just feel like it’s time to step into comedy.” I remember I had like $300 in my bank account and I was like, I’m just going to do it. Even if I only make like 50 bucks this week doing comedy, it doesn’t matter. I’ll find a way. I’ll budget, I’ll move back in with my mother. I don’t care, I’ll make it work until I can support myself.
And then, this is why I say like the universe was calling, because I quit on that Monday and then Friday my manager called me and was like, “I have some good news.” And I was like, “What?” He said, “MTV wants to give you an overall deal where they’re going to give you a salary for a year.” I was like, “Cool.” And then he told me how much and it was like triple the amount I was making as a physical therapist. I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that this happened so quick.” MTV kind of took me in and they believed in me; they wanted to put me on their shows and give me this salary now. I was like, that’ll definitely change my life. And no matter where my career goes, I’d be thankful to them. Even if my career stopped tomorrow, I’d be so happy and feel so fortunate for just the past year and a half I’ve been able to experience. I feel beyond blessed. I know I’m not an A-List celebrity or at Louis C.K.’s level or anything, and even if I never got there, that’d be okay. Just to do what I love, help people and be able to make people’s days better with my comedy. I just feel really blessed and in a really cool position in my life. And I think my parents are proud of me now.
That’s amazing. You mention Louis C.K., who were your favorite comedians growing up or comedians you look up to?
Definitely my favorite comedian ever is Jim Carrey. I watched, as a kid, that’s who I would always impersonate. I would watch Liar Liar, Ace Ventura, everything. I was just a huge Jim Carrey fan. And In Living Color, I would watch as a kid, that was the only thing my mom would let me watch. She would tape In Living Color and just let me watch the Jim Carrey section because she loved him too, Fire Marshall Bill and all that. He was definitely my inspiration and one guy in comedy I’d pay anything to meet. I would love to meet him. And as far as standups, Louis C.K. and Bill Burr to me are the two standouts. Most, at least New York, comedians strive to have their career, how they’re able to take over a stage. I also really like Amy Schumer’s comedy. I think she’s doing really great things and that her work speaks for itself. Also Hannibal Buress, I’m a really big fan of his. Hannibal and Amy, they’re more friends and peers, where Louis C.K. and Bill Burr don’t know who I am at all. But I look up to them.
How does Guy Code and Girl Code affect or mesh with your standup? Do you see a lot of crossover between the two?
Yeah. I have the ability now to sell tickets on the road, and I know it’s a lot of fans from Guy Code and Girl Code coming to see me. You know, my comedy on that show is a lot of improv. I definitely write jokes, but it’s a lot of real things, a lot of stories. I’m a storytelling comedian onstage and also in Guy Code, I think I’m one of those. Certain comics on Guy Code and Girl Code will be like the one-liners and then certain ones will be storytellers, but I’m definitely a storyteller. None of the fans who have come to see me do standup have tweeted at me or emailed me like, “I was expecting something different from your standup based off what you do on Guy Code.” But for me at least it’s pretty close. I think that’s the best way to do it so I’m not like letting people down who brought tickets to see me.
Do you have any other projects or stuff coming up?
I’m on a lot of MTV stuff. I’m on this show, Off the Bat that airs every Tuesday night at 11 on MTV2. It combines pop culture and baseball, so I have stuff coming up with them. I get to meet all my favorite baseball players and we talk about World Series, the all-star game, that stuff. And Guy Code is airing its fourth season every Wednesday at 11 on MTV2. I’m looking to pitch a show to Comedy Central in the near future. I’m in the finishing touches of it, getting ready to pitch there. So hopefully, at this time next year maybe I’ll have something of my own on Comedy Central. Who knows.
Speaking of Comedy Central and MTV, you’re working with Comedy Central now, and obviously comedy is their thing, but MTV is more surprising as a comedy network. What’s it like to have started in comedy at MTV?
I think it’s definitely MTV2 that’s becoming the comedy network. Every show on MTV2 is comedy now. But Comedy Central is still the comedy network. It always will be, it’s in the name. They’re both Viacom, it’s all owned by the same global kind of corporation. Everybody gets along in there. I feel like even though I came up through MTV, if I went to or got more stuff on Comedy Central, it’s still in the same family. It’s like brother and sister, you know.
You mentioned the show pitch, can you tell me more about that? Where do you hope to go from here now that you’ve got The Half Hour under your belt?
Yeah, I wrote a show that I think would work well on Comedy Central. And I also wrote a sitcom that I think would work well on a network. I plan to hopefully finish them both within the next couple of months. But really my whole goal in this, what I really want to do next is I just want to make a show about my dad. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. That’s why I got into comedy. I have this physical therapy degree that for right now is on hold, and that’s cool. But I really really just want to make a show about my dad.
I love Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray Romano’s from the same neighborhood I’m from; he went to the same high school I did. I never met him or anything; he doesn’t know who I am, but I really look up to his show. And if I can base my show on that… my show is a similar vibe, a little edgier than Everybody Loves Raymond. What he spoke about, what he was drawing from, that’s exactly like what my family is. Like I said, same neighborhood. So I would love to make a show, I would love to get to a level to get in front of some really big producers, have a show, and have a career trajectory like his.
Emma Soren is a writer from Chicago living in Philadelphia.
Photo credit: Comedy Central/Paul Marotta