Longform

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

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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 girls 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?"

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Michael E. Miller