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."
There was never a struggle for Rivera to break free from anything; rather, he learned early on to deal with whatever hand was dealt to him. He is not using the humor to give shape to some lifelong disappointment. Once he learned to live with a disability, it became time to learn to live with the fact that he was gay.
"You know the last thing I wanted to do is be even more different than I already was," he explains. "But that's been my argument, if it was a choice for me between being straight or being homosexual, my life would have been so much easier. So, I mean, it's biological. If you are true to yourself, you just know that it can't be any other way.
"I get so angry about people who go on and on about 'making a choice,'" he continues. "There was one guy who was very religious, who I was doing a play with in New Mexico called Psycho Beach Party. Somehow, we got on the topic of homosexuality. He thought it all had to do with being a form of rebellion. Oh, my God. I lost it. I said, 'Do you honestly believe that I would cause this much hurt and pain to my family just to rebel?'"
Raised by his mother and stepfather, Rivera moved from Silver City, New Mexico, to San Diego, then to Puerto Rico and Albuquerque. His stepdad is a retired federal agent who, to this day, refuses to acknowledge the fact that Rivera is gay. His mom saw it as one more thing in the young man's life to deal with.
"I think my mom was really smart about it," explains Rivera. "She immediately started seeing a counselor. It was not easy for anybody, but my mom is wonderful about it. My stepfather is not happy about it. It's not something that we discuss."
Inspired by a Lily Tomlin workshop he attended in Santa Fe in the mid-1980s, Rivera went home that same night and wrote his entire standup act. A few months later, his "routine" debuted at a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque.
In the years since, Rivera has opened for some of the bigger shows that have passed through New Mexico, from the Miami Sound Machine and Terence Trent D'Arby to Dana Carvey and Judy Tenuta. He once supported Kenny G at Albuquerque's huge Kiva Auditorium in front of thousands. He's done tour dates with Paula Poundstone and shared the stage with magician Paul Kozak. "I would rather have 20,000 people out there than just 10," he says. "When you have a room full of people, you at least know a good percentage is going to respond to what you are saying."
In 1999, he flew to Miami to participate in an hourlong comedy show that aired on Spanish TV network Galavision. Rivera had but a few minutes to do his piece. "My performance was a little disappointing on that show," he says, in typical self-effacing manner. "So I haven't been invited back."
Rivera never gave up the day jobs. A few weeks ago, he started one that he describes as a "very typical gay job," working in the display department at The Great Indoors. "I'm not used to this getting up at 4:30 thing yet," he says, sipping a beer. "Tomorrow is only my second day at work, so I can't be hung over."
Before his Great Indoors gig, Rivera did four years as a Cost Plus wine clerk. The company transferred him from Albuquerque to Phoenix in October 1999. At Cost Plus, Rivera became a kind of in-house wine connoisseur. Sometimes, while explaining the depth and complexity of a BV Cabernet or the merits of a Pinot Noir, Rivera's verbal manner would spur queer looks and furrowed brows from some of the more intolerant customers.
"It was great to watch customers react when Ray spoke," says Darin Gaily, a Cost Plus employee who had worked with Rivera for more than a year. "Most people wouldn't know what to make of him. Some would pass judgment and others sensed he was slightly disabled. The idea that he does standup comedy is hard to believe. Just the fact that he can make a routine out of three or four things that most people wouldn't even talk about is amazing."
Rivera considers himself a half-assed comic who was never attracted to the road, and never wanted to do one-nighters. The payoff for him is that he actually is able to get up and speak to audiences about himself and cerebral palsy. To get up and make people bust a gut at his expense, without being maudlin.
Onstage, Rivera possesses an innocent whimsy, yet delivers punch lines with refined command. He has the rare ability to turn a physical handicap into a funnyman persona, and upholds the honor of good comedians everywhere.
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What is inspiring (and yes, the word is chosen carefully) is how Rivera has managed to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds: the motor skill problems, the schoolyard brats, the homophobic old man, etc. Rivera doesn't compare his insides to the exterior of others. He has stopped wanting to be somebody else. Whether simple denial or some version of reality, he approaches things with a kind of cockeyed optimism.
"You know, I'm Handicapped, Hispanic, Homosexual, and a Humorist," he says with a crooked smile, "and I talk about everything I am because that's all I know. I've been really lucky in that I've not been hassled by homophobics. Or, for that matter, disabled bashers."
At the end of the day, Rivera considers himself fortunate. "Sure, my life hasn't been easy or great," he says, "but I think because I have a naturally funny, kind of skewered outlook on things that has gotten me through the horrible stuff. It's funny; people are still very surprised by the presence of someone onstage with a disability. The disability, believe it or not, has actually opened doors for me."