James Robilotta Breaks the Pattern of Normal Life With Comedy


Published: September 24, 2009

When James Robilotta left Long Island to attend the University of North Carolina Wilmington, he pictured himself graduating as a marine biologist who would go on to be the next Jacques Cousteau. However, after his professors told him to take his studies more seriously when he handed in lab reports written in colloquial English, he decided that he was too much of an extrovert to spend his life working in the field of science.

Today, Robilotta works full time as the Resident Director for Freshman Students at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) and is a stand-up comedian and improvisational actor on the side. For him, this is the perfect combination of a life in New York City, where he can pursue his dream of one day appearing on Saturday Night Live while being fully involved in student affairs.

As I began to interview Robilotta while he sipped on his chai iced latte, he told me that the comical spark in his life began when he was a kid. His parents raised him watching footage of The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Rodney Dangerfield. “I have a hysterical family,” Robilotta said. “None of them are in comedy but ever since I started doing comedy they are all like, ‘Oh! Here’s something you can use in your routine.’ They’ve always encouraged me; they’ve always told me that I was really funny.”

His acting career began in middle school with his participation in school plays, and during his sophomore year of college, influence by Brian Regan led him to his first attempt at stand-up comedy at one of Wilmington’s Open Mic Nights. When asked about this first performance, Robilotta said, “I tried it, failed miserably and bombed it like a champion. I started using other people’s jokes. I was like, ‘My jokes are not working! What are other jokes that I’ve memorized?’ It was the first and last time I did that, but it got me through the set.”

It took one year for Robilotta to build up the courage to go back on stage. However, everything went uphill from there, and during his senior year of college, he was crowned champion at Wilmington’s “Last Seahawk Standing,” a spin to NBC’s series, “Last Comic Standing.”

After graduating and deciding he was not cut out to spend his life doing research in a lab, Robilotta went to Clemson University in South Carolina to attain his graduate degree in Higher Education Counseling. It was here where his career in the performing arts began to climb.

“Clemson is like just past the third farm on the left in South Carolina, Middle of Nowhere, but for some reason, there was a comedy club there,” Robilotta said.

He quickly befriended the club owner who immensely encouraged him and allowed him to perform there every week. In addition, Robilotta would open for the improvisation troupe he was also part of, Mock Turtle Soup.

This pattern went on through his years at graduate school, and upon receiving his diploma, Robilotta packed his bags and returned north to New York where he was able to find a job that both put his graduate degree into use and allowed him to pursue his passion on the side.

Despite the fact that according to Robilotta, becoming a working comedian in New York is “extremely difficult,” a year after his arrival in the Big Apple, Robilotta joined Froduce, an improv comedy troupe with whom he has performed 70 to 80 times all over the city including at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (UCBT) in Chelsea.

Around February 2009, Robilotta created North Coast, an improv team that combines freestyle rapping and beat boxing with long-form improvisation, which, contrary to short-form improvisation, consists of developing characters and plot in order to produce a type of story-based performance. He refers to North Coast as his “brain child.”

As for the material that builds up his stand-up acts, Robilotta said that it derives from occurrences in his daily life.

“ I am more of an observational humorist so if I see something, I’ll try to write it down and I’ll be like, ‘That was ridiculous!’” Robilotta said. Moreover, when  asked if any of these occurrences were Fordham-related, he said, “Surprisingly, no. I wish they were. I need to figure out a way to get more of them because I would say my tragic flaw as a comedian is that I don’t write enough down.”

Aside from his work in acting and comedy, Robilotta is starting to do some work as a motivational speaker, which, he said, “bridges the gap between student affairs and comedy.” After the reassurance from a couple of successful experiences in the field, Robilotta sees himself pursuing this career full-time which would allow him time to write for his individual stand-up acts on the side.

In regard to his responsibilities as a Resident Director and handling freshmen students, Robilotta said, “Do I see every event as a tragedy that immediately needs to be handled and we need to run around like chickens with our heads cut off? No. With a few exceptions there is nothing that serious. I am a firm believer in comic strength, and I think I have the ability to handle a lot of situations because of my laid-back nature.”

For this freshmen R.D. at FCLC’s McMahon Hall, comedy is “nothing more than something that broke the pattern of normal life,” and to aspiring comedians at Fordham, he says, “Stick with it. You’re funny.”