Anthony DeVito on Overcoming Shyness and Taping His Comedy Central Special

anthony-devitoEvery so often you hear somebody say something like “Oh, I would love to do standup comedy, I’m just too shy.” And more often than not, they never do. Luckily for us, Anthony DeVito managed to overcome his shyness — so effectively, in fact, that this year alone he performed on The Late Show and more recently taped a Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents (formerly known as The Half Hour).

DeVito first started to take an interest in standup comedy while watching live comedy with his aunt at a bar in West Orange, New Jersey, although he didn’t start to overcome his stage fright until the age of 27 in New York City. That anxiety stayed with him for years into his development in the comedy scene but gradually melted away as he learned to feel more comfortable simply being himself on stage and presenting his material more genuinely and naturally. As we discuss below, while DeVito was certainly reflecting on all the experiences that lead up to the taping, he never let that distract him from enjoying being in moment.

I recently sat down to chat with DeVito about his experiences in getting over his shyness, what the most surreal part of taping his special was, and the one thing he wishes more people understood about the entire process.

So was there anything about the taping that you thought went better than you expected?

Yeah, the length of it. I kind of was like, “Maybe at some point they’ll get tired,” but they seemed to maintain their energy throughout the whole set. I did probably like 37, and they cut it down to like 20 or 25 minutes. Just to give them options, because I flubbed a couple lines.

And it was one taping?

Yeah, just one taping. So I tried to be as good as possible and correct lines in the moment, just so I wouldn’t lose the momentum and so it was fresh from my head. But not everything is gonna hit as hard in the room just consistently, so I tried to give them options. And you know from doing standup that for whatever reason maybe you just nailed that joke that night.

Do they involve you in the editing process at all?

No. I mean, I recorded it on my phone in my pocket, just so I could hear it back. So I listened to it just in case there’s anything that I notice about my jokes. There was one joke that I noticed that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get a word right, and the whole joke is predicated on me getting that word right. Otherwise the rest of it doesn’t make sense. It still got a laugh in the room, but I knew that if you put it on TV it’s not gonna make any sense. So that was the only one that I had my manager reach out to them about. But yeah, they’re Comedy Central, they’ve been doing this for years. I give them full control over the editing. I’m not trying to micro-manage these people.

Did that verbal slip-up throw you off at all?

Not really. I kinda got lucky enough that I did warm-up for it last year, so I saw the process of it and how people were doing that. Just midway through their bits, people would just kinda take ’em again. Also, the audience knows it’s a taping, so they’re excited for that. Because then they feel like they’re really a part of a special TV thing. So, yeah, it didn’t throw me off too much.

Who did warm-up for you this time?

Jak Knight, funny dude. And he’s a young guy, very funny for how young he is.

What about the taping was like the most cool or surreal part for you?

I had two of my family members there with my mom’s best friend and her daughter, two of my best friends from childhood, all my roommates, and my girlfriend. So that was by far the coolest moment — just that they were all there for it, and I was telling jokes about my mom and looking her right in the eye while I was doing it while there was a giant sign behind me that said my name. That was easily the coolest, most surreal moment for sure.

Sure, there’s a lot that goes into being there in that moment.

Yeah, definitely. You know, you start off doing jokes at an open mic at the Creek, and it’s just this thing that bombs in front of six people at the end of the mic, and then years later you’re doing it to a packed theater for television. That’s insane. Those things weren’t lost on me while I was doing it.

Were you pretty much reflecting on that throughout the whole set?

Yeah, at least as much as I could. It was tough because I still had to do a set, so I was conscious of trying to take in those moments, but also, the minute I would start to take that moment in, I had to go into a new joke. So I couldn’t really sit in it too long.

Yeah, or just otherwise instruct the audience like “Okay hang just a minute, I need to just feel this.”

[laughs] Yeah. “I’d like to bask for a second, everybody. If I could just look out longingly to the right…”

How long have you been hoping to tape one of these? Since before you even started comedy?

Yeah, since the Comedy Central Presents specials, that was a thing when I was a kid that I just watched all of. It just meant so much to me to do because they’ve been running for so long and there are so many classics that they aired. I remember in college, one spring break — I went to school in Florida and we were in Daytona — everyone was leaving to go out and Nick Swardson’s Presents came on, and I was just glued to it. I remember when [Brian] Regan’s came out, they aired it so much, and it was unbelievable. So to be put among those people that had done them before is incredible.

Did watching those specials as a kid spark your interest in standup comedy, or was that not until later in your life?

No, that was actually earlier. One of my aunts, one of her best friends was a bartender at this bar called Rascals in West Orange, New Jersey. So we would go probably like once or twice a year when they had comedy shows and I would just watch, and I was amazed by them. I didn’t know at the time that anything was written. I thought they were just the smartest… I was just like “I don’t know what’s happening here, this is magic to me.” But I think for whatever reason it caught my attention more than it did with other people, so I knew that that had to mean something. I was just too shy to start.

So how did you get over that to get into standup?

I just kinda started. I didn’t start until later. I was 27 in New York. So I took a while, just because, yeah, I just had to get over nerves. I did improv for a year first in New York before I started doing standup.

Do you think improv in particular helped you with some of the aspects of performing?

I think at first it was stage fright, and then also I didn’t expect improv to have so much structure to it, in terms of, like, first beat, second beat, third beat… Which is, as a baseline, just helpful to write any joke in terms of heightening the joke or whatever. So that was, early on especially, a byproduct of it, since it’s like a basic joke formula. And then eventually, you figure out how you write things for yourself.

Since you started, what do you think has developed the most for you?

Just being comfortable enough on stage to make faces or make eye contact with the crowd… I would never do that when I first started. I wouldn’t take the mic out of the stand, I was almost looking at the ceiling because I was terrified. So the fact that I’m looking at people while telling the jokes and taking my time to actually make faces that match up to the words that I’m saying naturally is huge for me. That’s something I would watch people do and be like, “Maybe one day I’ll be able to do that.”

I remember I watched either Hilarious or Chewed Up with the sound off, just to see how much performance Louie did. The amount of faces that he makes during it and his performances, especially back then, were a little bit more understated, but I was like, “Man, that would be cool.” Then I would watch my own, and it was just so stoic — it was like I was a statue for six minutes.

Was there anything in particular that helped you put that into action, or that helped you get more comfortable on stage?

No — just time, really. I think just time and patience and not forcing it. Like, if you’re uncomfortable, be uncomfortable. That’s okay. But just be patient enough to know that, in time, you won’t be uncomfortable.  

Also, doing gigs where you have to not do your standup. Just doing those rough bar shows, one-nighters on the road, where it’s like, these people just can’t hear your jokes. You have to be you for a second. And when you’re totally you on stage, naturally you’re gonna make faces and gesture however you normally do. Doing those things gives you a glimpse into what you can do in the future. But I think it’s necessary to have that so you’re not just locked into your jokes all the time.

So with that sort of behind you, what are you more focused on developing in yourself?

Most of the improvements happen unconsciously, so I try not to be too… I try not to force myself down too many avenues, in terms of improvement. I kinda just let it happen as naturally as possible. It would be cool, eventually, to be able to talk more — not just like point of view stuff, but about larger topics. As of right now, I’m very comfortable talking about things that happened directly to me, or about family stuff, or relationship stuff. I love all that stuff, but it would be cool to be able to branch out and talk about broader things with the same ability that I’m able to talk about personal stuff right now.

Right, and that would seem like a logical progression. You start with getting comfortable just really exploring stuff about yourself before you can start exploring larger things.

Yeah, and I think it’s also an age thing. I think there’s just a maturity where you just want to talk about the world around you, more so than your immediate world. And I don’t want to force an opinion or anything; I’m not trying to be like, “I gotta figure out foreign policy today!” But it’d be cool if that happened.

Now that you’ve achieved the goal of having a Comedy Central special, which is a pretty lofty goal for many of us, do you feel like you have to refocus and set your sights on another thing? Does this change how you set goals for yourself?

I don’t know. I never really have [set goals]. I’ll be honest, I’m amazed that I’m just talking to people. I’m amazed by very small things when it comes to comedy, so the fact that it’s working out is crazy to me. The fact that it’s my job is insane. So the things that happen along the way, they’re just kinda happening. And they’re just a product of working, really. So I try not to set goals for myself. I mean, everyone works differently. Some people need that. But for me, it just doesn’t work that way. I mean, the pressure’s always there, it’s just that if I’m not conscious of the pressure then I can enjoy what I’m doing and think through the enjoyment. The other stuff just kinda gravitates towards me.

Yeah. You can almost be guaranteed that you’re never gonna feel like, “Ugh, do I even want to be doing what I’m doing right now?”

Yeah, exactly. I picked this, so I’m gonna enjoy it as much as I can.

Is there anything that you wish more people understood about the whole process that went into this special?

I guess I wish they saw all the rooms and the shows where all these jokes just bombed. I wish they saw the parts leading up to it. Because anything you see in comedy, for the most part, the real exposure that we get is large media like television, Netflix, whatever it is. So you’re just seeing a finished product at one time. You never see it along the way, when this line or that line was taken out, or when a noise was added, or whatever. And when that same joke that you just saw annihilate and that’s like a classic, when that joke just ate it for fourteen people in the backroom of a bar — I’d love for people to see just all the steps along the way that created this pristine thing that they take in in the end.

 

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

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