The last time we wrote about Rocco Deserto, his wedding party had just been photobombed by a giant plume of smoke.
Most of the time, Deserto’s life is not that eventful. The Xaverian High School alum and proud six-time college dropout spends his the bulk of days at a boring office job in Manhattan, and evenings with his wife and his 11-month-old son at home in Dyker Heights. But despite his busy schedule, Deserto has managed to perform at nearly every big comedy club in the city, entertaining audiences with hilariously honest material about life in Bensonhurst, growing up in an Italian household, relationships (or lack thereof), and being fat.
Deserto agreed to chat with us about his journey from being the fat kid from 18th Avenue to a recognized face on the local comedy circuit.
1. What made you decide to go into comedy? When did you first realize you could make audiences laugh?
I was always a shy and quiet kid growing up, so I never considered comedy as anything. I was just a fan of stand-up, I never missed an opportunity to watch a stand-up special on TV. It wasn’t until after high school that I took my sense of humor outward. I always used it previously to cope with issues internally (whether it would be being made fun of for being fat or deaths in my family). I would always have an answer for everything with my parents, but I started being more outspoken after I realized I was pretty substandard in the looks department, so it was time to bring something more to the table.
People had always made comments in passing to me that I’d be a good stand-up comedian, but I never knew what you did to get into comedy. In 2010, I decided to take a stand-up coaching class at Caroline’s On Broadway. I didn’t know if I could make an audience laugh or if I would just embarrass myself, but I figured I’d take a shot. I took the stage at Caroline’s for the first time ever on August 1, 2010, in front of like 300 people, and everyone laughed. So I just kept it going.
2. Which comedians are you most influenced by and why?
I’m a huge fan of stand-up comedy, my favorite comedians of all time are George Carlin, Louis CK, Robert Schimmel, and Eddie Murphy. Recently I’ve really enjoyed watching Sebastian Maniscalco, another Italian-American comedian who is really making some noise.
Although I’m a fan of stand-up, I don’t try to be influenced by them, because I think there’s only one George Carlin and there’s only one Louis CK, so I want to make my own path and be my own person. When you see me perform, I don’t want you to walk away thinking “Wow that guys just like Louis CK” – although I wish I had an ounce of his talent – I want you to remember me for me.
3. Your Italian parents often provide fodder for your comedy. Is anyone in your life off limits? Do your parents/wife get upset when they end up in your routine?
Deep down inside, people want you to talk about them on stage. I’ll go to the dentist, the doctor, or anyone, and the first thing they’ll say is “Oh, I hope you don’t talk about me on stage!” Meanwhile that’s exactly what they wish would happen.
If you were to ask my parents and my wife one thing about me, they’d tell you that I say anything and I don’t really care about the consequences. It’s probably not my best attribute, but it’s how I am. Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s not like I’m malicious about it, and I plan on truly embarrassing anyone.
My wife comes to pretty much every one of my shows, she actually laughs at the jokes that I say about her, because she knows they’re true. She’s great and she’s my editor; she’ll tell me if a joke is stupid before I have a chance to bomb.
I don’t like my parents coming to my shows, only because I end up getting nervous, because I worry about them being comfortable, if they’re bored, and if they’re going to understand the jokes other comics are saying. I just tell them to stay home. They can watch me on TV if that happens one day. I’m your typical Italian kid, I’m always worrying about my parents.
4. You poke fun of your weight a lot. Your upcoming “Fatopia” show at the Broadway Comedy Club, is all about being fat. What do you want people to know about the experience of being fat and performing?
Growing up there wasn’t one day where I didn’t get made fun of because I was fat. No girls wanted anything to do with me, because I was fat and shy. As I grew up, I started to make fun of myself, because I figured how can someone else make fun of me when I do a better job making fun of myself? It took the power out of their comments. Nowadays, I tell people if you want to hurt my feelings, don’t call me fat, just tell me I don’t make enough money to support my family.
The idea of Fatopia came alive for many different reasons, firstly, because you never see fat comedians in the spotlight. Not since Chris Farley, has fat really been the star. A few years ago, I was performing at Caroline’s, and for some reason the Naked Cowboy was there. After my set he came up to me and told me that he never considered what the perspective on life was through the eyes of a fat person. People are always preoccupied with the issues fat people cause them (taking up too much space, eating all the good food at the buffet), but they never stop and consider we have our own issues and some of them are pretty funny.
We weren’t sure how the Fatopia show would be accepted by our first show was a hit. We filled out the room and, ironically, no other fat people came – the entire audience was skinny. We joked that the audience was full of our past bullies wanting to see what their years of torment have done to us.
5. You’ve said that all the stories your comedy routine are true. Why do you prefer to stick to real-life comedy?
I don’t believe in lying, and I don’t underestimate the intelligence of a crowd. Linda Smith from Caroline’s once told me the audience will always know when you’re full of it. Therefore, if I make up a story, unless I’m an amazing actor, that story will always be missing something because it’s not true.
Just ask someone to tell you a story they personally experienced and then ask them to tell you a story they either made up or heard, and see which story comes across more entertaining. You owe to the audience to give them something entertaining and unique, and nothing is as unique as your personal experiences.
6. You and your wife recently had a baby. How has being a father impacted your comedy?
I tell a lot of people before I even knew that I had a dream to do comedy, I knew my biggest dream was to be a father. It wasn’t easy for me wife and I to have a baby, and there were moments when I didn’t know if that dream was going to come true, but when I found out my wife was pregnant I made the decision of putting comedy on hold and truly being there 100% with my wife during her pregnancy, that meant going with her to every doctors appointment, every sonogram, and making sure she was taking her vitamins and eating right. After my son was born that transition to normalcy was hard.
No matter how ready you think you may be for parenthood, you’re not ready you never are. When my son was around 3 months old, I was starting to get the hang of the whole father role, and I thought to myself it was time to make a comeback into comedy. Was it easy? No. A lot of the people I had performed with before I stopped were now doing big things, but the year I sacrificed in comedy, I gained the experiences with my son.
Now that I’m a dad you look forward to coming home and seeing your family, and comedy is a strictly night time job. Do I want to spend all my nights at clubs with people who are going to most likely forget my name by the time they walk out the door? Or Do I want to go home and watch Sesame Street the entire night while my son hits me with a drum stick? I’ll choose Sesame Street every time. The love and the urge to perform is there, and that’s the benefit of Fatopia, because I can still perform, but I can still be the father I want to be at the same time. Also, being a dad has added greatly to the amount of material I’ll have on stage now.
7. Are you ever afraid of bombing in front of an audience? Can you describe a rough experience you had on stage?
I’m always afraid of bombing, but it’s the fear that pushes you because the high after a great set is one of the greatest feelings you will ever feel. One time I actually did blank and I forgot everything I was supposed to say on stage, but that wasn’t roughest moment.
The roughest experience I’ve ever had was unfortunately at my biggest break. I was given the opportunity to perform at the Beacon Theater at a Hurricane Sandy Relief show put together by WFAN’s Boomer & Carton. There were two non-celebrity comedians on that show, me and another guy. I was getting the chance to perform with Artie Lange, Nick DiPaolo, Jay Mohr, Michael Che, and Colin Quinn in front of thousands of people. This was my biggest chance. Now they decided to put the two unknown comics on back to back and they let the other guy go on first.
With my luck the guy totally bombed, he bombed so bad he got booed off the stage after three minutes. The crowd was ruthless, rather than bringing on a celebrity comic as a buffer they brought me out. As I was walking to the mic the hecklers started, the crowd was out for blood. My initial thought was “Seriously? I’m going to get heckled at the Beacon Theater?!?” They did throw out the heckler so I was able to do my set and a received a lot of good feedback, but because no one knew who I was, they’d always group me in with the guy who got booed off the stage.
8. What do you love/hate about living in Bensonhurst?
It’s hard to really specify what it is about Bensonhurst that I love. I grew up there, Bensonhurst made me what I am today. I was a little kid walking through the 18th Avenue feast with my hands over my ears, because I was scared of the game where you shoot the water in the clowns mouth until a balloon pops. In 2006, I spent the entire day on 18th Avenue celebrating after Italy won the World Cup. I had a front row seat as I watched it change year by year, but it’s truly heartbreaking looking at this neighborhood now.
You walk down 18th Avenue [today] and four out of 10 stores on a block are closed down, two out of the 10 are massage parlors, and the rest are 99 cents stores. There’s garbage all over the place and yet all the houses in the area are selling for close to a million dollars. The kids who grew up in this neighborhood who fell in love with this neighborhood can’t even afford to live here. That’s why everyone [I know] is going to Staten Island and New Jersey, unless you grew up with a golden spoon and your parents are going to buy you a house, or you’re doing ridiculously well for yourself, you’re only option is to leave. It’s not that people who love Bensonhurst are leaving, it’s that Bensonhurst doesn’t want us anymore.
9. What is your comedy dream job?
I wouldn’t know what my dream job is. I just want to make people laugh, I want people to hear my ideas my stories and really enjoy them. Whether it’s writing for a show, performing on a show like SNL, having a special on Comedy Central. Anywhere I can make people laugh and make people happy and forget their problems for a short period of time is a dream enough for me. Although, I would be lying if I didn’t say I dream of starring in a remake of Saved by the Bell where I get to marry Kelly Kapowski.