Just one year ago, Sergio Marzitelli was coaching basketball. Now he appears on stages across the tri-state area performing stand-up comedy. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but they’re actually not as unrelated as one might think.
“Basketball and comedy involve a lot of the same things, like traveling, going out to New Jersey, going out to New York. The late hours – it’s not a 9-5 job where you’re just sitting down. I’ll go and I’ll hang out with other comedians to write and I’ll look and five hours go by,” Marzitelli began, sitting down for an interview in the Northern Light Espresso Bar and Café in downtown Scranton.
“Sure, you’re hanging out, but comedy is the focus. With basketball, it was kind of the same thing. I’d be hanging out with other coaches, but you’re just discussing basketball; it’s the main focus.”
For years, basketball was his main focus as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Lackawanna College, though it took him a while to reach that point. Born in Montreal, Canada, he moved to Florida at age 5 and grew up in Miami, relocating to his mother’s hometown of Old Forge at 20 and moving back and forth a few times since, unsure of his future. He studied at Florida International University and Lackawanna, eventually earning a degree in sports management. Ultimately, however, the game couldn’t hold his interest, but he remained in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“At some point, I started to lose a passion for it. I won’t even watch NBA on TV anymore. It’s gone. I always had a passion for comedy, but I looked at it like something that wasn’t a normal thing that normal people could do. It was like looking at superheroes on TV. I’d be watching and I’d be like, ‘OK, this guy is awesome. How does he do that? How is he up there for an hour just talking about stuff?’” he recalled.
“Creatively, I always felt that there was something that I needed to get out.”
When he was 18, Marzitelli thought that something might be rap music, recording a few songs with his friends that he threatens to dig up someday.
“I’m an awkward white guy with a deep voice, so it didn’t sound great,” he admitted with a laugh. “I had really good rhymes – the content was really good – but it didn’t sound great.”
Now, at 27, his path is much more clear – and it’s funny for the right reasons.
“Just getting up there, I feel better,” the burgeoning comedian said of his time onstage.
“You get offstage and you have this rush of energy, and everything’s OK. It’s always something I look forward to every week. I’m sitting there and I could be tired or angry or drunk or whatever, and then right before my name gets called, I kind of push everything away and I just hit the stage.”
Turning bad dates into good jokes
Deviating career paths aside, Marzitelli’s early years undoubtedly laid the groundwork for his foray into comedy.
“I was always that guy in school who’s kind of like the asshole, going back and forth with the teacher, just throwing out jokes. I was always in trouble, in the principal’s office,” he acknowledged.
“Every parent teacher conference: ‘Sergio’s a clown.’ I would go too far sometimes and I would end up in a lot of trouble, suspension or whatever, but I feel like I don’t have that thing where I know that it’s too far. I keep going, and then afterwards I’m like, ‘Oh, why’d I say that?’”
At 10 years old, he was actually shy, but in high school, he wouldn’t have lasted long staying quiet.
“When you’re in school in a bigger city, people are ruthless. In Florida, that’s all it was. People are just talking shit, talking shit, talking shit, and you’ve got to have comebacks constantly,” he explained.
“I was always picking on people, just messing with people. I just think I always had that quick thing where, if I’m talking to someone, I could make fun of them easily because that’s what we did growing up. I think there was like 3,000 people I went to school with; it was a big school. You had your group of friends and you just messed around with them and go back and forth all day. That’s what we did.”
He had been writing scripts on and off for years, so as he started losing interest in basketball, he made his way through penning about half a movie before trying his hand at stand-up comedy, a much quicker and easier form of entertainment to produce.
Marzitelli can name the exact date that he entered Wise Crackers Comedy Club at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre – May 27, 2014.
“I was going to take the easy way out and show up and watch a show and see what it’s like, but I ended up showing up and going on. I did it, and there was no stage fright; I wasn’t scared. I started and it was like, ‘This feels natural. This feels like something that I’m supposed to be doing.’ I don’t get nervous on stage. I don’t have a problem talking in front of everybody,” he said.
“It happened so randomly. It was a small idea: ‘Maybe I should try stand-up. I’ve been wanting to do it.’ I finally got off my ass and did it, and I was like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I do this 10 years ago?’ I’m 27; I wish I would have started when I was 18 or 19. Though when I was 18, I don’t know what I’d talk about. Now I have the life experience.”
That experience is largely in bad relationships and even worse dates. Before he can even continue, he looks over at another table in the coffee shop and realizes that one woman who he never called back after their first date is seated just a few feet away, lowering his voice just a bit.
“I put myself in those situations because I date around a lot. A first date is something awkward and stressful, so you can pull material out of that – things that girls say, things that girls say to you, or that you would say to them or things that you’d do. I think it’s funny to pull things from that,” he noted, reveling in the fact that he can say whatever is on his mind onstage, no matter how inappropriate it would be in public otherwise.
“I get myself into these situations where I’m my own worst enemy. When I’m in the situation, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this terrible. What am I going to do?’ And then when I’m out of the situation, I’m like, ‘You’re an idiot,’ and then I kind of make a joke about it.
“I have this whole joke about going to Planned Parenthood and thinking I have an STD and getting there and how nervous I was and how everyone else was reacting to me, and that was a real thing that happened. I got myself in that situation, and while I was in the situation, I was scared. ‘Oh my God. How am I going to get out of this? I screwed up!’ Then I leave. ‘Oh, you don’t have anything. You’re clean.’ Then I’m like, ‘OK, now I can laugh about it.’”
And so can everyone else as he uses his self-deprecating humor as a therapeutic way to release life’s tensions. Before a gig, he used to shut everyone out, refusing to eat and going over his set at least 20 times, but he has a different perspective after almost nine months of performing.
“At some point, I just realized, right before you get on stage, you’ve just got to push all that stuff away and just hit the stage. For that 10 minutes or 15 or so, you’ve got to be a different guy, and when you get offstage, all those problems are gone now because you pushed them away,” he explained.
“Even though I’m up there talking about bad shit, most of the time I’m kind of trashing myself on stage because I feel like that’s funny because I’m able to look at myself and see mistakes that I’ve made or things that I do that are stupid. I’m pretty self-aware as far as analyzing myself, and I’m in my head a lot, so I feel like that helps. It’s easy to make fun of yourself, but when I get offstage, I’m happy now because I got all that laughter and everything’s good.”
Taking names and numbers
When he’s offstage, Marzitelli also has a few friends to commiserate with, meeting another up-and-coming local comedian, Delmer Von W, on Sundays for “man dates” – no girls allowed.
“An idea will come to my mind or we’ll have a conversation and I’ll say a funny line. I’ll remember that line and then I’ll build the joke backwards. From the funny line, I’ll build the premise. It’s scattered. The one thing I don’t do is what you’re supposed to do, to sit down and write. I just can’t do it anymore. If I sit down and write, it’s like doing homework; I don’t want to do it. I have that slacker mentality. I just show up completely unprepared and just pull something out of my ass while I’m onstage,” he described.
“Probably a month or two before I started comedy, when I was kind of thinking about it, I read an article on Grantland with Eric André and he was talking about how he writes onstage and I’m like, ‘That’s impossible. Who could do that? You could just go up there with nothing and come up with funny stuff?’ At some point, I don’t know when it started, I would say probably three or four months ago, I just decided I could have a premise and I don’t have to beat it to death offstage and try to think of every little thing. I could just come up with a premise with kind of a funny idea and then take it to the stage.
“With writing onstage, it’s immediate. Either they like it or they don’t, and you can tell right away.”
While he’s stopped listening to comedy albums and podcasts so that his jokes remain fresh and completely original, hanging around longtime Scranton funnyman John Walton has helped guide his humor as well, and partnering with another experienced Scranton comedian, Kevin Lepka, has taught him how to book and produce shows, leading to paid gigs in this early part of his career.
“I’m not like, ‘Oh, I’m me and they need to laugh at me because I’m smarter.’ I’m like, ‘What’s going to make them laugh?’” he said of his audiences.
“It’s my job to make these people laugh. That’s what I’m here for. You tell yourself whatever else you want to tell yourself about art and being a creative person – and I totally get that – but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make these people laugh.”
Some comedians spend years bombing before getting better, but Marzitelli said he has only bombed a handful of times, which he believes is due to the fact that he doesn’t just stick to open mics in his comfort zone. When he does take a dive, he learns his lesson, like when he performed in front of a largely black audience in East Stroudsburg for the first time.
“In the first five minutes, I’m killing it. Everyone’s laughing; I had this great feeling. And then I do one of my jokes about me being from Miami and going to the same high school as Trayvon Martin. When people hear that, they’re expecting something really racist, but it’s not; it’s a joke about me with food falling all over the place because I went to the store,” he insisted.
“Right when I said that, everyone just stopped and was staring at me; it was just a dead stare. I’m like, ‘Relax. I know what you’re thinking.’ I finished the joke and I was able to bring like half the audience back, but the other half hated me. I did probably another five minutes – no response. In one set, I went from the best feeling you can get in comedy to the worst.”
He hit an understandable lull after that, but when he received the opportunity to open for New Jersey comedian Rich Vos, known for his hilarious appearances on “Def Comedy Jam” and “Last Comic Standing,” his set not only slayed, but he received a compliment from Vos that has stuck with him since.
He said, ‘I wasn’t as good as you when I was two years in.’ I was like, ‘Two years in? He thinks I’m two years in? Yes!’
“I don’t know what it was, but ever since that show, with every show I’ve had, I’ve had confidence. I go up there and I’m able to get laughs that whole time. It kind of brought me back.”
Currently working in sales, he reads people all day, a skill he’s employed in almost every aspect of his life, including observing a room before taking the stage.
“When I sit down, I read someone right off the bat. Even in basketball with recruiting, I was finding kids that were interested. With girls, a big part of my act is talking about dating. When you’re on a date, it’s the same thing. You have to read them. Is she interested? Why’d she say that that way? I’m in my head a lot, pretty much all day. As I’m talking or doing what I’m doing, there’s a second voice going in my head. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
His personable attitude has even brought hecklers and loudmouths down, particularly one time when a man was hitting on a woman so openly that it interrupted the show and made Marzitelli lose his place.
“I’m just like, ‘Thanks, dude. Thanks a lot. Thanks for making me screw up that joke,’ and everybody started laughing because the whole crowd felt that tension because of this guy talking. I said that and I go, ‘Nah, it’s all right, dude. I get it. You’re just trying to get some pussy. That’s what we’re all trying to do; we’re all out here trying to get some pussy,’ and then he started laughing,” he recalled.
“The girl that he was talking to, her friend was there, so I started hitting on the friend. ‘Oh, her friend’s really cute, though. Come see me after the show.’ So I’m kind of doing the same thing he’s doing, and then that gave me the time to compose myself and get into the set.
“I got her friend’s number after the show, too!”
He stops and apologizes for rambling – he hasn’t slept well in four days, spending more time promoting shows, like his upcoming opening slot for Gilbert Gottfried on Friday, March 6 at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton, than actually performing in them. His passion for comedy supersedes his need for sleep, however.
“The next challenge is producing comedy shows because there’s not enough going on around here. There’s not. What Wise Crackers is doing is awesome. If it wasn’t for [owner] Scott Bruce and Wise Crackers, I would not be doing comedy … and he’s giving everyone in this area an opportunity, but after he gives you the opportunity, you’ve got to go out there and kind of do the rest yourself. That’s kind of how I’ve always been,” he emphasized.
“Even with basketball, I never played basketball. I went to school in Miami – there were no white people on the basketball team. There were no chubby white dudes on the basketball team who couldn’t dribble. I wanted to coach basketball, so I had to do it myself. I had to do research online and educate myself. If someone gives me an opportunity, I’m going to run with it and I’m going to hustle. I think that’s a mindset that comes from living in Miami because everyone’s got that hustler’s mentality.
“I’ve tried to cut corners in comedy. They say it takes five to six years to be a good comic or a great comic. I don’t have five or six years. I can’t take the next five or six years because I’ve already wasted so much time just not doing anything.”
At this point in his life, his options are wide open, and he’s even considering moving to China. His father is working there, and after reading up on it, he found that there’s not only a market for English-speaking comedians there, but a fraction of the competition that he faces back home in the States.
“I need to just keep pushing ahead. I can’t ever get stagnant,” he said. “Every time I get comfortable, I just need to push on to that next level.”
Even though he’s left basketball far behind, he can’t help but use it as a metaphor just one more time to describe that remarkable feeling that has kept his head in this new game of competitive comedy.
“The feeling that you get from it, there’s nothing else like it. The only thing I can compare it to is after a game that you won, a close, tight game at the end, you win on a buzzer beater and that burst of emotion. But that’s shared between 15 players and five coaches and the team manager and the medical staff and everybody. It’s just you up there onstage; nobody can help you out. It’s just you,” he pointed out.
“The first time I really killed it, I was just in my car and I was in a daze. I couldn’t even contain it. That whole night, I didn’t sleep. The feeling is addictive. It’s better than sex. It’s better than drugs. It’s better than alcohol. I don’t know if I could walk away, so that’s why I’ve got to make it. I’ve got to just get through it. I’ve got to succeed.”
Photos by Robb Malloy/NEPA Scene
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.