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 two or three thousand 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.
There are about 25 guests filling about a third of the place for this Thursday, six 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 fuck 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.”
Though he regularly pokes fun at his condition in his act, some of Crespo’s jokes are rooted in observations of others who don’t know how to handle interactions with him, like the time he was in elementary school on a class trip to a firehouse. In the bit, which is based on true events, he approaches the first fireman he sees from behind and says, “Hey, when I grow up I want to be just like you!” The fireman turns around excitedly and says, “Yeah!” followed by a quick “ohhh shit” upon seeing a half-armed child before him.
By opening with acknowledging his disability, Crespo finds that he can then segue into different material – like a bit in which he considers the fates of babies’ freshly carved foreskins. “They can’t just throw it away, that’s so wasteful,” he offers. “I imagine they gather them all together and they make a belt. Or a wallet. Who wouldn’t want a wallet with a fresh baby smell? I’d buy it!”
A few laughs into his set at Stand Up NY, he delves into material about teaching, outlining an incident when his kindergarten students killed a rat they found in the classroom by beating it to death with their playtime blocks. “I’m not going to stand up here and admit to you that I was afraid of a bunch of six year olds,” he says over the crowd, moaning at the thought of the obliterated vermin. “But I did move their pencils and scissors all the way up to the top shelves.” The crowd laughs in approbation.
Crespo says when he was a youngster in school he was bullied – though he’s quick to pooh-pooh that with, “But every kid has bullies.”
“High school was a little weird for me,” Crespo does admit. “My disability was always used as a punch line, and it kind of made me uncomfortable when other people did it. I started to think, ‘If they’re going to use it, I have to use it [more] quickly. I have to beat them to the punch.’” This, he says, paved the way to becoming the class clown.
As a high school junior Crespo began dating a girl he’d be with for four years. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, someone finds me attractive? Is this person real?’” he says. “I thought I made up this person the entire time and no one had the heart to tell me, like they were saying, ‘Let him think he’s kissing this girl’ and it’s like an empty chair.”
Crespo says his condition has undoubtedly informed his sense of humor, which according to him is “very dark,” and he lauds Doug Stanhope – a comic who in a 2013 Netflix special discussed his role in his mother’s assisted suicide – as an inspiration.
He also suffered through an elongated family crisis. Crespo says his parents were entangled in court custody battles for 15 years after separating. His father ran three jewelry stores, and his mother was a cosigner on the leased spaces. But after ultimately being denied custody rights to his boys, Crespo says his father took everything from the jewelry stores and fled, never to be heard from by his family again. “That was a fun day,” Crespo says sarcastically.
He tells the story about how he sat with a locksmith for six hours to find out what remained in a lone safe he and his mother thought his father had ignored. As it turned out, says Crespo, “He had taken all the quarters, dimes and nickels, but left all the pennies as like a fuck you. It was $3.65, I’ll never forget that.” He pauses and jokingly adds: “Guantanamo Bay videos are going to look so tame when I get ahold of him.”
Halfway through college, while he was studying to be a screenwriter and beginning to realize that pursuit wasn’t the right fit for him, Crespo’s girlfriend broke up with him. He says, looking back, the romance was never meant to last, especially because they were so young when they began dating. However, he also admits to becoming depressed and a heavy drinker for a while afterward. But by 2013 – when he started writing comedy and, thanks to some connections through his mother, got a job as a substitute teacher – he began to feel a bit better about his life outlook.
Since then, Crespo has earned a master’s degree in education, and he hopes to soon get a full-time job as a paraprofessional, allowing him to support himself, while keeping evenings free to continue working on comedy material and get some more paid gigs.
Crespo performs at about ten open mics a week and hopes to soon have a full 30-minute set, which will help him get paid work, both in the New York area and on the road.
He insists his motivation does not at all come from a need to show others he can overcome the challenges his disability presents.
“The drive comes from knowing that I’m good,” he says, “knowing that on a basic level I can make a person laugh. In a very crazy way, I have to prove to people that I can be fucking hilarious. That’s the goal for me.”