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

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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.

A few hope to be the next Louis CK; others just seek stress relief; most simply aspire to quit their day jobs.

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."

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Michael E. Miller