Comedian Chris Fonseca knows a thing or two about adversity. Born with cerebral palsy, Fonseca not only laughs at his own condition, he’ll get you laughing as well. A stand up, sit-down comedian with the added fun of a speech impediment, he’s rolled his way through the comedy circuit for decades and was the first comedian with a visible disability to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with the Colorado based entertainer, who spoke about his latest endeavors including an upcoming tour and his involvement with the Million Gimp March (MGM).
Chet Cooper: When did you start your career in comedy? Chris
Fonseca: I started almost 32 years ago, in May of ‘84.
Cooper: And what time was that?
Fonseca: (laughs) 8:35 p.m.
Cooper: How do you remember that date as well?
Fonseca: Well, I was a sophomore at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado. We were having a Gong show at the end of the school year, and at that point I was student body president, and I thought that if I entered the Gong show, other people would follow. You know, I didn’t think I’d ever make a career of doing comedy.
Cooper: For the people who don’t remember The Gong Show, can you describe it?
Fonseca: Yeah. The Gong Show was basically a talent show. If you didn’t do well and they didn’t like you, they had a big gong that they would hit.
Cooper: So you had your own version of The Gong Show on campus?
Cooper: What was your major?
Fonseca: I majored in journalism. My intent was to write a humor column, either that or be a sports writer.
Cooper: Have you been a sports writer?
Fonseca: Yeah, I’ve dabbled in it a little bit, but I’ve mainly focused on being a stand-up—sit-down, if you will.
Cooper: You could even lie down. It’s fine with me. (laughter) Has your career taken you international, or do you stay in the States?
Fonseca: I mainly stay in the States, but I have been to Canada a couple of times. I’ve done the “Just for Laughs” Comedy Festival in Montreal, which is the biggest comedy festival in the world. I also did the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. And other than that, I’ve only been on the island of Guam, but I haven’t been going to anything like that yet.
Cooper: We’ve been doing a lot of international work. I’ll try to remember to mention you when we’re talking to different events and see if they are looking for that kind of entertainment.
Fonseca: I appreciate it.
Cooper: Oh, it’s gonna cost you! (laughs)
Fonseca: Oh, yeah? Would that be in dollars or rubles?
Cooper: In Philippine pesos.
Fonseca: Wow! I’ll have to dig some up. (laughter)
Cooper: Do you work on your routine? Do you change it up often?
Fonseca: Yes. I’m always writing. I’ve got a set routine that I’ll do for a period of time. It’s kind of like a band. Some people want to see the old stuff, the stuff that they see on TV, and some people want new stuff. It’s always kind of a hodgepodge of whatever I’m in the mood to do. I try to keep it fresh for myself, because I find that if I do the same thing verbatim, I fall asleep up there.
Cooper: That’s not good for the audience, unless you’ve given them pillows.
Fonseca: Exactly. That would be expensive.
Cooper: Hard to take them on carry-on as you fly out.
Cooper: Does your material cover current events, say politics? I’m familiar with your older stuff, but I haven’t seen you lately.
Fonseca: I try to include current events as much as possible. It’s kind of tough, because that stuff has a shelf life, and now with social media, everybody and their mother considers themselves a comedian. So it’s hard to do something, for example, like the election. There’s a gazillion Donald Trump jokes out there. But the ones that I do—because I am of Mexican descent—I’m trying to get to know Donald Trump, but I feel like there’s a wall between us. (laughter)
Cooper: Did he make you build it?
Fonseca: Yes, and I had to pay for it also. (laughter)
Cooper: That’s not good! Where was the last place you performed?
Fonseca: The last couple weeks I’ve been at home getting ready for the tours this year. I start out in Houston next week, but it’ll be a busy month. At a show, I was hanging out with Adam Sandler and David Spade, they’re doing a tour right now and Rob Schneider, Norm McDonald, and Tim Meadows joined them, too. So that was a really cool show. I got to talk to Adam, whom I’ve known for a while. I tried to do a spoof on the old TV show Ironside—
Cooper: Oh, that’d be funny, just as a one-off episode or as a potential pitch for a series?
Fonseca: We’re thinking of just a one-off, maybe even an animated thing.
Cooper: Yeah, you actually look better as an animated cartoon.
Fonseca: (laughs) Exactly.
Cooper: I didn’t know they were touring. That sounds like a pretty nice event you got to go to.
Fonseca: Yeah, it’s on Netflix and it’s called The Ridiculous 6. They’re touring to promote it. Adam hasn’t done stand-up in 20 years, so it was really cool to see him do that. At the end, he did a tribute to Chris Farley. It was amazing. And it was cool to be in that kind of company. I’ve been real fortunate in my career to be able to work with big names like Adam. I tour a lot with Pablo
Francisco. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. I also did stuff with Dave Chappelle and others.
Cooper: That’s really good. Will you be touring with someone this year? Who puts it together?
Fonseca: Well, I have a manager in Hollywood who helps me put dates together. I’m doing some of the dates with Pablo Francisco, and I’m doing some on my own. It’s a matter of putting things together that make sense moneywise and travel-wise. I spend half my life in airports.
Cooper: Wait, and the other half you’re sleeping? (laughter)
Fonseca: And if I sleep at the airport, I might end up in the dumpster.
Cooper: What kind of venues do you perform at on your tours? Is material PG?
Fonseca: Mainly through Comedy Clubs. I also perform at different disability events and fundraisers, that kind of thing. As far as the shows themselves, I do anything from G-rated to the late-night comedy clubs. I’m not like Andrew Dice Clay or anything like that.
Cooper: You’re more like Amy Schumer?
Fonseca: I write my own material. So I’m not Amy Schumer.
Cooper: Oh, ouch.
Fonseca: Oooh! (laughs) It’s kind of weird because I’ve only met Amy in passing, but when all that came up, generally the rule is, everybody has to like one joke every now and then that might have been done before—you know, do a little thinking—but when it becomes joke after joke, then you kind of go, “Wait a minute.” You know? It really puts it into question and you wonder, is it her writers? What exactly is going on?
Cooper: Wow, I hadn’t heard that about her.
Fonseca: Oh, yeah. It’s a big comedy secret. Oooh! (laughter)
Cooper: You heard it here first, folks! Tell me, where are you based?
Fonseca: I’m in Colorado Springs and obviously psyched that the Broncos won the Super Bowl.
Cooper: You moved there originally because of the marijuana, when you were a kid?
Fonseca: (laughs) Actually, it hinders me from moving. No, I’m a Colorado native. I was born here, and I’ve spent most of my life here. I did live in Texas for a couple of years, but then I came back.
Cooper: Tell us about the Million Gimp March (MGM).
Fonseca: Basically, it’s kind of like the Million Man March or the Martin Luther King (MLK) march back in the day. It centers on disability employment rights and trying to get things so that people who are able and willing to work not only can without discrimination but also without losing some of their benefits that they need to survive.
Cooper: Did they come to you?
Fonseca: I saw it, like everything else, on Facebook. I reached out to them and said I would like to be involved, and it could be something where I could be the national spokesman, because obviously I can get people listening, do publicity, do some fundraising shows and that kind of thing, and they were all for it.
Cooper: So you’re promoting MGM?
Fonseca: Right. By the way, I wanted to touch on the name of the march, Million Gimp March, because it’s been a point of contention. When I reached out, media wasn’t giving me support. The word “gimp” really strikes a nerve. I understand where they’re coming from, because of all the political correctness and so forth, but the organizers specifically chose the word “gimp” with the idea of taking the power out of the word.
Cooper: Like the n-word?
Fonseca: The n-word for Bill Cosby is “no.” (laughter)
Cooper: Have you read our article with Dan Keplinger?
Fonseca: Yes, I remember that. And wasn’t there an HBO documentary on him?
Cooper: Yeah, they followed him for years. It was pretty cool. We’ve been working with language and political correctness and that word rates high in the don’t-say-it category. I think Dan was doing the same thing that you guys are trying to do in calling his documentary King Gimp.
Fonseca: Right. Where I’m coming from is, people should be more offended that people with disabilities have trouble gaining employment and so forth, than by using that word.
Cooper: Right. I’ll be curious to see a survey of who’s offended, if it’s people with disabilities or people who just like to ride on the political-correctness bandwagon.
Fonseca: I think it’s a mixture. But the people who are disabled who are offended, to me those are the kind of people who, the word has to almost change daily. It gets
Cooper: For the kid, it was a tinderbox. It’s called Sesame Enable
Fonseca: Oh, really? That’s pretty cool.
Cooper: It’s incredible technology.
Fonseca: That’s awesome. By the way, did you know I’m currently writing my autobiography?
Cooper: No, that’s pretty cool—it should be a good book.
Fonseca: Oh, yeah, I have funny stories about being a performer with a disability. I tend to meet people kind of by accident. I became friends with the guys in Kiss by accident, and over the years I seem to meet people. Back in the ‘80s, I was told I was performing at an Elks lodge convention. I got there, and it was actually a benefit for handicapped people, and the chairman of the event was
President Carter. He and I are still friends to this day.
Cooper: When you say Kiss, are you talking about Gene Simmons?
Fonseca: Yes, Gene Simmons and all of his family. It’s cool to run into people who I’ve been a fan of for years. I got to meet Stevie Wonder back in ‘98. I was part of an ABC special, a tribute to Christopher Reeve, when he was still with us.
Cooper: I was there that day, in the green room.
Fonseca: Oh, really? That was a show with Steve and Willie Nelson, an amazing night. I still keep in touch with most of those people. Amy Grant and her husband Vince Gill have been real good friends to me. My middle daughter is named after Amy. By the way, I just connected with the guy from The Mendenhall Experiment. They’re a metal band, but their lead guy has CP. Anyway, I just asked him in the past week if I could use their current single, which is called “Seize the Day”, as my intro song. I’m trying to keep it all in the disability family, so to speak. It kind of got me thinking that I’m ending up somehow meeting most of the big names with a disability, Marlee, Geri Jewell, and Stevie Wonder. With some people, it seems like we automatically know each other, as if we’re always in the same big house. (laughter) I was in Vegas one time on the radio and we were taking calls, and someone said, “Hi, I had a friend named Greg who has cerebral palsy. Do you know him?” “Oh, yes, Greg!”
Cooper: (laughs) Do you remember us meeting at a Media Access Award?
Fonseca: I may have. I’ll be perfectly honest. You might have read in my bio that I am now three-and-a-half years sober. The ‘90s and the early 2000s are kind of hazy.
Cooper: I’ve hung around Dan Keplinger. Because of the CP, he felt like there was something that was allowing him to drink more than other people. I’ve never quite understood that, but man, he could drink.
Fonseca: Yeah, it’s kind of weird. That’s how I felt. I was a legendary drinker. I’m not bragging. Part of it was because I was sitting down, so I wouldn’t feel like most people do when they stand up to go to the bathroom or whatever. I was sitting down all the time.
Cooper: So at one point you could say, “Oops, I think I just fell down”?
Fonseca: Exactly. But I definitely feel better, and the career’s back on the right track. Even though I was struggling for a while, there were other issues with the drinking. I’m glad that’s all behind me.
Cooper: How did you figure out how to stop drinking? That’s a major challenge.
Fonseca: For me, it was like a light bulb came on and I said, “If I don’t stop now, it’s going to stop me.” Because towards the end of my drinking days, I was literally drinking from the time I woke up to the time I passed out. And part of it was the nightclub lifestyle. I won’t blame it on that, but it certainly didn’t help. I found that I was in Pittsburg for the week, and between Thursday and Sunday I was offered a drink 70 times. It’s socially awkward to say no, because fans are like, “Here, let me buy you a shot, a beer. Have a drink with us.” It became automatic. “OK, this one’s on me.” And before you know it, it’s 3:00 in the morning.
Cooper: Not the easiest thing, especially if it was fun.
Fonseca: Oh, yeah, like being a rock star.
Cooper: It’s great that you were able to quit.
Fonseca: I agree. It’s definitely paying off in my career. I’m trying to get on late-night TV. It’s really strange, because in the last couple of years, the landscape has really turned over. Leno’s gone, Letterman’s gone, Arsenio tried to make a comeback. I originally did not know any of these guys, but Adam Sandler is going to go to bat for me and introduce me to Jimmy Fallon.
Cooper: We’ll be watching