Chris Topher Conquers His Tragic Past and Miami's Standup Circuit

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.