Chris Topher Conquers His Tragic Past and Miami's Standup Circuit
Photo by Ernesto Sempoll
For a moment, it looks like the standup comedian is about to cry. From behind thick black glasses, he peers out -- pupils contracted by the glare -- at the roomful of strangers and says nothing. Then he turns away from the crowd and pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. The audience shifts uneasily like a murmuration of starlings. The comedian turns again toward the light, stumbles through another joke, and then falls back into silence. Boos ripple the room like bird caws in a forest.
And just like that, contestant number five's night is over.
The West Palm Beach Improv could scarcely be farther from the bright lights of Los Angeles or New York City, but its stage is nonetheless unforgiving. The tiny triangular wedge of black carpet has been worn thin by big-time comics. And unlike open-mike night at your neighborhood bar, there's no curtain here offering a quick escape -- just a wall of brick with gold block letters that spell out the first and only commandment of comedy: IMPROV.
Tonight, 19 comics are braving the stage for two spots in the Florida's Funniest semifinals later this month. For local comedians surviving on SpaghettiOs and scraps of stage time, winning the contest is an instant career shortcut. The champion will get a coveted ten-week standup tour around the Sunshine State. Most important, he or she will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to L.A. to try out in front of Hollywood talent scouts.
Three more comics climb the stage in quick succession. They mock their children, their fathers, their wives -- whatever it takes to coax a laugh. Then they disappear into the darkness, order a drink, and pray to hear their name again at the end of the night.
Every five minutes, the faces onstage switch like clockwork. The only hiccup comes halfway through the event, when it's time for comedian number nine.
"Give it up for our next comic coming to the stage," the MC booms from his perch at the back of the cavernous room, "the very funny Mr. Chris Topher!"
As Pharrell Williams' voice croons about getting lucky, the crowd returns its attention to the black riser. But the spotlight is empty. Instead, to the left of the platform, two security guards struggle to lift something onto the stage. Their broad backs eventually part to reveal a handsome, scruffy white dude in jeans and a short-sleeved dress shirt.
And a wheelchair.
Topher grabs the mike with one hand and guides himself to the center of the stage with the other.
"I know what you guys are thinking," he says calmly. "Why the hell does this guy wear shoes?"
The audience chuckles uncomfortably, unsure if it's all right to laugh. Then Topher's face breaks into a broad grin. "Just trying to fit in," he says, suddenly switching to a Pinocchio falsetto. "Like a reeeal boy!"
In an occupation that demands oversharing, Topher risks far more than most. Instead of the usual gags about dead-end jobs and unhappy marriages, his comedy inevitably doubles back to his disability. Listen closely to Topher's skits and you glean a life story like something out of a Dickens novel: a hardscrabble childhood, a scandalous adolescence, and a horrific incident. His jokes aren't dark; they're blackened to a crisp.
Yet Topher isn't just funny. He's hilarious. In three years, he's gone from taking comedy classes to opening for Carlos Mencia. Tonight, the other comics consider him a favorite to advance to the semifinals, if not win the whole thing.
But like any good joke, the story is more complicated than it seems. For Topher, comedy isn't just about acceptance -- it's also about control. By day, he's a straight-faced, successful businessman; by night, a foulmouthed Bacchus. He works hard to keep the two lives separate. The higher he climbs on the Florida comedy scene, however, the harder that becomes.
"My biggest fear has always been that a YouTube video would get out and my professional world and comedy world would collide," he says. "That could fuck everything up."
Attend one of Topher's shows and you're sure to hear one of several stories about how he came to be paralyzed from the chest down.
"When I was a kid, I tried to rob a liquor store and I ended up getting shot in the spinal cord," he usually says early in his set. "It's fucking stupid, right? Who the hell tries to rob a liquor store in a wheelchair?
"Gimme the money, motherfucker!" he sneers in a gangster impression before politely asking, "Will you hold that door for me, please?"
In another version, Topher says he was attacked by midgets after dressing up as King Kong terrorizing their town. "I'd put on a gorilla suit, grab the girl, and climb up one of their little houses," he says, pounding his chest with the microphone and snarling. "Karma got me."
Some of the stories are plausible. Others are absurd. Not one of them is true.
That's because the truth about Topher's injury isn't funny. It's too dark to tell strangers who just want to drink and be entertained. But it's there, behind every joke, like the silhouette on the stage curtain behind him.
Chris was born in Queens in the summer of '77, when "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz stalked New York City. One of Chris' earliest memories is of his parents sitting him down and telling him they were getting a divorce. His mother was a pretty stay-at-home mom. His father was a good-looking Wall Street trader. But he was also a "good-time Charlie," Chris says, who partied harder than he worked. When he moved to Manhattan, he promised to visit and send money. But the checks and the visits quickly ran out.
Topher as a child.
Photo courtesy of Chris Topher
"We were on food stamps and all that shit," Chris remembers. "My mom would be on the phone with him every week crying and telling him to send money. He just wouldn't do it."
His mother's situation was desperate. Chris' younger sister was only 6 months old when their dad left. His older brother had what would later be diagnosed as Asperger syndrome. "He was in fights every day," Chris remembers.
Chris saw his sibling suffering and vowed to fit in. For a while, the brothers delivered newspapers and scoured dumpsters for aluminum cans to help his mother, who had begun driving a cab. But Chris eventually began spending less time with his outcast brother and more time with older kids, most of whom were in gangs.
Chris fell in with a group called KAC, which originally stood for "Keith Angel's Children" after the gang's five-foot-tall and fully insane leader, but other times it meant "Kill All Cops" or "Killing and Chilling." Whatever its name, the gang provided a teenage Chris with protection and camaraderie.
"You were either down with a crew, or you were just nobody. You were a chump," he says.
Most kids were jumped into the gang. As a baby-faced 13-year-old, Chris somehow escaped the brutal initiation. But he was first in line to go bombing -- hanging by his hands from highway overpasses just to spray "KAC" and his own tag, "RM," on the concrete canvas. Long before he'd ever take the stage, his name was already up all over New York City.
"The girls see your name everywhere," Chris says. "It was just about getting pussy."
Chris was tall, handsome, and charming, recalls childhood friend Jason Drucker. He met Chris at a junior high school dance. "You remember that dance move Kid 'n Play used to do where they'd hold their left foot with their right hand and jump over their own leg?" Drucker says. "He was the only white dude in his group of friends, and that's what he was doing."
Besides dancing and tagging, there was one other way to make a name for yourself in a tough neighborhood: bloodshed. Occasionally, one gang would catch another buffing its tags and a graffiti battle would turn into the real thing.
Worst of all was the random violence. You'd turn a corner and find kids sporting freshly sharpened machetes, Chris claims. As a precaution, he wore a baggy Starter jacket bulging with a small arsenal: pepper spray, a BB gun, a knife, and -- his personal favorite -- a pipe that unscrewed into nunchucks.
But on the afternoon of September 17, 1992, Chris was unarmed when he walked out of George J. Ryan Middle School and headed to the corner store. When he returned, a half-dozen kids he had never seen before were waiting for him.
Chris tried to run, but they caught him. He punched one kid, but several others knocked him to the ground. He had been here before -- on the wrong end of an ass-kicking -- and he waited for the wet thuds of fists to his face to end. Instead, he saw the flash of a machete, felt it thwack deep into his side. Then everything went numb.
Chris lay on the sidewalk in front of his school and watched his own blood slowly seep past him. He thought how strange it was to die this way, 15 years old, with his side carved open like a Christmas turkey and all of his friends standing over him.
(New Times wasn't able to obtain any New York police reports about the attack, but Topher's story is corroborated by Drucker and the huge scars Topher still bears.)
In the ER, doctors sewed his side back together with 130 stitches. But as they cut his blood-soaked clothes off, they noticed something else: a small hole in his back that was barely bleeding.
One of the kids had stabbed Chris with a knife or a screwdriver, severing his spinal cord. Doctors told the 15-year-old he would never walk again.
His mother took it worst. She sat beside him in the hospital for six months and then watched her son slip right back into the street life.
But things were different now. Chris couldn't tag overpasses or sling nunchucks. What he could do, however, was sell pot. An older gang member gave him some to start off. His family was broke, yeah, but this was about finding a place to belong.
"I wanted to have a reason to be at these parties with my friends," he says. "I'm in a wheelchair. I'm not dancing. What do I have to do? So I start selling."
When it came to dealing, the wheelchair was actually an advantage, Drucker says. Cops were loath to strip-search his handicapped friend, and Chris was instantly recognizable to clients. But he was also an easy target for nightclub bouncers and neighborhood muggers. And his family couldn't ignore his new hobby forever. Chris was only 15 but had grown men coming up to his room day and night "to borrow cassette tapes," he says.
His mother had enough after he was nearly expelled. She decided the family would move back to her hometown in rural Maryland. At the last moment, however, Chris decided he wasn't going. He promised his mother he'd quit selling pot. In fact, he already had a plan.
For years he had watched friends skip school and pile into cars headed into Manhattan. He heard how they made serious money selling stocks on Wall Street. Chris figured he already knew more about sales than anyone -- he just needed to switch merchandise.
He bought a beat-up Pontiac LeMans hatchback for $100. It was painted with primer, and the windshield read HELP in block letters. Inside, every square inch was covered in graffiti.
Chris drove the jalopy to Wall Street and began selling stocks when he was 17. It wasn't much different from slinging dope, except now his clients were all over the world. He'd stay until 2 a.m. to trade with clients in the Middle East. "His favorite thing to do was to be the last person there," remembers Drucker, who worked alongside his friend on Wall Street. "He said it was the most satisfying feeling: that he outworked everyone else."
Six months passed before his dad realized Chris was working across the street from him. By then, Chris was making six figures. He had a new Mercedes. He had survived a horrific assault. And he had escaped the streets.
But something was still missing.
In an industry where first impressions are everything, Chris Topher can't help but make an entrance. Tonight, he is hoisted -- beer in hand -- onto the stage of the Funky Buddha in Boca Raton. Aromas of hops and hookah smoke swirl around the small brewery on North Federal Highway. A few dozen college students clinging to the back wall pull tobacco vapor into their lungs only to cough it back out in alcohol-fueled fits of laughter.
"Some people think I'm creepy because I've been dating this 19-year-old alcoholic girl," Topher says midway through his set. "But it's cool. That's how we met. The first day I met this girl, we agreed that I'd be her sponsor.
"So anytime she gets the urge," he says, pausing, "I pay for her drinks."
Laughter ripples the room. "I feel like she's using me, though," Topher continues, "for the parking."
Topher as a teenager shortly before he was paralyzed.
Photo courtesy of Chris Topher
And then, in a subtle pivot, he turns the audience's pity around on them. "I don't know why," he says. "I think 'cause I'm paralyzed, but the only way it's possible for me to have sex with this girl is if I take a pill like an hour ahead of time..."
Silence. "And crush it up in her ice cream."
Suddenly, a sad handicap joke has become a deeply uncomfortable sex joke. The college kids can't stop laughing. When Topher leaves the stage five minutes later, he's drenched in sweat and applause. Strangers and comedians both compliment him on his set.
"I heard you killed it tonight!" says comic Casey Peruski, a Louis CK look-alike with a shaved head and scruffy goatee.
Three years earlier, the Funky Buddha was the scene of Topher's disastrous debut in standup. Since then, he's gone from nearly failing comedy classes to regularly owning crowded rooms. Along the way, he's learned to turn his life's tragedy into material.
"The comics who talk about their lives are the ones who resonate with people," says Franco Harris, another Funky Buddha performer. "Nobody can go around and talk about Chris Topher in a wheelchair. That's his story."
But Topher's comedy career cuts against cliché. While most comics are waiting for their big break, he's already made it as a businessman. For him, standup success could actually cost him everything he's built.
For years, Topher was too busy making money on Wall Street to think about comedy. He moved from sales to trading to money managing. He started financial consulting and publishing companies. He built his brand, just as he had on the streets of Queens.
New York City winters were nightmarish in his wheelchair, though, so Topher began spending half the year in South Florida. He moved here permanently after meeting a pretty young nurse visiting Miami from Michigan. Chris was goofy and charming; she was serious but sweet. They began dating, married, and eventually bought a half-million-dollar house in Coral Springs in 2005.
But Topher admits he was much like his dad; he too struggled with alcohol, and a settled family life wasn't easy for him to accept. "I told her I'd like to have kids and everything but I'm not the guy," he says. "I like to go out, and I like to stay out. I can't be having someone asking me where I was."
The couple had two kids together, now 5 and 8 years old. But like his dad, Topher worked late and drank later, and despite his financial success, he felt something was off. He had only a handful of friends, most of them transplants from New York. He missed being at the center of things, whether it was a street gang or the stock market.
"I'm friends with people at Fox News and shit," he says, "and now I'm onstage telling abortion jokes?"
One day, after agreeing to host a weekend-long investment seminar, he realized he didn't know a thing about public speaking. Comedy, he thought, could loosen him up. Without telling his wife, he enrolled at the Miami Improv. Once a week he drove the two hours from his office in Delray Beach to Coconut Grove.
For ten weeks, he secretly jotted down joke ideas on his phone and practiced his delivery on the drive to work. A few days before the show that marked his last class, he finally told his wife.
"I'm going to talk shit about you, and I didn't want you to think that I mean any of it," he said. "It's just because I don't have anything else to say."
"Wait, back up," she replied. "You've been taking comedy classes?"
"She was offended," Topher says. On graduation night, Topher slowly wheeled himself into the spotlight for the first time. The room was packed with family members dutifully supporting the other students in what promised to be their most embarrassing moments. Topher decided to dive right into his darkest material. "I know what you're thinking," he said. "Does my dick still work?"
Things went downhill from there. Topher was so nervous that he rocked back and forth, wrapping the mike cord around his wheelchair and pulling the mike lower and lower until he was leaning awkwardly to one side. He also missed his cue and stayed onstage nearly ten minutes too long.
When he finally left, Topher's endorphins were doused by the sight of his wife, whom he hadn't expected to come. She was sitting with two friends and didn't look impressed. "That was the last time she came and saw me," Topher says soberly.
It was a rough start, but Topher didn't think twice about quitting. "The way we grew up, if there is a problem, you just go and face it. Like getting jumped into a gang," he says.
A week later, Topher showed up at the Funky Buddha for his first true tilt at standup. It wasn't much easier than his graduation. When he opened with the same dick joke, a drunk dude in a pink bandanna shouted, "No, it doesn't!"
"He kept yelling, 'Whip it out!'" Topher says. He had no idea how to react, so he just kept on with his routine. "I wish I would get heckled by that guy today. He was wearing a pink bandanna trying to heckle me, for fuck's sake."
And despite the inauspicious start, Topher was hooked. When people laughed, he felt a head rush. When he bombed, he felt an equal -- if sickening -- buzz. Either way, standup made him feel more alive than he had since he was hanging from highway overpasses and tagging Gotham with his graffiti.
But as Topher began diving into the local comedy scene, driving hundreds of miles to weekday open mikes from South Miami to West Palm Beach, he quickly hit two roadblocks.
He made serious money in his day job, rubbing shoulders with Wall Street whales and selling stock-market advice to home traders across the country. Yet here he was onstage telling filthy jokes to tiny crowds. "I'm friends with people at Fox News and shit," he says, "and now I'm onstage telling abortion jokes?"
Topher and Casey Peruski at the West Palm Beach Improv in October.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
Topher may live in a big house and drive a silver luxury sedan, but he says he can't be too careful. His disability means he could have to pay millions in medical costs later in life. "I'm not going to do anything to fuck with my money," he says. "I have to send my kids to college."
So Topher created an alternate identity. He split his first name -- Christopher -- in half to create a pseudonym for stage. And he created social media accounts under his new persona. (New Times agreed to use his stage name for this article.)
The second roadblock wasn't so easy to overcome. His first year doing standup, Topher's jokes were juvenile at best.
"I did more pedophile jokes, first-person pedophile jokes," he admits with a smirk. "You'll say things that largely have shock value... and then that makes you laugh. But it's kind of cheap laughs, you know?"
Topher idolized comics like Chris Rock and Patrice O'Neal who tapped into bigger issues like race and religion. He knew he wanted to aim higher than dick jokes. But how?
After one show at the Funky Buddha, a comic with a scraggly beard and Tupac tattoos came up to chat. Kevin Perry had begun doing standup around the same time as Topher. They had seen each other bomb on some nights and kill crowds on others. Now Perry had some advice for Topher. "You gotta start writing about real shit," he said in a raspy New York accent.
"He used to do the grossest jokes," Perry recalls. "It was all shit, piss, and AIDS and everything except what he should be talking about... I was like, 'Dude, you've got to talk about your wheelchair.'"
The struggle to say something meaningful onstage instead of simply making people laugh is as old as standup. Most comics credit Lenny Bruce for beginning the trend. The foulmouthed New Yorker reinvented comedy by ranting about his own battle against obscenity charges.
When Bruce overdosed on morphine in 1966, the mantle for comedic realism was passed to Richard Pryor, who chain-smoked onstage while riffing on the racism he had experienced while growing up the son of an absentee black father and a Puerto Rican prostitute. Like Bruce, Pryor's personal struggles overwhelmed his comedy. In 1980, while smoking crack and drinking 151-proof rum, Pryor tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. He was hospitalized with burns on over half of his body, but he survived and incorporated the incident into his routine.
Since then, hundreds of comics have tapped personal tragedy for comedic material, often with terrible consequences. Mitch Hedberg joked about his drug habit before it cost him his life. So did Greg Giraldo, who also overdosed. Maria Bamford, a skinny blond standup who now has her own TV show, draws most of her material from her debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But Topher's situation is different. His problems are not only more profound but also immediately apparent. For him, writing about real shit meant diving deeper into a painful and public disability.
He had occasionally discussed his injury during business seminars, but never in-depth. Now he began sifting through his daily life for stories that were funny and absurd yet also said something about what it's like to be in a wheelchair.
"I have to address it," he says. "But if I address it too directly, the audience is going to be like, 'Oh, fuck,' and they're going to be sad for the rest of the show."
Topher likes to play with people's expectations, making an audience pity him before taking a left turn and making them re-examine themselves. The absurdity allows people to laugh with him -- not only at his disability but also at other stereotypes.
Take, for instance, his best-known joke. Tonight, at the Funky Buddha, he throws it into the middle of his set, right after his ice-cream bit.
"I feel like I look like Paul Walker," he says, "if he survived."
Indeed, Topher is the spitting image of the late movie star, who was killed in a car accident a year ago. "Before he died, like every other day people would say, 'Yo, you look like Paul Walker,'" he says onstage. "Do you know how frustrating that is, man? Because I could never be that guy in the club to take advantage of it with all the drunk girls by telling them I'm Paul Walker.
"That night it came on the news that he wrapped his car around the tree," he continues. "They didn't know what happened yet, so I'm looking at the television like," and then Topher lifts his arms into the air, fists clenched, as if watching a winning field goal fly toward the uprights.
"Please be paralyzed," he whispers into the microphone. "Pleeeease."
In the strip mall parking lot behind the Funky Buddha, Topher and two other comics huddle between parked cars. Hip-hop blares from Topher's iPhone as a pipe is passed around. Jokes and smoke seep upward into the South Florida night.
Suddenly a car's headlights flicker on at the end of the parking lot. A squad car slowly creeps toward the trio.
"Put it down," Franco Harris whispers. "Put it down!"
"Oh, shit," Topher says.
As a Boca Raton Police officer peers out his open window at three grown men in a dark parking lot after midnight on a Wednesday, Harris, a little too eagerly, says, "Hey, what's going on, man?"
"You guys just hanging out back here?" the officer asks.
"We're just comics," Harris says. "We're waiting to go up."
Maybe he's a comedy fan. Or maybe he knows how hard these three have had it in life. But the cop just nods and keeps cruising.
"I would have liked to have seen him try to arrest you," Kevin Perry says a few minutes later.
"Joke's on you, Jake!" Topher says, imagining his arrest. "You gotta pull in this whole fucking contraption and put it in your fucking trunk!"
Topher onstage at the Funky Buddha in Boca Raton.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
It's a typical night on South Florida's small but strong comedy scene. Along with a dozen other local comics, the three friends have left their families at home and driven for almost an hour to be here. Then they've forked over $3 or two cans of food just to climb onto the stage.
Although Topher's tale is unique, his standup struggles are not. He's one of a hundred or so hard-core South Florida comics. It's a hardscrabble handful of hilarious weirdos, each one busting his or her ass in the hope of carving a career out of comedy.
They each have a different barometer for success: a few hope to be the next Louis CK; others just seek stress relief; most simply aspire to quit their day jobs. Some are poor. Others are rich from other occupations. But all of them brave bombing onstage in the hope that the audience laughs, understands, or at least remembers.
"Being onstage and doing standup comedy is like having a brick wall in front of you and the crowd," Harris says. "And every time you go onstage, you're pounding at that brick wall... Till one day, whether it be five years, ten years, 15 years, you poke a hole through that fucking wall and the people in the crowd see you for who you are."
Ironically, Harris has been doing standup for only six months, but he's already seen how hard it is to connect with an audience. He has funny material about an absent, hard-ass father who taught him how to smoke crack but is only now learning how to write jokes. He's been struggling for months on one about seeing thugs shopping at Whole Foods.
"Actually, I like that joke because anytime I'm there, I think about how I'm a thug at Whole Foods," Perry says. "And that's the best compliment you can give a comic -- to remember their jokes."
Perry began doing comedy four years ago after serving a decade in Florida prison for a string of stickups. It was 1994, and Perry was 19 years old and addicted to crack. Using his aunt's boyfriend's gun, he went around South Beach pistol-whipping people for their wallets. Like Topher's injury, prison drastically changed Perry's life. And like Topher, Perry has moved on, married, made a career for himself (importing and exporting military plane parts). He too faces an uphill climb to make crowds laugh at something that's inherently awful.
"Sometimes it doesn't work, but it's still funny in your head," Perry says. "Every night is another chance to fix it."
That's because every night there's a club in South Florida where standups can get onstage, from Improvs in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to the Funky Buddha in Boca and American Rock Bar in Deerfield Beach. In Miami, there's Gramps, which hosts a comedy night once a month on Wednesdays; Artistic Vibes, an artists' collective hidden behind an Outback Steakhouse in Kendall, on Thursdays; and Speakfridays in Coral Gables.
Only a few of South Florida's comedians are dedicated enough to traipse from one club to another every night. Perry jokes that the local scene is just "a bunch of white guys with beards who don't believe in God."
But in fact it's crazy diverse. Alex Morizio is a handsome Miami doctor who hosts a monthly open mike at a Wynwood hair salon where he jokes about having sex with his nurses. Bradlys Philoctete is a hilarious Haitian-American who works at a South Beach hotel by day and waxes poetic onstage by night. Soo Ra is a pretty but potty-mouthed Korean-American who can't weigh more than 80 pounds.
Perhaps the most surprising standup comedian, however, is Ra. A few months ago, she began appearing at open mikes while dressed like a schoolgirl but delivering opening lines about loving "black dick."
"I'm used to being onstage," she says. "I grew up playing violin. This isn't that much different."
Many comics enter the industry not realizing it can take a decade to get a break. When success does come, it can be fickle.
"When I first started, I was delusional," Perry says. "I was like, 'Aw, I'll be on Comedy Central in two years.' Then my mom died and I was in a real bad place for a long time. Now I just want to tell my story to as many people as I can. I don't really care about the fame and the money."
Every comic has different expectations, says Nery Saenz, one of South Florida's most successful comedians. "I've been doing comedy 11 years, but I don't have a single TV credit to my name," he says. "Have I made it in the sense of providing for my family and all I do is comedy and this is what I do for a living? Yeah."
Saenz says the biggest problem with the South Florida comedy scene is there is no pipeline to television, as there is in New York and L.A. The only way to survive in the laugh industry is to tour nonstop.
"There is no one saying, 'Stay in South Florida and I'll find a way to get you on Comedy Central,' which is sad," he says.
So why do it? Why risk bombing, freezing in the spotlight, or getting heckled by some asshole in a pink bandanna?
"We get addicted," Harris says. "When we get offstage, you tremble because you just got shot with dopamine in your whole body and you're running on a high. We're like heroin addicts."
For comics like Topher and Perry who have overcome tragedy, that acceptance is even more important. "Comedy is his legs," Perry says of his fellow comedian. "In a lot of ways, when he's on the stage, he's actually standing taller than the rest of the crowd.
"For me, comedy is probably my way of rising above my past," Perry says. "The better I get at comedy, the more people forget, 'Hey, he used to rob old ladies with a gun. He used to do cocaine and hurt people.' People don't remember that anymore. All they say is, 'Hey, that was a great show.'"
It's ten minutes until showtime, and Chris Topher is not inside the West Palm Beach Improv. There is no sign of him near the stage or in the back, where several standups are nervously tearing up cocktail napkins.
Instead, he's downing a beer next door at Copper Blues. Topher, normally Mr. Mellow, is beginning to tweak. Tonight's 19 comics are twice the number he expected. Only two will advance, and one who seems destined is Devin Siebold, a headlining comedian from North Florida who has inexplicably decided to compete down here.
"Who is this headliner guy?" Topher asks Perry Sachs, a vulgar Boston comedian whose accent is as aggressive as his material.
"I'll be pretty upset if I don't go through," Topher says as he finishes his pint of Floridian Hefeweizen and pushes himself toward the Improv. "Maybe I should have gone somewhere else."
At first it looks like Topher's worries are misplaced. As a white comedian in an all-denim outfit brags about his dick size, Topher scrolls through jokes he's written on his cell phone. They have succinct names like "Midget," "Porn," and "Shoes."
After the guy in the Canadian tuxedo completes his cock jokes, a comic with all of the looks and none of the talent of Weird Al Yankovic takes the stage. Then comes Woody Allen on crack.
The fourth comic has a couple of good lines, but halfway through his set, he freezes. After ten seconds, the audience begins yelling, "Focus!" and "Do it!" An old man at the back of the room turns to his son and says, "This is bad. This is really bad."
It gets worse. The next comic makes an Ebola STD joke and then turns his back to read the notes off his hand. "Is he doing it again?" the old man asks and groans.
Casey Peruski is the first comic to have a solid set. Better than solid, in fact. Peruski performs flawlessly. Five minutes later, Franco Harris' routine also goes off without a hitch. He's even figured out a punch line for his thugs-in-Whole-Foods joke, with a thug turning to the girl at the register and asking, "Is this kale organic?"
Next up is Topher. He takes the stage to Daft Punk's "Lucky" while wearing bright-blue Nikes that emphasize his opening shoe joke. By the time he says, "Like a reeeal boy!" the crowd is a sea of smiles.
But five minutes is far less than what Topher is used to. He rushes his lines, blowing one of his best jokes about Japanese porn. When he's given the light, he hasn't made it to half of his best material.
Parking his wheelchair at the back of the room, Topher knows he could have done much better. To make matters worse, the headliner from North Florida is pretty damn good. Devin Siebold is a six-foot-five former basketball player in slacks and a dress shirt. A joke about dating a slutty 19-year-old gets the loudest laughs of the night.
"I should just light him right now," Topher says, pretending to hold up his cell phone to end Siebold's set.
By the time the last comedian climbs the stage stairs, Topher has had a few pints. The final comic is clearly an amateur, but she's not bad. A light-skinned black woman with a Southern accent, she has a nice singing voice.
"Please bomb," Topher says. When the crowd laughs at a song about slutty cheerleaders, Topher moans. When a witty joke draws silence, he says, "Good. They didn't get it."
Finally, the MC, a comedian named Matt Bellak, takes the stage.
"Are you guys ready to see who's going through to the semifinals?" he says over a drum roll. "Our first comedian going to the semifinals... Please get loud for Mr. Casey Peruski!"
Topher's face falls. With Peruski winning and Siebold a shoo-in, his comedy dream seems crushed for at least another year -- maybe forever.
Perhaps it's for the best. Topher remains conflicted over whether he actually wants to make it in comedy. Winning Florida's Funniest would vault him into the second tier of American standups. That means bigger crowds and brighter spotlights -- perhaps bright enough to bring his two lives crashing together and put his business, his marriage, his whole life in South Florida at risk.
Although he shares a stage with them, Topher isn't one of the many comics scraping by at minimum-wage jobs while dreaming of stardom. For him, comedy success could actually cost him everything. It's a fear shared by his family and friends.
"The problem is that he's so good at comedy," says Drucker, Topher's childhood buddy. "That group of conservative investors are not going to get it. They are going to think that this guy is a lot more immature or wild than they would like their money manager to be.
"One dream is going to put an end to the other. It's only a matter of time."
That time could come sooner than expected. As the crowd in West Palm Beach claps for Casey Peruski, the MC says it's time to reveal the night's second winner.
"Our next comic, please make your way to the stage," Bellak booms. "My good buddy, Chris Topher!"
Whatever inner conflict he was feeling is gone in an instant. Topher's face splits into a movie-star smile. As James Brown's voice urges everyone to dance, the comic glides down a ramp toward the stage, where he poses for photos with Peruski. As Perry predicted, Topher is now taller than the crowd.
In the lobby, strangers ask to snap selfies with him. Outside the Improv, in the penumbra of CityPlace's thousand TV screens and neon lights, Topher seems relieved. But not completely. He's already thinking about November 13, when he'll be back here onstage, laying bare his anxieties for a bunch of strangers, putting his fortune on the line.
What began as another self-imposed challenge has now spiraled into something else. The way Topher sees it, he's got only one option -- the only option a poor, crippled kid from Queens has ever had: "Going from zero," he says, "to the top."
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