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 three 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.