Comedian Chris Distefano Talks Tracy Morgan, John Travolta, and His Ex-Con Dad During His Stern Show Debut
Stand-up sits down with Howard ahead of a round of “What’s My Freaky Fetish?”October 25, 2023
Comedian and TV personality Chris Distefano stopped by the Stern Show on Wednesday to participate in the on-air segment “What’s My Freaky Fetish?” But before rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, the 39-year-old New York native told Howard all about his backstory, including previous relationships, his father the ex-convict, and the unusual road he traveled to become a successful comedian.
Chris caught his first major break in 2013 when David Letterman invited him to perform on “The Late Show.” He was still working as a pediatric physical therapist at the time, which is to say he was plenty nervous before taking the stage. But everything changed after he received an unexpected pep talk from Letterman’s main guest for the evening, Hollywood heartthrob John Travolta.
“There’s a 90-second commercial break where Travolta’s walking past me … and he just stops and goes, ‘What a beautiful suit you have on,’” Chris recalled, explaining that the two then got to chatting and Distefano told him he was about to perform on TV for the very first time.
“[Travolta] goes, ‘Great. You’ve done it already then … You’ve done all the work … You’ve practiced this set 100 times. It’s over. Now, you just have to go live the moment. This is the fun part,’” he recalled. Then the “Pulp Fiction” star reached out and touched him. “He put his hand on my heart and said, ‘Oh my God, your heart is beating so fast.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re John Travolta and you have your hand on my nipple.’”
Before Chris took the stage, John promised he’d watch his performance from the sidelines. The set went great — better than he could’ve imagined — but when he returned to the wings his new friend was nowhere to be seen.
“I said, ‘Where’s John Travolta?’ They said, ‘He left immediately,’” Chris recalled with a laugh. “I never was upset by that because he did everything he could to calm me down and was like, ‘My work is done. I’m not going to sit and watch this asshole do five minutes. I’m John Travolta.’”
Later that night, Chris and his then-girlfriend ran into a shirtless Tracy Morgan on the streets of Manhattan. She told Tracy that Chris had just performed on “The Late Show,” leading to another surreal exchange: “He looks at me and then he goes, ‘I always knew you had it in you, motherfucker. I always knew you were that dude,’ I said, ‘Tracy, we never met.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, bro, I’m proud of you,’ … and he starts getting emotional,” Chris recalled, saying after that Tracy just walked away.
“I almost felt like I was on fentanyl,” Chris added. “I was like, ‘What is happening?’”
Laughed to Keep From Crying
When Chris was a little kid and still reeling from his parents’ divorce, he used comedy to hide his sadness. “I started standup comedy as a defense mechanism,” he said, explaining how he was tired of crying every time he spoke with his dad on the phone, so he made it his mission to tell him funny jokes instead. “Comedy always came from a place that I talk about things that actually hurt me, but I masked them.”
Decades later, when transitioning from a straight day job to a career as a stand-up, his dad was front and center in his mind once again. “I started stand-up comedy for two very, very specific goals I wrote down when I was 27,” Chris told Howard, explaining he wants to one day perform in the arena at Madison Square Garden, where he used to watch basketball with his father, and he wants to write a sitcom about him and his dad’s unique relationship.
“I just have those two laser-specific goals, which I am getting close to,” Chris continued. “Anything that can happen, but it’s the closest I’ve ever been.”
Visit From the NYPD (and Fashion Police)
When Chris resigned from his job with the New York City Board of Education as a pediatric physical therapist making $47,000 a year, even his principal thought it was a terrible idea. ‘She was like, ‘You’re never going to make it … that is very, very stupid,” he recalled.
After putting in his notice, Distefano started calling out of work to take on more comedy gigs. “The New York City Board of Ed [called it] ‘theft of service,’” he explained. “If they find out that you’re calling out sick and you’re not actually sick, they can like prosecute you.”
The comedian found out the hard way when, just three days after he’d quit his job, two N.Y.P.D. detectives knocked on his door to inquire about his absences. When he explained the situation and that he had already quit, the officials were not only cool about it, but they also sat down to watch Distefano’s “Late Show” debut. After watching the set, the detectives offered only a single note: “You look like you’re swimming in your fucking suit,’” Chris remembered one saying. “‘Next time get your suit tailored.’”
Behind His Broken Engagement
Before settling down with the mother of his two kids, Chris said many previous girlfriends mistakenly thought he was gay. “I have sex with women, but fall in love with men,” he laughingly theorized. “I think I like to talk to a guy about World War II and George Washington, and that gets me nice and stiff, and then I’ll go have sex with a woman and just imagine it was the guy.”
He told Howard he even had a fiancée who broke up with him after realizing how much he enjoyed her tongue in his backside. “She said, ‘This confirms you’re gay’ … and called it all off,” he told Howard. “In my neighborhood, if you’re not working cars, if you’re not a cop, if you haven’t lost a limb in war, you’re gay.”