Appearing second-to-last one night in June at Stand Up NY — a comedy club on Manhattan's Upper West Side — is 28-year-old North Bergen, New Jersey, native Chris Crespo. The five-foot-nine, sleepy-eyed Crespo takes to his tippy toes and gingerly removes the mic from its stand, his torso leaning forward heavily. Crespo was born with complicated syndactyly, a condition affecting one in every 2,000-3,000 babies, leaving him with arms ending just past his elbows and clubbed hands with but a few gnarled digits. When he was a kid he had surgery to separate some of his fingers, giving him slightly enhanced gripping capabilities.
After getting the mic propped between his right hand and the bottom of his bicep, he takes extra time to pick up the mic stand and place it behind him, using his left arm. He opens every set this way to purposely build tension throughout the audience.
Then, calmly, Crespo says into the mic, "Don't worry, I'm just like you guys … I put my pants on one hour at a time."
The crowd roars with laughter.
"I'm from Jersey. Anybody here from Jersey?" he asks. A few in the crowd clap and woo.
"It's hard to have Jersey pride when you don't have a fist to pump, you know what I'm saying?" Through noticeable discomfort, the audience laughs hard again.
Chris Crespo at Stand Up NY. | (Vincent Tullo/Courtesy Narratively)
There are about 25 guests filling about a third of the place for this Thursday, 6 p.m. show with a lineup of part-time, developing comics who clock in as teachers each morning of the workweek. The bill is dubbed "Teachers Lounge," and most in attendance are friends, family, or coworkers of the performers, who offer humorous takes on their day jobs, mixed in with other material they're trying to hone.
Crespo, a substitute teacher by day, began performing as a stand-up comedian three years ago after enrolling in a class at Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan, just across the Hudson River from his home. He lives with his two younger brothers — who were both born with a clean bill of health — and his mother, a secretary at two local churches. He has always enjoyed stand-up comedy, but after watching an hour-long special from Louis C.K. around 2010, Crespo began to wonder about launching a career as a comic — though he had no confidence to get on a stage. One morning, Crespo caught a half-hour set on Comedy Central by a comedian who he didn't find particularly funny, and he says, "A little voice in my head told me, 'You can do better.'"
Starting in 2013 he wrote down everything he thought was funny in a notebook, and tried his jokes out in front of his brothers. "That wasn't a smart move," he says. "They told me straight to my face that the jokes sucked." Crespo admits that this early material was underwhelming, but then one of his brothers attended an awful stand-up show in Manhattan, and told him he thought his jokes were already superior to the comics onstage that night. Soon, in March 2014, he began the class at Gotham, and followed it up with another at the Comedy Cellar, a club in Greenwich Village.
"When I started, I didn't want to talk about my disability," Crespo says. "I want to be on a lineup because I've proved my worth. I always feared that I'd be booked on a show to fulfill some diversity bullshit. I don't want to be on a show because they need a cripple; I want to be there because people want to see me perform."
But after Crespo cut out all jokes regarding his disability for one set, his instructor from the Gotham course told him he must address the condition of his arms while onstage. "I just got tired of talking about it," Crespo, who at the time was about two weeks into the class, says. His teacher persisted, telling him, "When people see you, the first thing they're going to want to know is what the f--k happened. They might assume it's a birth defect, but they might think it was a horrible accident." Crespo says at first he didn't want to comply for fear of being perceived as merely a sympathy case by the audience, but today accepts his teacher's point as undeniable fact.
"I always write five jokes a day, minimally," Crespo asserts. "Whenever I can't think of anything new to write, I always go back to making fun of myself, and usually that's the best source."