- Luke Awtry
- Julia DiFerdinando
Julia DiFerdinando first realized she was funny at age 7 when someone asked her the following: "What's the hardest thing you've had to accomplish?" She didn't answer with learning how to ride a bike, tread water or do a cartwheel. The young South Burlingtonian's toughest challenge? Learning how to draw a frog.
The query was part of a brief questionnaire for kids participating in an April Cornell charity fashion show, the answers to which would be announced as the participants walked the runway. And when the 7-year-old took her turn and the question and answer were read aloud, the audience burst into laughter.
"I started crying," DiFerdinando recalls while munching her favorite food, a corn dog, at Burlington's St. Paul Street Gastrogrub. Scared and confused by the audience's reaction, she ran away in horror. But her dad later explained that the crowd's laughter was a good thing because her answer was genuinely funny.
"From then on, I knew I wanted to make people laugh," she says. "Plus, I kept trying to audition for serious roles in college and I just kept getting [cast as] the funny old aunt."
DiFerdinando, 30, recently returned to her home state after spending seven years living in Chicago. There, she worked her way through the comedy mecca Second City. After putting in time as an intern, admin, teacher, workshop leader, and performer on house improv teams and touring companies, the writer, actor and comedian decided to come home, catch her breath and regroup.
Though she had pondered a move to Los Angeles, DiFerdinando is instead staying put — namely because she's become the Vermont Comedy Club's first-ever creative director. In that role, she plans to invigorate the theater's educational as well as onstage offerings. In doing so, she hopes to extend the club's reach into the local community and beyond.
"Vermont is full of smart people, and smart people make great comedians," says DiFerdinando. "I'm really excited to expand the [VCC's class] curriculum and really see what local talent we have."
Any comedian will tell you that timing is everything. Had it not been for her sister's wedding last September, DiFerdinando might not have come back to Vermont at all. But possibilities in Chicago were drying up, as she had ascended as high as she could go within Second City.
"The thing I wasn't good at was the schmoozing," she admits. Her notion that talent and hard work should speak for themselves proved untrue in many professional settings.
"I felt grimy trying to be friends with producers to get things," DiFerdinando says. "I'd rather just audition. But that's really just not how it works. It doesn't matter how hard you worked, because no one worked harder than me."
Even the cushy and lucrative life as a cruise-ship improv performer, which DiFerdinando describes as "sweet and awful," lost its appeal after a few tours. Indeed, things weren't going the way she'd hoped.
"At some point, you want to start living your life," she says.
After returning to Vermont — which at first she thought was temporary — DiFerdinando mounted a one-night variety show at the VCC last July. Before she split for Chicago in 2011, she was a colleague of club proprietors Natalie Miller and Nathan Hartswick, who then were operating the comedy incubator Spark Arts. Upon DiFerdinando's return in 2018, they saw an opportunity.
"We knew there were areas we eventually wanted to focus on," Miller and Hartswick write in a joint email to Seven Days, noting summer camps and corporate workshops as potential areas of expansion. "But we simply didn't have the time or resources to chase that stuff. We also didn't want to hire someone unless they were the right person."
What makes DiFerdinando the right person? Miller and Hartswick refer to her as "fearless," "goofy" and "incredibly supportive of others onstage," and they note that she "doesn't take any shit — onstage or off."
Neither do her characters, several of whom you can meet through videos on her website. "Chicago Hooker," a foul-mouthed, sex-positive woman of the night, is formidable, to say the least. "Gina" is a New Jersey-bred loudmouth and self-proclaimed woman hater. But throughout the five-minute clip, Gina describes and reenacts a series of events that make her a little more sympathetic to the sisterhood.
Though she's likely birthed thousands of characters in her years as an improviser, DiFerdinando shines as a heightened version of herself in the web series "The Coat Room," which she wrote. Her most ambitious project to date, the seven-part saga introduces us to Julia, a lingerie-clad woman hell-bent on having an ill-advised tryst with her crush in the coatroom at her cousin's graduation party. It's sweet, sad and hilarious, and it won DiFerdinando Best Actress honors at the 2018 London Short Series Festival.
In the series, friends come one by one to retrieve their coats from the softly lit bedroom, and all of them offer opinions on Julia's crisis.
"Anyone can be funny," series director C.J. Arellano says via phone. "But [DiFerdinando] really brings this humanity and empathy with everything she writes. It always starts with something so mundane and relatable that you would not even think that comedy could be derived from it."
Speaking of mundane, DiFerdinando hopes to bring the spirit of improv to corporate settings. Through specialized workshops, improvisers will help professionals learn the "yes, and" approach to creative problem solving.
"We've found so many connections between creative thinking in brainstorming sessions and how it's very valuable in business," DiFerdinando says. "We start with the principles of improv and how they relate to business. Once everyone kind of lets their guards down, even just the act of realizing [it's] OK to fail — that's a huge thing."
Another big project on the horizon is a still-untitled sketch-comedy revue set for a three-weekend July run at the VCC. Auditions will be open to the public in May, and the cast will collaboratively write and perfect the sketches over a two-month period.
"We're hoping that it's a Vermont-centric, local sketch show that'll appeal to everybody — tourists and locals alike," she says.
DiFerdinando seems to have a fearless approach to everything she does. Whether she's delivering a painfully honest standup set about her boyfriend's "abilities" or posing half-naked on a bed for the duration of a web series, the comedian has found a way of silencing her inner critic. And that's a huge plus in the comedy world.
"Nobody knows about failure more than comedians," DiFerdinando says. "I always say to my students, 'The only reason I'm up here and you're there is because I've failed more times than you've tried.'"