I love a good laugh, and these days we all need something to lighten things up a bit. Megan Chialastri is a comedian who has performed around the city at places like Punchline Philly, the Tax Free Comedy Festival, and Philly Improv Theater. Chialastri has served as a producer and host of the open mic night at Fergie’s Pub and is a producer and host of the Be There Fest, previously known as the Bechdel Test Fest. In addition to standup, Chialastri teaches improv when not sequestered indoors.
So, I’ve never heard your last name before. Do you know the origins?
I do! My last name is Italian. My family is from a little town outside of Rome called Cave. It’s spelled Cave, but they pronounce it Cah-ve.
The name Megan came as a switch-up. I was supposed to be named Lauren, but after I came out, my mother said, “That’s not a Lauren,” and they changed my name to Megan.
Tell me about the family? Big Italian family or small clan?
Last I checked it was a small family, but I’m not really in contact with them.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in New Jersey, right outside of Atlantic City, in a small town called Absecon. It’s a really rural community, and I grew up in a really religious household. We were super active in the Catholic church. It was a pretty standard upbringing.
Were you always a funny person?
I think so. I was named “Funniest in the Class” in my eighth-grade yearbook. I always liked making people laugh and being on stage and performing.
Were you a theater kid?
I thought so at the time, but now that I’m friends with people who are real theater people, I’m realizing that maybe I wasn’t as much of a theater person as I thought I was. I think I was involved as part of the stage crew, and I also did some directing when I was in high school more than I was actually performing. When you are in a small town, being involved in theater means being involved in musicals, and I don’t think anyone deserved to be forced to hear me sing. It would not have been pretty.
Did you go on to higher learning?
I did; I went to Temple University.
What does one study to become a comedian?
[Laughing] Actually, my major was political science.
Well, politics are definitely a joke these days. What made you choose political science?
I was very involved with our Democratic student group in college. It was pretty much the first club I stumbled upon, and I got hooked. I started college in 2007, so I got caught up in the Obama fervor.
When did you start to switch from politics to performance?
I stopped working in politics in 2012. I’d done a lot of work with the Obama campaign and was getting really, really burned out. I decided the field wasn’t for me and started doing some office administrative type jobs. At the same time, for fun, I started taking improv classes.
And that’s all she wrote. What was the hardest thing to try to master when you started?
I think that the hardest part then and it still is, is that you know you want to be funny, but — especially with improv — the harder someone is trying to be funny, typically, the less funny you actually are! It’s a weird hurdle to get over.
Do you do mostly improv and/or have you done standup too?
I do mostly standup now. I started out doing improv and still teach it, but I mostly do stand up. I’ve always leaned more toward standup, even when I took my first improv class, I always knew I wanted it to lead to standup. I mostly did improv as a way of learning how to be more comfortable on stage.
What was your first professional standup gig?
It was at a show called “Broad Humor,” which was at Dirty Franks and… no, I’m lying, it was at a place called Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philly. They’ve recently moved the show to Dirty Franks on Pine Street. But Ray’s was the first standup gig I ever got booked for. The same booker hired me to headline the show at Dirty Franks in March, and it was the last show I did before the world shut down.
I’ve performed and been in front of a crowd, but I’ve never done standup. What was it like the first time you went on stage?
It’s always nerve-racking! I’d done some open mics, but it’s not the same as when people are paying to see you. The booker, Cat Moseley, had seen some of my open mic sets. She reached out to me and said, “OK, I’ve seen you do 5-minute sets. I want to see what you do with 10 minutes!” My initial thoughts were, “Oh, nooooo.” I wasn’t sure I could keep people laughing for an entire 10 minutes!
What was your first routine about?
I wish I could remember which comic gave me this advice, but for my first set, it was always about introducing myself. It was all about the queer experience, plus at the time, I think I was the only nonbinary comic around doing standup, so there was a lot in my set about those experiences as well.
Can you remember some of what you said?
Now? Oh no! You’re killing me! I’ve been cooped up and unemployed and don’t think I’ve had a critical thought in over two weeks!
I hear you.
OK. I’ll try to think back to before the world changed three weeks ago. When I first came out as trans nonbinary while I was doing standup, it was an anxiety-inducing experience on its own, never mind playing it out on stage in front of a room full of people. I’d come out as queer 11 years ago, and I felt like I had to reintroduce myself to everyone.
How old are you now?
I’m currently 31, so it was in my 20s. I’d been part of a large queer friend group and was part of the Queer Student Union before I identified as queer myself. I was one of those people who always kind of knew, but didn’t know at the same time somehow — probably having something to do with the severe Catholic upbringing.
What was your coming out story?
It was definitely a personal journey I had to go on. As I said, I always kind of knew, and I was around a lot of queer folks, but I never came out to them. Even before I came out as nonbinary, I never really thought about gender and never really thought like I had one. I just felt like it didn’t need to be a thing. [Laughing] Turns out it did! Growing up, it needed to be a thing.
Well, I was always a tomboy. But I was sort of thrust into a world of feminine things. I remember in high school, all my female friends loving to get all dolled up to go to parties, and I was always like, “What? Why? Who the f–k is this for? We’re just going to Dana’s house!” Now with retrospect and a little bit of therapy, I realize that unlike me, they actually enjoyed dressing up! For me, it felt like I was putting on a weird costume.
If you were one of the first performers to start publicly identifying as nonbinary, that must have been difficult to impart at times.
Oh yeah, I think the most difficult was people trying to grapple with the grammar, especially figuring out how to use the singular “they,” — not being able to say he or she, they’d come up with sentences like, “They is funny.” Uh, nope. Don’t overthink it, people.
So as a standup comedian, have you ever gone on stage and totally bombed?
Of course, I don’t think you can be a comedian and not have bombed at least once. I’d been working on a new joke about ancestry DNA tests and how I don’t like them. People really responded to the joke at open mics, but then I was hired to do a show at Tattooed Moms, and I decided to open with it. The joke has a real big energy start that usually works, but that night there were just crickets. Of course that was the night I paid someone to come and record the show for me, and I was given a 15-minute set. Thankfully I had another solid 12 minutes of material and was able to dig myself out.
Do you remember what the joke was?
Oh God, I haven’t told it since it bombed! It was something about not needing to pay for 23 and Me to know that I’m box wine drinking, white trash, and enjoy it. You can see why that one when into the circular file.
Let’s do some random questions. Worst pick up line or bad date?
I once went on a date where a boy took me to church and had me sit with the preacher’s wife, who told me what I needed to expect when this boy was my husband and a preacher, and all the responsibilities that it would entail.
What’s the most trouble you got into in school?
When I was in high school, my friend made a fake Myspace account for our Disciplinarian, it was a Catholic School, and she was a nun. He made a comment on my page, and because our administration did not understand how MySpace worked, I got suspended for three days.
Have you had a fellow comic tell you a joke or routine where you were just like, “No, dude, no.”
I wish I had said it! Normally, if something like that happens, I catch the eye of other queer comics, and we give “looks.” It can be tricky for new comics. Ss an open-mic host, sometimes I do have to point out that a joke was terrible and offensive and to stop. I also see a lot of more established comics try a joke and realize while it’s happening that it’s not their joke to tell. It’s a process, and I’ve seen a lot of people grow and meet new people and expand their worldview in comedy, myself included. I’m not sure its possible to do standup and not at some point say something into a mic that makes someone go “yikes.”
What is the best thing about being a grown-up?
Eating mac and cheese in bed, where there is a TV in my room. It’s truly the dream.
What historical figure do you most identify with and why?
Whenever I do any sort of personality test, like a Myers and Briggs, or do my zodiac chart, it always, without fail, comes up that I have the same personality as Abraham Lincoln.
That’s hysterical! What name would you never give your child?
I would never give my child any name. I have no plans to have children. If I ever find myself with a child I am responsible for naming, several things have gone awry.
Do you have a recurring dream?
Not exactly recurring, but I frequently have dreams that something is flooding or that I’m sinking or in another way about to drown. I’m sure it has nothing to do with my anxiety disorder.
What was your favorite childhood snack or candy?
For candy it was Kit Kat bars and salty was chips and mild salsa. They remain the same, except I get spicier salsa now. I can get wild and pick that medium jar.
What actor should play your life story?
Shailene Woodley and Kieran Culkin should have a baby. I would cast that baby in my biopic. We would film it “Boyhood” style.
What is your current state of mind?
As of writing this, I am currently on day 24 of not leaving my house, so this is quite the question. I’m currently a little stir crazy while looking for moments of optimism.
So what have you been doing to keep sane during the isolation of COVID-19?
I have roommates and a partner, so I’m not by myself, which is nice, though it can get a little tiresome, “Oh I see you’re playing the same video game again…all day, that’s great.” But overall, it’s good to have other people here. And I’ve been watching a lot of live streams to keep entertained. I used to run the open mic at Fergie’s Pub, and we’ve moved to a virtual open mic, which has been super fun. I’d left running the show to focus on performing, but now I’ve shifted focus to finishing the 1,000 piece puzzle on my floor.
For more information, visit https://www.meganchialastri.com/