Big Tony Esposito may sound like he’s straight off The Sopranos but in reality, the family man divides his time between stand up gigs on cruise ships and stages on dry land. With an Italian and Southern background, he’s got enough fodder for all the family-dinners-gone-wrong-jokes you can handle – whether they are fried chicken or lasagna-based. Esposito has been using humor to combat the critics since his days as the big kid on the playground, and now he’s headlining at Bonkerz Comedy Club at Palace Station.
What is it about Orlando? So many comedians I’ve spoken with lately hail from Orlando.
Joe Sanfelippo from Bonkerz lives in Orlando, so if you’re a Florida comic, you have to come through Orlando. You have to go and work for Joe at least a couple times a year. And we have the weather and no state tax. There are a lot of draws to living in Florida.
Did you use humor as an outlet to answer back to children’s mean remarks when you were growing up?
I was a big kid. I’ve been a big kid my whole life. So yes, I had to use humor to combat that. When you see my show, the first half of the show is all weight-related humor because I’m a big boy. Humor was definitely an outlet for me.
There weren’t too many popular Southern-themed comedians like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable guy when you were getting into the business. Did your family fear you were getting into a risky venture?
Oh yeah, always. My mom and my grandfather were always really supportive. I could have told my mom I was going to be a bank robber and she would have said, “Oh, you’ll be the best bank robber ever!” … Most of the people told me there was no money in this and I would have to move out to LA. It was a long road. I thought about quitting several times, but something would always pop up and I would make a little more money and keep going.
Having both a Southern and Italian background must be a dynamite combination for stand up material. Do you draw roughly equally from both?
I draw a lot from my family. I’m not your typical Southern comic like Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy. My mom grew up in South Alabama, so that is as Southern as it gets. I do draw from them both pretty equally. I don’t tell a lot of one-liners; I kind of tell stories and let people draw parallels. I think that kind of thing makes you more memorable when people can relate to you. My act is like one big story.
Do you notice any differences between the audiences on cruise ships verses those at comedy clubs?
The cruise ship crowd is an easier crowd because they’re on vacation, so they’re having fun anyway. They’re drunk and they’re going to go wherever the cruise director tells them to go. My show isn’t nearly as raw on the ship as it is in a comedy club. You have to remember these people were told to go to a comedy show; they’re not your usual comedy club crowd. So I stay away from things that would easily alienate or offend people like politics or religion.
Which do you prefer?
I prefer a comedy club because most comics hate restrictions. I want to be able to say what I want and do what I want on stage. I don’t get that raw and I’m not a mean comic, but you love to be able to get up there and have the freedom to do what you want.
Which comedians really crack you up?
Right now, some of my favorite guys are some of the quirkier guys. I love Chapelle; he’s a genius. I love Jim Gaffigan, Zach Galifinakis and Mike Birbiglia. My hero is Edide Murphy. When I was a kid, I used to sneak Raw into my bedroom and Delirious. To me, Delirious is the funniest hour and a half of stand up I’ve ever heard. Eddie Murphy was the person who made me want to be a comic.
What do you like to do when you’re in Vegas?
I’m a big UFC fan, so when I got the gig I was hoping it was the same weekend as UFC 100. I think I would have gotten a mysterious illness that Saturday night. I’m a Vegas junkie. If I lived in Las Vegas, I would be as broke as a joke because I love to eat and I love to gamble. We’re purposefully coming a day early and leaving a day late so we can catch a few shows like Mystere and I might go see Love again. We’re big Cirque nuts. I’m a steakhouse nut. We’re definitely going to go check out the Mario Batali restaurants over at the Venetian. I can’t wait to get to Vegas, because I have a ton of Michael Jackson jokes I’ve been dying to tell.