The great Will Ferrell once said, “All you have in comedy, in general, is just going with your instincts.” For St. Joseph’s alumni and professional comedians Chris Distefano ’06 and Stacey Smith ’09, intuition is part of their everyday lives.
Chris Distefano knows the “Code” for success
As a stand-up comic, Chris performed on live television for the first time June 20, as a guest on The Late Show With David Letterman. When he walked on the stage, the Ridgewood native was confident, calm and laid back, lighting up the room with his quick wit and thick Brooklyn accent.
“It was an amazing experience,” Chris said. “One of those things that I’ll remember forever.”
During his performance on Letterman, Chris’ family and friends, including longtime pal Dr. Lukasz Cygan ’07, supported him from the audience.
“I only got four tickets for my mom, my dad, my stepmom and Luk,” he continued. “He is one of the most important people in my life, so he was there with me.”
The two alumni met at St. Joe’s through the Brooklyn Bears basketball team and shared several classes together, thanks to their mutual interest in the medical field. “We also went to graduate school together,” he revealed, “so we became tight.”
As students at St. Joseph’s Brooklyn Campus, Chris and Lukasz would watch some of the comedians that performed during common hour. “That’s when I started talking about doing comedy,” Chris said. Although he planned to begin comedy in his senior year, Chris felt that it was not the right time.
After graduating from SJC in 2006 with a B.A. in Psychology, Chris went to the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he earned a doctorate in physical therapy. However, Chris’ professional life shifted dramatically in 2009, during his second year of graduate school, when his career as a stand-up comedian began.
“It really takes a little while for you to just do it because it’s nerve racking,” he said. “Everyone is scared to bomb, which is understandable, I was at first too, but after that you just bounce back up the next day and put on a show. Bombing is not going to kill you, man.”
Chris has opened for comedy legends such as Richard Lewis, Gilbert Gottfried and Artie Lange. He is currently a cast member on MTV2’s hit shows Guy Code and Girl Code, and a featured performer on MTV’s Failosophy and Money From Strangers. (His left elbow, his official biography boasts, was featured on a national commercial for Subway.)
Before his debut as a television comic, Chris worked full-time as a pediatric physical therapist during the day, and would perform at several different New York City comedy clubs at night.
“My life was crazy for those past couple of years,” he said. “I would start PT at 7:30 a.m., get out at 3 p.m., and then do comedy all night until 1 in the morning.”
This was his schedule for two years straight.
“I just wanted to be a comedian so bad and make it so bad that finally, two months ago, when I signed this deal with MTV, I quit my day job,” he continued. “That, to me, was when I felt like I made it.”
“I don’t plan to go back to physical therapy, unless I absolutely have to,” he said, “but I will always keep that part of my life fresh, just in case.”
“My advice would be, don’t ever give up after the bomb because you’re going to learn more, especially in the beginning,” he said. “Of course, it’s great for your confidence when you hit every joke, but you’re not going to learn anything. It’s when you fail miserably that you’ll look back, try to fix it and then, if you want to be a good comic, you’ll be that much better.”
Additionally, Chris explained how important it is for students to focus on their own paths, instead of others’.
“Don’t get caught up in what other people are doing,” Chris said. “Just worry about what you’re doing and when the time is right for you and when it’s in your cards, things will happen. You’ll get a manager, you’ll get an agent and, one day, get on television.”
With this strong will and optimistic personality, Chris has a lot planned for the next few months. In addition to his work on MTV2, Chris will soon emerge on another television network.
“I’m co-hosting a show on MSG called The Bracket, with my friend Yannis Pappas, who’s a great comedian,” he said. “Also, I’m working on a pilot with my girlfriend, Carly [Aquilino, his Girl Code co-star], for MTV, in hopes that it gets picked up.”
Even though Chris has become extremely busy with his profession, he continues to go on auditions, participate in comedy festivals and schedule more stand-up comedy dates.
“This is what supports me right now, living my dream,” Chris said. “Doing comedy and entertainment is what I’ve always wanted to do.
“I know I’m not a celebrity or a millionaire, but I feel like I’ve made it.”
Stacey Smith pursues “Making Things Up”
Halfway across the country, Stacey Smith, a bubbly, blue-eyed blond, has been lighting up stages in Chicago. She is not a singer or a musician, but an improv comedian — part of an all-female musical improv troupe called Stacked.
From a young age Stacey enjoyed dressing up and performing in front of a crowd. “It started when I was in middle school,” she said. “Sixth grade was my first show, and then I did a musical every year.” According to Stacey, her passion for theater intensified during her high school career.
She began her journey at Pace University majoring in theater, before transferring to St. Joseph’s Long Island Campus to study speech communications.
Stacey is now a comedian who has trained with the iO Theater, Comedy Sportz, the Annoyance Theater and the world-famous sketch comedy and improv company The Second City, which hired her to perform on the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship this July through November, alongside her boyfriend, Sam Roos, and comedy duo partner Pat Ivansek.
Although her love for the stage was evident from an early age, she did not always know that she would become an improv comedian.
“I knew that I wanted to do some kind of comedy,” Stacey said. “I never knew that what I was doing by dressing up and making people laugh was essentially improv.”
During her time at St. Joe’s, she was involved in the Clare Rose Playhouse, helping with the set and participating in shows.
“I was building sets at first because I had experience from Pace University,” she said. “I started off doing lighting projects for S. Grace [Rowland, Ph.D., theater director] because I knew how to hang lights and run the lighting boards.”
Stacey’s unique personality led her from building sets to acting, and by the end of her senior year she had participated in nine shows at the Clare Rose Playhouse.
During that year, S. Grace mentioned that Stacey should look into Second City in Chicago because of her comedic talent.
“In my senior year, she said that I needed to go to Second City, since a lot of famous people went there,” she said. Second City has produced dozens of notable comedians, including Alan Arkin, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, to name only a select few.
Taking S. Grace’s words into consideration, Stacey attended a five-day intensive course in Chicago. “I just went for that one week, and loved it so much that I came back for the second part of the course that summer,” she said.
In 2009, she moved to Chicago full time to pursue “making things up.”
Although improv may appear to be one of the harder forms of comedy, Stacey noted that it’s not nearly as competitive as any other brand of comedy, since improv is a team effort, with up to 10 participants in a group.
“The way that you are seen and the way in which you become successful is to create your own opportunities and put in your own ideas,” she said. “Improv has such a team dynamic that you want to make your collaborators look good. It’s a group art.”
Like Chris, Stacey has also performed at comedy festivals across the U.S., and noted that she finds it extremely interesting to perform for different kinds of people. She attributes her current success to her time spent at St. Joe’s and the support she received.
“There are so many great clubs and classes and so many excellent teachers,” Stacey said. “They want the learning to be fun, and they want you to be able to use everything that they teach you. The professors make the information pertain to you and what you specifically want to do.”
Stacey advises students to be as involved as possible. “When you go to a commuter school you’re either there all of the time or none of the time,” she said. “You only live once, and if you’re going to college you should do as much as you can, because there’s no point in not doing it.”
Chris and Stacey are funny online, too. Visit www.chrisdcomedy.com and www.staceysmithcomedy.com for lists of their upcoming shows, or follow them on Twitter at @chrisdcomedy and @staceyelisabeth.