Sunday Spotlight: Paul Virzi, Comedian
It’s a weekday in early April and Paul Virzi doesn’t have a lot of time to talk. He’s been busy caring for the family cat who, at 16-years-old, is nearing the end of his life. Soon, Virzi will need to pick up his daughter from elementary school. After that, he’ll retreat into his home office in North Salem to get some work done.
In many ways, Virzi’s life is not unlike the lives of countless other men his age. The married father of two is juggling work and family responsibilities and trying to stay positive in the face of everyday challenges. Virzi, however, is a nationally renowned comic.
Virzi’s Comedy Central special, Bill Burr Presents Paul Virzi: I’ll Say This, is one of the network’s most successful specials in history. Virzi is currently headlining a national tour with stops in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Utah and Boston. He hosts two podcasts, The Virzi Effect and Anything Better? with Bill Burr, and is starting to branch out into acting. This summer, he’ll shoot his second comedy special to be released later this year.
“I feel like I’m as good as I’ve ever been,” Virzi said.
Virzi’s success in the world of comedy did not come overnight. Rather, it was a long, continuous climb fueled by constant hustle, a dedication to his craft and unwavering support from his family.
In 1987, when Eddie Murphy Raw came out in theaters, Virzi’s father—against the wishes of Virzi’s mother and grandmother—took the young Virzi and his brother to see it.
“Eddie Murphy was the guy,” Virzi said. “Watching him, he made comedy look like this amazing thing,” Virzi said. “That really planted a seed.”
That early comedic seed grew into a tool for Virzi to use when faced with new social situations. Virzi’s parents were divorced, and his mother moved him and his brother several times throughout their childhood in Westchester and Dutchess counties. With each move, Virzi leaned on his ability to make people laugh through his stories to quickly form new bonds.
“In junior high and high school, we would laugh and joke about how one day I was going to get an agent and do [comedy],” Virzi said.
Up and Coming
Virzi was attending community college when he heard about a Tuesday night open mic held at a bar called Joyous Lake in Woodstock, New York. “The Lake,” as it was affectionately called, had been one of the hottest music spots of the 1970’s, though by the late 1990’s, when Virzi arrived, much of the original luster had worn off.
Virzi’s first set at Joyous Lake was not funny.
“I just showed up there thinking I’m gonna be funny off the cuff, like freestyle funny, and it wasn’t,” Virzi said. Rather than be discouraged, Virzi asked the booker to schedule him again for the following week.
“For a week I wrote,” Virzi said. He put together a 6-minute set and recruited a couple carloads of people to come and support him. At the end of his set, a local approached and told Virzi, “that was way better than last week.” That was just the validation Virzi needed.
Virzi soon dropped out of college and made his way to New York City. He started doing “bringer” shows (shows in which a comic brings a number of people to a comedy club in exchange for time on stage) along with other aspiring comics.
“We all sucked. But I was among the best of the guys that sucked,” Virzi recalled.
Over the ensuing years, Virzi put in his time up and down the Manhattan comic circuit, performing at places like the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem and the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village. He described these environments as ‘sink or swim.’ With each solid performance, he gained confidence.
“I kind of had a feeling of, wait till they see me, they’re going to like me,” Virzi said. “There does come a time when you believe in your funny.”
Virzi’s brand of funny has been described as one that balances his edgy New York demeanor mixed with his vulnerability as a husband, father and lover of nerdy things. Virzi himself says he’s a “very moody” type of comic. “If I’m in a mood, I could go off.”
A Family Affair
While Virzi’s journey of steadily making his way into bigger and bigger clubs is typical of most comics who find success in the industry, his personal life is less so. The image of a lonely, single comic in a one-bedroom apartment is all too common. But for Virzi, life as a suburban family man was always the dream.
“There’s a misconception that having a family and kids is going to hurt you,” Virzi said. Instead, he feels that it gives him an advantage. Virzi’s bit about a lightsaber duel with his daughter has over five million online views.
“Little girls don’t look at their daddies,” he says in the bit, pacing around the stage in a black sweater, black jeans and black high-top Nikes. “They look through them.”
Virzi’s observations on family life do resonate with his fans, but he is careful to maintain boundaries. “The people in my life didn’t choose for me to do this. I did,” Virzi said. “I never put anyone in a situation where someone in my life would say, ‘wow, I can’t believe it.’”
In March 2020, as the world was locking down, COVID became a family affair for the Virzis.
“We got it the week it came out, like we were waiting for an album to drop,” he recalled with a chuckle. The whole family was hit, though thankfully all recovered with relatively minor symptoms.
Virzi used the newfound time at home to work on his material. “During that period, my hour got better,” Virzi said. Meanwhile, his Comedy Central special was breaking online records as people were streaming online to combat lockdown boredom.
Prior to the pandemic, Virzi said, “the weakest part of my game was my online stuff because all I cared about before was being great at standup.” But with much of the comedic world closed due to coronavirus restrictions, Virzi turned much of his focus to podcasting and to building his online presence.
After being off stage for five months, Virzi—armed with antibodies—traveled to Arizona for a live show. “I killed,” he said, using a term for an excellent comedic performance.
As it did for so many people, the pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for Virzi. “This pandemic let me know that working smart is equally important as working hard. Before, I would get in the car four nights a week and drive to Manhattan for not great money. Leaving my family, I was on the hamster wheel. The people that you love and who love you, this pandemic let you realize that everything else is secondary.”
These days, Virzi is touring more regularly. This month he’s on stage in Oklahoma and Texas and next month he’ll travel to Tampa for a slate of shows. He is also starting to act and is getting ready to shoot his next special.
“It’s an exciting time now that life is opening up,” Virzi said. “My new hour is as good as it’s ever been. And as long as my wife and kids are happy and healthy, it’s all gravy.”
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