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Friday, May 17, 2024

From the playground to the stage, Chris Cope knew he could always rely on his obesity to win laughs. Weighing more than 300 pounds, fat jokes, at his own expense, were an easy way to win over a crowd.

Performing with a troop of amateur comedians and traveling Gainesville's college bars five nights a week, Chris often starts his act by proclaiming he's losing weight.

"You think I'm fat now, you should have seen me six months ago - I'm on a diet!"

With perfect timing, he laughs with the crowd.

It's not just a joke, though. Chris, who's 26 has been working on losing weight - he just wasn't working fast enough.

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Chris decided he wanted to work in comedy when he was still in high school. Other jobs just didn't seem to fit.

"I thought about being a lawyer because I've always been good at bullshit, but that's too much education," Chris said.

While he and his friends could make each other laugh, Chris knew he had an extra talent because he could make adults laugh, too.

After graduating high school, Chris enrolled at Santa Fe Community College - to pacify his parents. The school doesn't offer a degree in comedy, so he earned a general associates degree. But he chased his real dream after class, in the college town's bars.

Chris first preformed in the hotel bar at an old Clarion Inn. There was a single microphone, a makeshift stage and crude lighting.

It was hard at first, but going on stage changed him. It was the first hit of a humiliation he became addicted to.

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Chris improved his act and worked his way into a leadership role with Gainesville Comedy Showcase, a group of local amateurs.

Performing five nights a week while going to school and working at a BBQ joint wasn't easy. Of the hundreds of amateur comics Chris saw perform with the group, few made it to professional status, meaning they went on to makea living off their acts.

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Chris was one of the few - two years ago, he was able to quit his "real" job and start traveling the country with his comedy routine. His best gig paid $800.

"The money isn't important, but it means you can drink more and hang out with more loose women," Chris joked. "I've never had money, so not having it isn't new."

And on stage, along with his weight, Chris jokes about being poor.

He tells the audience that when his family's first mobile home burnt down, his mom wanted to leave him in his bed. "She whispered to my sister, ‘Shh, you're going to wake up your brother,'" Chris jokes.

But when he talks about it off stage, even though he keeps a smile on his face, there's pain in his voice. The memory of his family's two mobile homes burning down is more than a joke.

The fires taught him what it was like to be poor..

"It sucks to wake up twice with nothing."

But he doesn't feel sorry for himself. He doesn't resent anyone. He doesn't expect any pity for being poor.

"It makes me appreciate not what I own, but what I have around me. I have an astonishing family that will do anything for me. I have friends that have proven to me time and time again they will do anything for me." Chris said. "I'm rich, I'm just not materially rich."

Chris knows he'd be lucky to earn just $30,000 a year doing comedy, but he's willing to work hard for it. In January, Chris drove almost 1,000 miles to perform in Harrisburg, Penn.

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Chris never expected the fat jokes would come at such a high price so early in his life.

Before the second night's show in Harrisburg, Chris was relaxing in his motel room when his chest started to hurt.

The blood pumped out of his heart as his ruptured aorta pulled back toward his chest and stomach, spreading the pain to his back and gut. His body slowly began filling up with blood, in places it shouldn't have, and his legs went numb.

He grabbed his cell phone and dialed his mother. She told him to hang up immediately and call 911.

Chris was worried that he was going to die. He was lucky to be conscious - 80 percent of those who suffer an aortic aneurysm simply pass out and die. Waiting for the ambulance, he did what most people would do - thought about his family and prayed. But Chris also was thinking about comedy. He didn't want his last gig to be in Harrisburg.

He made it to the hospital, and the surgeon told him they'd have to operate.

Chris was lucky to be among the 20 percent who make it to the hospital. The doctors said he'd have a 50/50 chance of making it through the surgery.

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"Chest pains. No Joke. Don't worry. My mom knows."

That was the text message Chris sent to J.C. Currais.

The friends met five years agowhen Chris started mentoring J.C.in group workshops.

"Without Chris Cope, I wouldn't be doing comedy professionally right now," J.C. said. "I started off doing a lot of really fucking weird material. And Chris does a lot of down-to-earth stuff. Chris was somebody who said, "You can just be you.'"

J.C. said Chris is the sharpest comedian he's ever seen - that he can go on stage for an hour with just three jokes and fill the rest of the time with crowd work, a comedian term for engaging the audience with improvisational interaction.

"His ability to interact with any audience is unmatched, and it's from years of performing and being willing to, at any moment, say, ‘Well, I don't have to perform anymore' and just talk - and it works because he's so sharp," J.C. said. He's like a bear trap."

And in all of their years performing together, J.C. said he's never seen Chris lose it on stage.

"If Chris goes into the audience and someone from the audience comes back at him - they're walking out of the room because they're so embarrassed because of what Chris is saying or they're standing up and applauding," J.C. said. "He's either winning them over or walking them out."

As their professional careers developed, so did their off-stage friendship. "He's like a brother to me," J.C. said.

When J.C. received the text message from the hospital, he thought he was about to lose his best friend. He gathered with the comedy group at Mother's Pub, where they performed every week.

"We came to sit and pray for Chris - and I drank myself into a stupor, but the other comedians took care of me," J.C. said.

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Two hours after he first started feeling pain in his chest, Chris was prepped for surgery.

He asked the priest, "Just in case I see Jesus, do you have any questions for him?"

The priest laughed. But in his act, Chris shies away from religion. He grew up Christian, and while he struggles with his own faith, he respects those who take it seriously. "If God exists, I want to be on his good side," Chris said.

Before going into the operating room, he prayed with his mother and brother over the phone. The doctors had said there was a 50-percent chance he'd die, and he wanted to cleanse his soul.

Chris didn't know it at the time, but he was lucky to be in Harrisburg, which has one of the most highly regarded cardiology centers in the country.

The surgeons opened his chest with an electric saw and installed a medical graft where the aorta and heart connect. Six hours later they wired his chest closed.

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After the surgery, J.C. received a phone call. Chris was okay, and things were looking good.

"I went from thinking I was going to lose my best friend to getting him back," J.C. said.

One of the friends who joined J.C. at Mother's was Bill O'Connor - who in his 62 years has experienced everything from Vietnam and New York City fire stations to, most recently, the University of Florida journalism school -

met Chris a year ago when Bill first started performing stand-up comedy.

The two have been friends ever since.

"What really surprised me the most about Chris is that he gives the appearance that he's trailer trash. He doesn't seem like he's that swift," Bill said. "But the depth of his knowledge is remarkable."

Bill said whether the discussion is about middle-weight fights from the '50s or Louie Armstrong and jazz, Chris can always discusstopics Bill doesn't expect him to know.

And while the conversations impressed him Bill truly respects Chris because of his act.

"You never know what's going to come out of his mouth. And you have to have a lot of confidence to do that - that takes brass balls," Bill said. "He's the king. I've known comics who have been at it for seven or eight years and they can't do what he does."

Nothing is off limits when Chris starts the crowd work. Race, appearance, attitude - they're all fair game. His goal is to get laughs, and while he's mean, he wants the person he's joking with to laugh, too.

The act takes anconfidence and a big ego.

He never lets his physical appearance prevent him from talking to a woman. Whether he's buying shots before the show or hitting on girls from the stage, all his friends testify Chris likes women - and the women like him back.

"Women always say they want a guy with a sense of humor, and I'm a professional sense of humor," Chris said.

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Sitting in the same bar his friends gathered at during the surgery, Chris now says he's either strong as hell, lucky or God likes him -otherwise he'd be dead.

His friends planned a benefit roast at Mother's, which drew 90 people into a room with enough seats for 60 - a room that rarely fills up for a regular show.

Mother's donated beer and each person paid $5 to see the show. It wasn't much money, but with no insurance and $115,000 in medical debt, every penny helped.

Sitting on a stool surrounded by 20 comedians - some he'd been performing with for all eight years, others that he met only months ago - the group did what they do best: tell jokes, most of which were aimed at Chris.

"Chris Cope brings home more undesirable pussy than an animal shelter," J.C said to a roar of laughter.

Nothing was too taboo, including Chris's weight. And on stage, in the spotlight, Chris proudly lifted up his shirt to expose the fresh pink scars.

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The doctors had Chris if he didn't lose weight, his heart would fail. He always knew being fat could affect his health - but prepping for surgery and having to pray for his life was enough motivation to stick to a diet and exercise routine.

"I've lost 50 lbs in five weeks. I'm losing weight like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia," Chris jokes on stage. "Most of guys are clapping, but some of you are like, ‘He's still kind of fat, though.'"

Giving them enough time to laugh some more, he follows with another joke, "It's 50 lbs! I basically lost Justin Bieber!"

He still isn't afraid to laugh at himself, and most of his act revolves around self-deprecating humor.

"If you can't make fun of yourself when you're on stage, you don't need to be on stage," he said. "The audience will look at you and think, ‘What the fuck, is this guy not going to make fun of himself? Does he think he's better than us?'"

But he's proud of the weight he's lost. And while he's had to give up drinking and smoking, and he's in debt with medical bills, he appreciates life more than ever.

"I'm glad I can still have sex. I can give up weed and I can give up booze, but if I had to give up pussy I'd shoot myself," he joked. "I would have told the doctor, ‘Fuck it, just stop.'"

If he stays on track with the diet, Chris will be a healthy weight. He'll have to change parts of his act and write new jokes. But neither Chris nor his friends are worried about the changes.

"The only thing that's changed about Chris Cope is that there's a scar on his chest now. What makes Chris funny isn't weed jokes, or fat jokes," J.C. said. "He's just funny. And when you're funny - you'll always be funny."

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Tonight, Chris, J.C. and fellow Gainesville comedian Evan Ferl will be performing the first show of their new tour, "The Good, The Bad and The Sloppy," at 8 p.m. in the Orange and Brew in the Reitz Union. Admission is free.

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