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The throaty voice is unsettling. He appears to be half sloshed. His words are choppy and loop around like a yo-yo trick gone awry. His sentences shoot up and down in spurts as if he had just hit puberty. The muddled PA is not helping matters.
The comedian, it turns out, is not half sloshed, nor is he acting out the character of a drunk. The guy onstage has cerebral palsy. With his dark eyes and pigment, he looks like a young, madcap Lee Trevino. But his affliction coats his self-deprecating humor with the uneasy allure of a side-show attraction.
"I gotta be honest with you, though," the comic confesses to the crowd. "I have a disability." He pauses for effect, and his face becomes straight, completely serious. He raises a finger to scratch his nose. Then comes the punch that sets the room on fire: "I'm Latino."
Before the laughs subside, the comic cuts through with a well-timed sobering tag line, "No, seriously, I'm really handicapped . . ."
Stillness falls over the room. In a voice low and soft, he clumsily utters something seemingly designed to goad sympathy: "I have mild cerebral palsy."
No one in the room makes a sound.
Then the comic quickly diffuses. His voice rises: "Bartenders tell me I am cut off before I've had my first drink, they always think I'm smashed!"
The comic has won over the crowd.
The jester is Ray Rivera, a local standup weaned in the improv/theater scene of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He's lived in Phoenix for a year and a half, and is a competitor in the "Funniest Person in the Valley," an ongoing weekly competition for local standup comics. The battle takes place Wednesday nights at the Backstage Bistro in Scottsdale, and the winner is the one with the most accumulated votes from the audience. The event, which kicked off in late February, is set to conclude on April 27.
For Rivera, the standup bit is cathartic. The work, he tells me, keeps him from going crazy.
And it's true, the bartenders do cut him off, even before he orders a drink. He's got a speaking voice that sounds as though he has seen far too many sleepless nights smoking cigarettes one end off the other, downing scotch and debating with other saturated folks the merits of improvisational versus behavioral jokes. When the words come out, people either listen carefully or come undone.
Cerebral palsy is a condition caused by damage to the brain, generally occurring before, during, or shortly after birth, characterized by an inability to fully control motor function. It is neither curable nor progressive, and those with access to training, therapy and support improve.
In Rivera, cerebral palsy reveals itself mostly when he speaks. Sometimes he walks with slight slant.
In person, the 37-year-old Rivera is tactful, gentle, and never says a disparaging word about anybody. Anyone, that is, except himself. His high-rise apartment, one that he shares with his lover of 13 years, is colored in lurid '60s and '70s post-mod kitsch, furnished in designer styles of the 1950s. The decor is almost a reflection of the man himself, simultaneously mocking and embracing his own history and nostalgia. Seven floors down, Phoenix splays out to a dirty horizon.
"What I talk about in my act," he says, pointing out an anomalous and frightening portrait of Faust that hangs in the apartment, "are real situations that occurred to me throughout my life with a little bit of non-truth in there. I would never, ever, want to go up there and have a pity party and say, 'Okay, folks, feel sorry for me.'"
Rivera considers his chances of winning the "Funniest Person in the Valley" competition minimal. After all, he says, smiling, voice cracking, "I'm a gay Latino suffering from a mild case of cerebral palsy!"
Jokes about the disabled and gay only work if the comedian is disabled and gay. But to those of us lucky enough to be able to hide our own personal handicaps, Rivera's brand of humor unwittingly helps us feel comfortable in our shoes.
Rivera grew up in the 1970s, and his parents were adamant about keeping him in public schools, figuring it best for his condition. They went around and around with teachers who thought otherwise. He parents won out, a victory for which Rivera is grateful. He graduated high school in a timely manner in 1982.
The years were not, however, without trauma.
Legions of public school kids ridiculed him, calling him a "retard" and other such things on a regular basis. It is a bit of his personal history included in his act. "I used to just tell them, 'Hey, look, leave me alone or I'll breathe on you and then you'll be like me.'"
Growing up, Rivera harbored a longing to be like others. "I spent my early years with this disability trying to fit in, wanting to be like everybody else," he says. "Now, I never see the condition as a problem. It's only when I have to use my hands for very minute things -- when it comes to using fine motor skills -- do I notice and think about it."