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Comedian Erik Rivera On Using Stand-Up to Heal After Sept. 11 & His New HBO Latino Special

Courtesy of HBO Latino
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Erik Rivera is a stand-up comedy addict, but is currently not seeking treatment. If he was, however, he admits he probably wouldn’t last very long in comedy rehab — hypothetically speaking.

“I would run out,” Rivera told Remezcla during a phone interview ahead of the premiere of his new HBO Latino comedy special Super White. “I would probably relapse a couple of times. It would be like that show Intervention. ‘He was clean for 37 days and then just disappeared — last seen at an open mic.’”

It might sound like a dark premise for a comedy series, but Rivera’s introduction to the comedy industry actually did begin because of a harrowing experience — one of the nation’s darkest days in history, to be exact.

Rivera was a college student at Pace University in New York City in 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11. The campus was shut down for a couple of months after the tragedy. Rivera remembers once the campus reopened in January 2002, people seemed very uncomfortable getting back to their daily routines. Rivera took it upon himself to begin the healing process for his fellow students.

“I remember watching this news report and it was asking, ‘Is it too soon to laugh?’” Rivera said. “I noticed everyone was out at the comedy clubs in New York. They were there because they wanted to get their minds off [9/11]. It was all around us. It was a scary time.”

To help alleviate that fear, Rivera came up with the idea to hold stand-up shows on campus. He started recruiting New York City comics, who were more than willing to come out and perform for university students. The shows turned out to be a success.

“People were just so grateful for comedy and getting them through the tough times,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time, but I was falling in love with stand-up comedy.”

Rivera was studying communications, so he always knew he wanted to do something in the entertainment field. His Guatemalan mother and Puerto Rican father, he said, were still holding out hope that he would change course and become a doctor or lawyer — “something levelheaded in the white-collar world.”

Living at home at the time, Rivera would go to class during the day and then jump on stage at open-mics at night. His mom started noticing his odd hours and sat him down to have a talk about what was going on.

“She goes, ‘Hijo, are you on drugs?’” Rivera said. “I think she would’ve rather me have said that I was on drugs because then she could’ve put me in rehab. There is no rehab for standup comedy.”

When he explained to her what he was doing, Rivera said she didn’t really understand the concept of what a stand-up comedian actually does.

“The best connection she could make with stand-up comedy was, “Oh, so you’re a clown?” he said. “I told her, ‘No, I get on stage and tell jokes and make people laugh!’ She was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what clowns do.’”

Rivera said it took his mom about a year to come around on the idea that her son had chosen comedy as a career. To be fair, he doesn’t think becoming a comedian would be the first choice of any immigrant parent for their child.

“No immigrant parent wants to come home from busting their ass for their kid, so that one day their kid can become a stand-up comedian,” he jokingly said. “That’s never the dream.”

It might not be his parents’ dream, but Rivera is living the life he always wanted. Over the last 15 years, he’s been featured on a number of TV shows, including Stand-Up 360, Off Script and Latino 101.

“No immigrant parent wants to come home from busting their ass for their kid, so that one day their kid can become a stand-up comedian. That’s never the dream.”

In his new stand-up comedy special, Super White, Rivera uses self-deprecating humor to poke fun of himself as a US-born Latino who married a white woman and talks about how their dynamic has transformed him into a person who is even more proud of his Latino upbringing.

“I believe [race] is a conversation we need to be having, especially in this climate,” Rivera said. “I’m speaking on the duality of being an American-born Latino like myself who is trying to assimilate but is also not trying to lose my culture.”

Super White includes jokes about why Rivera loves shopping for produce at Whole Foods Market and how his mother makes fun of him for drinking fancy bottled water (“Aye, mira. Mr. Fiji. He’s too good for tap water now”). Rivera also talks about raising his 3-year-old and 7-year-old sons, so they will know their Latino roots, and explains what “level of whiteness” his wife falls under.

“We balance each other out,” Rivera said of his wife, Katie. “I open her eyes to a lot of stuff that she might not have been hip to.”

Their relationship and the way they raise their kids comes down to never losing sight of what’s culturally important to the family — whether it’s making tamales for Christmas or teaching his sons Spanish.

“Come the holidays, it’s all about Día de Muertos and los Tres [Reyes] Magos,” he said. “I’m walking that fine line of what it means to be American in this country but not losing my identity. I’m going to stay true to myself, but in the end, we all start blending.”

Entre Nos Presents: Erik Rivera: Super White is available November 1, 2019, starting at 9:30 p.m. on HBO Latino and all of HBO’s digital platforms (HBO GO, HBO Now, and HBO on Demand).