Comedian Paul Virzi sees his ascension to the upper echelon of the comedy world as an extension of the movement in his personal life. Something he can’t really separate.
“My act, my material, evolved as I evolved as a man and a human being. You know with that growth — as a husband, a dad, raising kids, building a home — my act has grown,” says Virzi. “I’ve been able to see the humor in all of that, and it has made my act that much better.”
Check at the door your concept of the comedian as the wild-living, free-associating wacky dude who gets up onstage and makes up funny stuff. The truth is that the life of a successful comedian is much more about discipline and focused work than about being some unpredictable loose cannon of mirth. Virzi has been at it for more than a decade, has two full-length specials under his belt, regularly works the trade’s busiest rooms and has played in front of 18,000 in Madison Square Garden. Yet, he hasn’t slowed down when it comes to putting the hours in.
“My schedule varies. Often, I work two weekends a month and must travel. On the weeks I’m not on the road, I head into New York to work out bits in the comedy clubs. It’s an important part of the process,” he says.
Those nights in the city mean a schlep and almost no money, but it’s what the pros do. Virzi has made the decision that his act isn’t going to be centered on gags, cheap jokes, and the usual cliché bits. “I want to be about the truth. Guys like Eddie Murphy, Pryor, Carlin… those guys looked at real life and found the humor in it. That’s what I want to do,” Virzi says. “A cheap laugh once in a while is all right, but it isn’t what I want to be about.”
Truth isn’t always funny, and Virzi’s personal truth took a very serious turn a few years back. But the period didn’t come when you’d think it would. “Back in 2016, things were going great. I just finished my first special; the shows were great, and my career was really growing,” Virzi says. “Then I went through a really dark period. I needed to get help.”
Virzi describes a real struggle with mental health, and he credits the love of his family, persistence, and therapy for pulling him out of it. It was the sort of thing that most people would rather not dwell on.
Not Virzi. He made it part of his act. “I couldn’t not talk about it. I knew I had to,” he shares. “The first thing I did was address it on my podcast because those folks are the people who check in with me every week. It was important. Then, I had to say, ‘Okay, what was funny about it? How can I put it in the act?’” So, into the act went things like dealing with urgent care when you’re in a crisis, his own intrusive thoughts, and the depression itself. It all fits in with his belief that you can make comedy out of any situation.
Putting such material in the act yielded some unexpected consequences, however. “People started to write to me about their own mental illnesses,” recalls Virzi. “They told me I really helped them by talking about it. One guy told me I saved his life. I mean, that’s unbelievable, and I get it.”
When not road-tripping to gigs, Virzi likes to hunker down with his wife, Stacey, an investment professional, and his two kids, Lucas and Sofia, in their North Salem home. He’s an admitted “nerd dad” and is not above a lightsaber duel with the kids. You may catch the family out at restaurant One Twenty One in North Salem or at Raci in Brewster for a meal on one of their regular excursions to cheer for their favorite teams. Virzi and the family are committed Yankees, Giants, and Knicks fans, so a trip into Manhattan for a game is always a family highlight.
“I kid around about my wife, but I would never disrespect her. You know, the family didn’t sign up to be comedians, so I make sure I never disrespect her.”
“Being able to tell my kids I made people laugh in the Garden, right there at center court — man, there’s nothing better than that!” says Virzi of the Knicks’ home court. In fact, Virzi’s family works its way into his act on a regular basis. It’s part of his evolving journey as a man, dad, husband, and comic, but he’s clear on how it should appear in the act. “I kid around about my wife, but I would never disrespect her. You know, the family didn’t sign up to be comedians, so I make sure I never disrespect her,” Virzi says.
As for the role his vocation plays in his life, Virzi sees it as more than a job or a paycheck. It is something he must do. “During the pandemic, not being able to work for five months was tough. When I got on stage again in Arizona, man, that was great,” says Virzi. “As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, the nerves have faded, but it is still something I have to do. I want my shows to be real. In comedy, you can go just for straight laughs, and that’s a skill in itself, but I wanted to be someone who talks about real life.”