Erik Rivera on Comedy as a Healing Process

For Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked Latine comedians and creators we admire how comedy has supported them in overcoming trauma and confronting life’s most significant challenges. Read the pieces here.

Erik Rivera’s life is good. Joining our Zoom session from his Los Angeles home, the writer, actor, and comedian is all smiles beneath a worn baseball cap. Maybe it’s that sunny weather Angelinos are always bragging about. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s worked hard to achieve what he has now: a respectable career, a stable marriage, and two wonderful boys. Either way, the contrast between where he once was and his current status isn’t lost on him, even if it is lost on his kids.

“My kids have no idea how good they have it,” the comic says with a laugh.

Growing up as the child of a Puerto Rican father and Guatemalan mother in New Rochelle, NY, Rivera knows the value of a dollar all too well. He spent his younger years navigating between his parents’ immigrant sensibilities and the pressures of American life. Unsurprisingly, that dichotomy is something that Rivera has been able to mine for comedic gold, incorporating it into his stand-up along with other aspects of his life, like his interracial marriage and what it’s really like raising two boys. But, despite a lifelong love for stand-up, comedy as a career wasn’t something that Rivera saw in the cards.

“When you come from immigrant parents, you don’t know that that’s a career. You’re hammered into the usual, like doctor, lawyer, and told, ‘Do something that’s consistent and brings in consistent money,'” Rivera says. So Rivera planned to attend Pace University to pursue a degree in communications. Then 9/11 happened.

“[After 9/11], they reopened [the school] because they had been using the campus as a triage center. And I remember going back, and it was just this eerie feeling. There was soot everywhere. We’re watching trucks bring debris out daily. Kids were just not feeling comfortable,” Rivera recalls.

In an attempt to escape the morbid atmosphere, Rivera and a friend went to a comedy club, which they were shocked to find packed.

“People wanted to forget,” the comedian says plainly. Then, the idea came to him to organize a comedy night on campus and give his fellow students the opportunity to come together and heal through laughter.

“Stand-up comedy is such a pure art form . . . no matter what you’re going through in your day, you come out to a show, and for an hour and a half, those problems you have, you leave them at the door, and you have a good time,” Rivera says. “Yeah, they’ll still be there [when you leave], but you get to relax and release.”

But while helping others through their trauma by organizing comedy shows was great, a part of Rivera wanted more. As a kid, he’d seen John Leguizamo’s “Mambo Mouth,” which immediately sparked something in him. Here was somebody from his culture, talking about things he could relate to. Now, as an adult, organizing stand-up nights and rubbing elbows with comedians, he has had the chance to tell his own story and use it to help people come to terms with theirs.

“I remember there was one night sitting [at a comedy show], and it was the first time I saw how the rabbit was pulled out of the hat. Like, I saw the setup, I saw the punchline, I saw how the guy was leading the audience one way and playing with their emotions of feeling frustrated, of anger, and releasing it with laughter,” he says.”I was like, ‘I think I can do this.'”

A month later, he was onstage at a club called Hamburger Harry’s in Times Square. For most of us, the thought of just jumping into the deep end like that would be unfathomable. But for Rivera, it’s what makes stand-up special. It’s not just about telling jokes, but about putting yourself out there — exposing your pain and hardships in service of the audience.

“Look, you can get up there and write jokes; there are amazing joke writers out there,” Rivera says. “But [the real connection comes] from the vulnerability. Yeah, we find it through stereotypes, but there’s also that vulnerability of ‘hey, this is happening to me,’ and people can relate to that.”

For him, comedy is an outlet, a way to explore certain aspects of his life that aren’t always neat or pretty, whether it’s his mother-in-law suggesting having a Mexican mariachi band for Rivera’s rehearsal dinner or making a point to keep the fridge stocked with guacamole just for him. Exploring these issues on stage allows him not only to process them in a healthy way, but also take the audience on the journey with him.

This is why stand-up comedy has traditionally been such a path to success for oppressed or marginalized communities. Our hardships can make for a good laugh that helps lighten the load we carry. But channeling that pain can be tricky. Rivera admits he’s made the mistake of trying to explore certain traumas before the wounds have fully healed — specifically, his father’s passing from Parkinson’s disease.

“I’m not gonna lie to you, when I first started doing that story on stage, it was dicey. I wasn’t ready to start talking about it,” he says.

But then something beautiful happened. The more Rivera worked on the material, the more he refined the story about his father, and the more people started coming up to him after his shows to thank him and tell him they were going through something similar.

“Anytime you’re going through something, you feel like, ‘I’m the only one going through this.’ We’re all going through it; it’s just that nobody talks about it,” he says.

For this reason, writing has become a part of Rivera’s healing process. Even if he hasn’t gotten the distance from what he’s going through, even if he can’t see the funny just yet or isn’t ready to bring it to the stage, his mind is always working it over on the chance that someday he’ll be able to share it. He journals frequently, seeing it as a kind of “map” of how he gets through difficult times. The comedian also mentions the important role running plays in helping him process his thoughts.

“Everybody should have some kind of quiet time or meditation or something to get you out of your own head and your own space,” Rivera says.

Whether it’s working through material on stage or running in the fair weather of Los Angeles, Rivera has his. Throughout our conversation, he exudes a kind of self-assuredness that comes from working on his bits, which is actually him working on himself. Now, he’s ready for what comes next, even if it’s not necessarily comedy.

“You always have to evolve, man,” he says.”You have to do everything, you have to write, you have to direct. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the harder it is for them to say no to you.”

Rivera does all of that. During the pandemic, he wrote an animated show he’s looking to shop around in the future. And while he still loves comedy and shares that it will always be how he heals and helps others heal, he also admits that there are more ways to tell the stories that matter.

“Having kids changed my perspective on everything,” he says. “Watching television and not seeing the representation there, where my kids aren’t even seeing themselves . . . now I’ve sort of pivoted to, let’s write these next TV projects so we can see ourselves there.”

Rivera wants to see more than just the stereotypical Latine narratives about “border crossing trauma” or “we gotta save the taco shop.” He just wants to see regular shows about Latines as regular people with regular problems, working through those problems the same way he has and continues to do.

“That’s my next goal in life, to make these shows that people can laugh at and watch together and vibe with and just happen to have Latinos in them,” he concludes.

Miguel Machado is a journalist with expertise in the intersection of Latine identity and culture. He does everything from exclusive interviews with Latin music artists to opinion pieces on issues that are relevant to the community, personal essays tied to his Latinidad, and thought pieces and features relating to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture.

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