Interviewed & Written by David Gavri
Paul Virzi is a longtime opener for Bill Burr and the host of the The Virzi Effect Podcast. He has been a guest and frequently mentioned on the Bill Burr Monday Morning Podcast. Virzi was also part of Bill Burr Presents: The All In Comedy Tour with Joe Bartnick and Jason Lawhead, and he recently toured with Bill Burr, performing in sold out theaters all across Canada.
Talking with Virzi about comedy was both inspiring and entertaining. Virzi opens up to share stories of his dark and troubled past, along with the obstacles he overcame throughout his journey. He also talks about his first time on stage and takes us all the way to opening for Bill Burr at Carnegie Hall, and everything else in between. And most importantly, Virzi shares his knowledge and wisdom with some good ol’ fashioned shop talk, giving advice for other comics. Paul Virzi learned from the best, and it’s time we learn from him.
On the podcast you mentioned how you had a troubled childhood. What kinds of things did you go through?
For me, my childhood wasn’t GREAT, but I know a lot of people had it worse than me. My parents got divorced when I was five years old, my brother was ten. And that was a brutal divorce, man. It was BRUTAL. My dad just talking about things my mom did wrong, and my mom talking about things my dad did wrong…me and my brother in the middle. And my dad’s visitation times with me and my brother were very limited. The courts granted him 5-8PM on Wednesday and then they granted him 12-8PM on Sunday. So you’re talking, 11 HOURS a week with my dad.
And don’t get me wrong, there were some cool times where we hung out and everything was nice, but a lot of it on both sides was very bitter. My brother and I felt that. And I’ve said this on the podcast many times, that my older brother Christian took a lot of bullets for me. He saw more and he took a lot more, and he protected me from as much as he could.
Did your mom remarry? If so, how did that go?
My mom did remarry. And I still have a stepfather—and he’s a great guy and a hard worker, but they didn’t really have much money, so they moved us a lot. So for me, I would get popular and settle in somewhere and play sports and be one of the guys in the school and the community, but then my mom would just up and leave. And that was really, really hard changing schools at difficult times. But I would always make the best of it and I would always gain friends and get some popularity where I went, but it was just really hard.
Did you act out and get into some real trouble?
I mean, we would do graffiti on buildings… One time we did something really stupid: We graffitied this abandoned building…and then we got lighter fluid and we just started pourin’, and kinda made little fires, then all of a sudden it got outta hand—fire department ‘n all that. But we had no idea what we were doing. And I started drinking at a young age. Like, I was 14 or 15 and I’d go to a friend’s house and just go into the liquor cabinet ‘n do stuff like that. But yeah, just acted out. And my mom would get mad and call my dad, yet my dad didn’t want to talk to my mom. So it was just really tough.
And it’s not like you’re a bad person…
The funny thing was, I was one of those bad kids who was really respectful to adults. It was almost weird. Like, I’d get called into an office and they would talk to me and be like, “Wow, he’s a really great kid, he’s a nice kid…but he’s just acting out.” And I realized later that I was doing it because my mom wanted to move me. I was really getting involved in athletics ‘n stuff, but then my mom moved me upstate.
So for grades 8-12, I was upstate. And that was really bad. Like, I remember shooting bottle rockets out the back of a school bus and they wanted to kick me out. But I didn’t care if I got kicked out of school. I didn’t know those kids, I didn’t like those kids. I wanted to take the train on weekends down to my old friends. And acting out like that really upset my mom. But the ONE thing that was always there was making people laugh. I was always tellin’ a good story. I think it just sorta developed.
What was it that made you want to do comedy in the first place?
I always took a liking to watching Eddie Murphy and guys like that. It was just something I was always geared towards. And I definitely watched some people and felt that not only could I do that, but part of me makes me think that I could do that BETTER than that guy. And not even in a disrespectful way. Maybe even at the time, in a delusional way because I was so young and I had never done it. I was just like, “Yeah! I think I could DO that!” And we would always joke in school like, “We gotta talk to agents, man! Paul’s funny!” Like, I LITERALLY thought that me and a buddy could just show up to an agency in Manhattan and be like, “Yeah, I’m funny! So let’s do somethin’ here.” Just SO ridiculous! [laughs]
But one time a buddy of mine was working in Woodstock, New York and he passed a bar called the Joyous Lake Bar. And at the time, this was a famous little bar in Woodstock. It was this LITTLE spot, but like, The Rolling Stones would do sets there. And this buddy of mine told me about open mic at this Joyous Lake on Tuesdays, so I signed up and went to do it.
How was your first time on stage?
I had nothing written, but I thought I could just freestyle a set. [laughs] It was’ AWFUL! And I had like, two friends come out with one of their girlfriends, and they brought a camera… [laughs] The jokes were SO bad—I remember talkin’ about this on Joe Matarese’s podcast but I’d be like, “Heh, the cigarette pack says ‘May Cause Cancer’…they DO cause cancer!” [laughs] It was just ridiculous, and I had nothing written! I also said something about how there’s no Asian rappers, but I had nowhere to go with it, and luckily some drunk guy started rapping and tried to heckle me with the Asian rapper thing which actually helped because I was able to make fun of him.
Most people either give up entirely, or they quit for a long period of time before trying it again. How did you bounce back from that terrible first time?
Even though I felt like, “What the FUCK am I doin?!” Afterward I went up to the booker and said, “Book me here for next week.” So he put my name on the list, and the next week I came prepared and it went really, really well. And one of the regulars at the bar was like, “Wow! Much better than last week!” And I had a lot of fun and it felt really good, so I started going to New York City and started doing bringer shows, contests, and all that. That’s basically how it started.
When did you realize that you could actually do this for a living?
This is one story…but not many people know this: In ’03, there was a festival called the Las Vegas Comedy Festival. They auditioned everybody to go and if you got it, they flew you out and they put you up. But I missed the New York audition, and I missed the Boston audition. The next audition was in Chicago. So, I decided to drive to Chicago. And my brother was like, “I’m down!”
Now, I had only like, 20 hours till the audition and I’m still in New York. I didn’t know anybody in Chicago, nobody knew me. But I wanted to just go out there and see what I could do. By the time I got in, I was the LAST comedian of the LAST day of auditions. I was exhausted, I was nervous, and I didn’t know what to expect. As I walked out, I heard the judges go, “Wow! Loved him!” Then on the drive back, my girlfriend—who’s my wife now—called me up almost crying like, “Oh my God! You’re on their website! They picked you!”
Wow, what a story. To drive ALL that way…
Yeah, I drove 15 HOURS for a THREE MINUTE audition, in Chicago in 2003. I had no idea what I was doing but they saw somethin’. And they flew me out there to the competition. I didn’t win the overall mainstream category which I was in, but I did well, and it was a really great experience. So for me to do that then, it let me know that maybe I have something here. It was just one of those things that if I’m hungry and I put my mind to somethin’ and I put work into it, I could do it.
THE URBAN CIRCUIT
Before working mainstream clubs, you cut your teeth in the urban rooms. How did you get into that circuit? And what was that experience like?
Urban rooms have this thing where it’s almost like that 8 Mile thing where you have to go in there and prove it—you either sink or swim. These crowds let you know very quickly if this is somethin’ that you can or can’t do. But the thing about mainstream comedy clubs like Carolines and Stand Up New York—none of those places were booking you unless you were already established and known. So for me, it was like, “Yeah ‘dis white boy’s funny, man we’ll put you on!”
There was a woman named Naijha Wright who was putting together a group of stand ups of black and white comedians. A friend of mine told me to audition, and if I was picked, I’d be on her show at New York comedy club. She instantly liked me, and I was one of like, three white guys on her flyer for this night. [laughs] It was an all black room and I did really, really well. One of those guys working that show was Na’im Lynn, who now opens for Kevin Hart, and he just did a half hour special on Comedy Central. He was like, “Hey, you’re funny! Come to THIS room!” So basically, getting on the urban circuit for me was where one thing would lead to another. I’ll always thank Naijha for that first opportunity.
I would go in and be one of the few white souls in the room. [laughs] Like, I remember one night, Talent Harris, Capone, Drew Fraser, Gerald Kelly, and Rob Stapleton—they were the five guys in New York who did the best urban shows—and Talent does a ‘Famous Night’. Bill Burr did it all the time. A bunch of people did it. It was Sunday night at the Boston Comedy Club, which was in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was one of the known rooms. If you could get on Talent’s room on Sunday, it was a HUGE deal. I went in one night, I was nervous as hell. I went up, and I remember from the first line, I just erupted the room. I ended up having a monster set. So after that, any time Talent would see me, he would put me up.
How did you make the transition from urban rooms to mainstream rooms?
Well, I wanted to get out of the urban rooms because what I would notice was I was trying to cater to one type of audience, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be universally funny. I just didn’t want to be that “token white guy”. Because believe it or not, there were guys who were doing that with me that are still ONLY doing that now—or can ONLY do that. That’s not good because then you get labeled as like, ‘The White Def Jam Guy’. And I didn’t want that. So then I started to do other stuff and branch out and doing what I’m trying to do now.
BILL BURR APPRENTICESHIP
Bill Burr—one of the greatest comedians of this generation—took you under his wing, and you started opening for him. How did you and Bill meet?
I mean, just to reiterate what you said, Bill is one of the only guys packin’ out the biggest theaters in the world. And I mean, THE WORLD! And one of the only guys doing it WITHOUT his own TV show, which goes to show how much of a master he really is. In fact, just the other night me and Trevor Noah were talking about how much Bill’s mastered this thing as much as anybody can.
So what happened with me and Bill—it was 2005 and my manager at the time got me a feature spot opening for Bobby Kelly on Thanksgiving eve. But then, Bobby Kelly wasn’t there for the weekend so Bill Burr was there for that Friday and Saturday. I didn’t really know Bill that much. I just remember being like, “Yeah he’s funny,” [laughs] It was just a guy that I really didn’t know at the time, if I can be 100% honest—just didn’t know him.
So Bill comes in on that Friday. And this was Bill’s FIRST weekend where it was HIS weekend. It was BIG. Opie & Anthony promoted it, it was packed, sold out to the brim—it was a fire hazard! I go on stage and I’m not trying to be arrogant or anything, but I fucking destroyed the room! My material wasn’t great at the time, but I was funny—I was talking about my Italian background—and I was just hard-hitting and raw. I was killing to the point like, “Wow! Who the fuck is this guy?!” It was nuts!
Was Bill impressed with your set?
Well, so Bill does his thing, and after the show I’m thinking, “NOW is the time to talk to Bill. If there is ever a time to get a chance to meet him, RIGHT NOW would be great!” And as I start going downstairs, I feel a tap on my shoulder and it’s Bill! And Bill goes, “Hey are you the other guy on the show?” I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “Ah dude! You RIPPED!” He goes, “I didn’t even SEE it, I HEARD it!”
And I was like, “Ah man, thanks so much!” And then he goes, “I’m gonna watch you on the next show,” and then he patted me on the back and he goes, “Yeah, no pressure!” [laughs] Next show, he watches me and I do great again. So he goes, “You’re really likable and you got some good material. Let’s exchange info.” And at the time it was Myspace. This was right around the time Ron Artest jumped into the crowd at The Palace and started swingin’ at the stands, remember that?
[laughs] How could I forget??
Yeah! [laughs] Bill was doing a bit about that. And I’m like, “Hey man, that bit!” And he squinted his eyes and goes, “Yeah? Which part you talkin’ about?” And I was like, “Wow, this guy wants my opinion!” After he saw what I just did. It was a great feeling to have a guy like that ask for my opinion. After that, he referred me to The Stress Factory in New Jersey, which is a big room. I did well, and he found out.
I emailed him and said, “Thank you so much!” This was right around the time he did what he did in Philadelphia. And I told him, “What you did in Philadelphia was one of the most remarkable things I ever saw!” Of course he wouldn’t take the compliment, he was just like, “Ahh ya…they were animals!” [laughs] But he goes, “How ‘bout this, next time I’m in Jersey at The Stress Factory, you’re with me.” So we worked together, and this was around ’07. We went out for a drink afterwards and started talkin’ sports, and that was IT.
Fast-forward 7 years: He’s my best friend in the world, I consider him an older brother, he’s my son’s Godfather—I literally consider him a family member. Bill has seen me grow from a baby in the business. I met him around my 26th-27th birthday, and on my 33rd birthday I opened for him at Carnegie Hall. And then we did the Canadian tour. He really believed in me, always in my corner. I can honestly say that I love Bill Burr and I am truly grateful for every opportunity that he’s given me. He is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met.
Did you experience any backlash/jealousy from other comics as Burr took you under his wing?
You can’t be around negative people. Like, I EARNED openin’ for Burr. I CRUSHED in front of Burr. And yeah, he put me on stage, but you STILL have to DELIVER. He doesn’t just put anybody up on stage. He would NEVER put me up at Carnegie Hall on the biggest night of his life if he didn’t think I could deliver. So I earned opening for a guy like that. And sure, there will be jealousy and people saying this ‘n that. I see friends that get things that I wish I could get, but I’m not bitter about it. It just makes me wanna work harder. You just get motivated.
You’ve had a great deal of success thus far, and you’re only growing and getting even better. How do you not let the success get to your head?
It really truly is a marathon and not a sprint. I would rather chip away at it and learn how to get faster to beat the next guy and get past the pack. I would rather do that than start sprinting right outta the gate and then all of a sudden run out of gas. I know people that have done specials, late night, Comedy Central…and then just NOTHIN’. For me, I’m creating my own documentary, working on my first hour, building my podcast, got some television stuff in the works… So for me, I’m looking at it more like ‘slow & steady wins the race’.
What are your long term goals in this business?
I’m trying to be GREAT. I’m trying to be a great comedian. I’m trying to sell tickets because those people that are standing on line wanna see something different and unique that they see in me, and I want to deliver on that. I’m not trying to be a quick flash in the pan. I have friends that are on TV shows, but they’re still working on their stand up and they wanna get better.
BUT…then there are some people that get on a show and they just use the show for their name, and they really don’t deliver in clubs. I know people who are on TV that just don’t really have a great stand up act. They’re selling out rooms, they’re making money, but once they do 25-30 minutes they really don’t have anything left in the tank. I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to be ready for whenever you need me to do 45 minutes to an hour, and go in and destroy the room, and have a good time. I think that just comes with longevity and experience.
THE VIRZI EFFECT
What kind of preparation goes into each TVE episode?
A lot of times I’ll riff, and a lot of times I’ll have a topic down—I’ll make a mental note of things that have been happening during the week. And now, with the ‘Unacceptables’ coming in—SO MANY are coming in now! I’ve always done the ‘Unacceptables’ but now that I’m reading them from the fans, the show has just gotten to another level. So many people are writing me through Facebook and Twitter, so now what I have to do is before I do a show, I have to get my notebook, I have to get my phone, my Facebook, so I can really find the ones that I want to read. Because I don’t ever, ever want to neglect any of my fans. I think it comes across on my show. My fans are my podcast.
TVE podcast has helped you build an audience so you can perform all over the country. How fun is that to perform for crowds that are also fans of the podcast?
My favorite fans at shows are people who are fans of my podcast. Because that means that they really know me. They know who I am, they like my humor. And they like my humor when I’m NOT even trying to be funny—they just like ME. That’s what I want in a crowd.
Do you ever say things on the podcast that you later use for material on stage?
People will email me and go, “Dude, what you just said, that was so fuckin funny! You hafta DO that!” And I don’t even realize it sometimes, so I’ll have to go back to the podcast and listen to some things.
What is one thing about the podcast that you want to improve?
I LOVE doin’ The Virzi Effect! I have so much fun. But the one thing I needed to do—the one thing I needed to change—was to do it more consistently. Do it ON THE DAY. It was the only complaint some of my fans had about TVE. With all the flights and all the traveling that I was doing, it was hard to give it the effort and energy. But then, I realized I can just make Wednesday THE DAY. I try to stay true to that as much as possible.
Does having a podcast help improve your stand up?
Somethin’ that was told to me was, ”When you do the podcast, it will make your stand up better.” That is 1000% true! Anybody who says that it doesn’t is NOT paying attention, and is wrong. I say that wholeheartedly. First of all, there’s no feedback and you have to talk for an hour. You have to be passionate and honest with everything that’s goin on. It’s made me be able to riff on stage better, get the listening ability, and just being able to talk ‘n go. So my stand up has gotten way better as the show gets better—a HUGE deal.
Yeah! And guys like Pete Davidson who is one of the biggest young guys out there. Yeah man, I try to put people on there that are my friends, people that I love. I don’t have that many guests on, but when I do, it’s definitely a friend and somebody that I believe in, somebody that I can have a good time talkin’ with.
BALANCING FAMILY & COMEDY
Aside from your comedic success, you’re a husband and a father. Comedy does not allow for a normal schedule, so what’s the secret to balancing family life with comedy?
I’m a very lucky man. One of the smartest and greatest decisions I’ve ever made in my life—other than having children or doing stand up—one of the best things I ever did was when I was in a diner with my girlfriend—who’s my wife now—and she was sitting across from me, and I had maybe 12 minutes of material, total. We were dating and I was into her—I told her I’d marry her ‘n all kinds of stuff like that. She’s a smart, smart girl—all A’s in high school, graduated college with like a 3.9 GPA, she’s been promoted at her job SIX times—started as an admin and now she’s a VP. My wife is SO organized, she makes it work.
But the one thing I said to her in that diner, I looked her in the face and I go, “Look, I’m doin’ stand up. I’m doin’ this. And I want you to know right now, there’s a chance that I could be broke well into my 30s and 40s. I may get rich, I may be in the middle—I don’t know. But I want you to know, THIS is what I’m doin’. And if you wanna be with some doctor—you’re beautful—you could be with some doctor, some lawyer, or some dude with stability or whatever, and that’s fine. But I just want you to know, that THIS is what I’m doin’.”
How did she react?
She talked to her mom, who’s a lawyer—put herself through law school ‘n everything. And her mom warned her. My mother-in-law loves me and supports me SO much—been to more shows than maybe anybody else in my family, but before me and my wife got together, she told her how it’s a hard life and it could be tough. But I just said, “THIS is what I’m doin’.” And that really helped take the pressure off me. My wife supports me, she’s beautiful and smart—we have two beautiful and amazing kids, we got a house up in the country, and we just make it work. I’m a lucky man. I’m lucky to have that support system.
You recently did a Canadian tour with Bill Burr. How did that experience make you a better comedian?
When I got back from Canada with Bill, we did 22 theater shows in 19 days. EVERY NIGHT and sometimes twice in the same night, getting in front of 2,500 people. When I came back, I got off the plane and I went to Levity Live to work with Steve Rannazzisi and Joe Materese and they were just like, “Man, Virzi is in good shape!” It was like an athlete who just trained for the olympics.
When doing a set, should the goal be to ALWAYS kill? Or is it unreasonable to expect that every single time?
I think that that question can be answered differently from where you are in your career. For me, in my first years I wanted to CRUSH everywhere. Everybody who saw me hold a microphone needed to go, “Wow, this kid kills!” That was my goal. But now that I’m somewhat established a little bit in New York—comedians know me and some people have heard of me through my podcast, Matarese’s podcast, Bobby Kelly’s podcast, and Burr’s podcast, and also being a regular at The Stand—some people know me.
So NOW, I can go in—and I talked about this on the podcast—but Michael Strahan was in the crowd, and I’m a Giants fan! So half of me was like, “Man, I wanna kill in front of him! I should just get laughs.” ‘Cause there were all kinds of people there, he had his entourage with him, and a bunch of comics came out because he was there. But then the other half of me was like, “Na man, I traveled down to the city to get work in tonight, so I’m gonna sink or swim with this stuff that’s fairly new.”
So everything I did was pretty much new and luckily it worked out. But I could not care what Michael Strahan thought of me. And yeah, you wanna be funny in front of people you admire, but at the end of the day, he’s not gonna do anything for me. What I want to get out of a set is leaving knowing that I did something new. I like to know that I’m working and trying new stuff out.
When working new stuff out, how come some jokes work ONLY the first time or two, and then never work again? What is that phenomenon?
That is basically two things: It’s you and the crowd. But they’re together so it’s technically one thing. What happens is whether you know it or not, subconsciously you’re not into the joke as much. And like a dog, the crowd senses it. The crowd senses EVERYTHING. When you’re in control the crowd is like, “Ah yeah, we can just sit back ‘n relax, this guy knows what the fuck he’s doing!” Like, if you’re on a plane and you see the pilot nervous and crying, you’d freak and be like, “Fuck this, I’m not goin’!” [laughs] Right? You’d be like, “Na this is NOT good! I do NOT wanna fly with this guy!” But if you see him, like I always say, with a mustache and a slight sense of arrogance, you know you’re gonna feel all right with this guy. That’s what the crowd wants to see.
So if you do a bit that crushed for a month or two, or even a year or two, and you’re like, “I just don’t wanna do this joke anymore, but I’ll do it tonight,” you’re NOT going to say it with the same passion, and the crowd will sense it. Because you’re not committing your whole heart and soul into the bit anymore. Even though you may think you’re delivering it the same way, that little voice in your head going, “Ahh, I don’t wanna be doin’ this joke anymore,” will be felt by the crowd. What you want is to try to be in control as much as you can.
Some comedians write religiously with a strict agenda. Do you write under any specific schedule?
For me, I never force write. Writing comes to me in waves: I either have writer’s block, or the flood gates open and I’m just constantly writing. Luckily right now, it’s the latter. I know some comics that sit down and are like, “Every day I do THIS.” Or, “Every Thursday is writing day!” I don’t do that. I feel like when I try to force something to be funny, it doesn’t happen. A lot of times I write on stage. As far as my schedule, my kids are up at 7:30AM, so if I’m not on the road, I’m up with them.
Final thoughts/words of wisdom?
Don’t let this business get you negative. Sometimes it’s hard. I learned that it’s not personal against you. I’m Sicilian and Greek—I used to take things personally like, “What the fuck, they don’t like me?! Fuck this ‘n that! I’ma tell everybody to go fuck themselves!” [laughs] And it’s like, “WHY would I do that?” The Montreal Comedy Festival didn’t take me for a few years, and now I just got there two years in a row. When it’s your time and you’re ready, it will happen. The only thing you can control is your stand up and getting better.
One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t be stopped when you’re undeniable. When you’re UNDENIABLY funny, even when they don’t like you, they have to respect and know what you did. That’s the point you want to get to. Get to the point where they HAVE to say “Yes”. My last audition for the Montreal Comedy Festival, I felt like I did that. I did everything I possibly could, and I did it the way I wanted to.
It’s hard man, I was impatient. I was like, six years in and I was like, “How come people aren’t seein’ me? How come people aren’t RESPECTIN’ me?!” [laughs] And it’s just because I wasn’t that good six years in. I was funny…but there’s SUCH a difference in being funny and being a good comedian. I’m sure you work with somebody in your office who’s funny. The funny is funny. But being a good comedian is being vulnerable, and telling a story, and bringing people into some shit that’s dark and horrifying, that you can find the funny in. That’s the art. The storytelling, the act outs, talking about your life. Honesty will NEVER lose. That I can promise. Honesty, vulnerability, being yourself, and making it all funny, will never lose in this business. That’s just my opinion.
This has been extremely inspiring! Thanks for your time Paul Virzi, it’s been an honor talkin’ to you!
No problem brotha, any time!
Interviewed & Written by: David Gavri
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