It’s not particularly surprising when powerful comedy is extracted from the darker side of the human experience--talented comics can often get crowds laughing affirmatively at all manner of tragedy and misfortune. It is, however, a bit surprising to hear a crowd laughing uproariously at cerebral palsy jokes.
For comic Chris Fonseca, 32, that laughter is the sweetest of rewards. Fonseca, who uses a wheelchair because of the disability, has been working the comedy club circuit for the last decade, turning his disability into a comedic asset.
“I love being in front of people and getting them to laugh,” he says on a rare day of rest during a national college tour. “I think I’m actually more comfortable onstage, because that’s where I’ve got some authority. I’m in charge of what happens. Once I’m off the stage, real life is a lot more difficult.”
Stage work isn’t without its own difficulties, though. Fonseca’s wheelchair and his halting speech frequently elicit some puzzled looks at first from the audiences he encounters, and he knows he needs to quickly establish that he’s not a curiosity but a skilled entertainer.
‘It’s always a challenge for audiences to get over their initial perceptions of what I’m going to do and what I’m capable of,” he explains. “And we’re brought up not to make fun of handicapped people, but there I am asking a crowd to find me funny. People aren’t sure how to react at first. In my opening joke I always try to say without really saying it: ‘I know I’m handicapped and it’s OK.’ ”
His irreverent sense of humor is evident in the professional nickname he’s taken on--"Crazy Legs"--and in the music he usually plays before taking the stage in comedy clubs--Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.”
“I grew up in a Catholic family,” he’ll tell a crowd, following with a signature, wide-eyed “Oooh” of apprehension. “It was hard for me to cross myself--I had to settle for the sign of Zorro.” Or, on how he ran away from home at age 5: “They found me three weeks later. At the end of the driveway.”
The former journalism student began his comedy career in 1985, doing open-mike spots while at the University of Northern Colorado. “It took a little courage and a few beers,” he recalls. “But once I got a couple of laughs, I was hooked. Most of my material came from things I’d been telling my friends for years, because comedy always seemed to be the best way to deal with my situation.”
Fonseca’s comedy tends to deal with his situation in a warm and direct fashion, beginning with his preferred term for what that situation is. “The word ‘handicapped’ doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the first word I heard to describe my circumstances, and changing the word won’t make the circumstances any better. Why bother? Maybe I should say ‘physically challenged’ or ‘developmentally disabled,’ but I haven’t got that kind of time.”
Since successful L.A.-area engagements at the Ice House and the Improv in 1989, Fonseca has found steady work in top venues around the country and has a variety of television appearances to his credit. He’ll be exploring some new performance territory with a dramatic guest role on the March 16 episode of “Baywatch.”
“Well, I don’t see an Emmy in the near future,” he says with a laugh, “but I enjoyed it. They had me riding a customized, motorized wheelchair on the beach, which was great. But they also had me out in the water on a Boogie Board. Considering I don’t swim, it was quite an adventure. I was supposed to look like I was having fun, and I guess that’s where I did the real acting.”
Fonseca’s comedy offers a good-natured mix of sharply observed absurdities and cornball one-liners, and though most of his material centers on his disability, his topics can range from tabloid talk shows to schoolyard bullies. On his current road swing, he’s traveling with his wife of five years and his 18-month-old daughter, and has begun working some of his parenting experiences into his set.
“My speech pattern is a little strange,” he says, “so it’s hard for me to be a disciplinarian--'OK kid. I’m going to count to one. . . .’ ”
Comedy remains a passion for Fonseca, and he’s happy to take on the challenge of winning over one crowd at a time. He only hopes that after a performance, his crowds remember the comedy rather than the wheelchair.
“I know it’s unusual to see a handicapped person up onstage, and if I do well, the crowd may get something out of it besides the laugh. But I’m not out there on any kind of a mission to promote disabled people and demonstrate what they can or can’t do. I’m a comedian, and I’m just trying to be funny.”
* Chris Fonseca will be performing at the Riveria Hotel in Las Vegas Jan. 29-Feb. 4.