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

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Topher may live in a big house and drive a silver Mercedes, 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 girls 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!"

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Michael E. Miller