FT. PIERCE – When teacher and stand-up comic Mike Rivera was named “America’s Most Hilarious Teacher,” through a competition on “The View,” he found himself hanging out with Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin and Sigourney Weaver. Each told him how much teachers had meant to them and their success. “Everyone I met let me know how inspirational their teachers were and gave me props for that,” he said.
Rivera, an American History teacher at a middle school in Pinellas County, has been honing the arts of teaching and comedy for many years. He brings his stand up to the Comedy Club in the Black Box Theatre of the Sunrise Theatre June 27 and spoke recently by phone about his dual careers.
“American history was my passion,” he said. “I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York reading encyclopedias. One of the biggest challenges is getting kids to read. How do you engage them? Their attention span is about a minute-and-a half. If they’re not engaged, they’re flat-lining.”
Rivers sees many parallels between teaching and performing. “I’m working the room,” he said. “A headlining set is 45 minutes to an hour. A class is 54 minutes. (When I’m teaching,) I’m doing six shows in a row. When I’m done, I take two minutes to clear my head before the kids come in. They haven’t seen it before. In comedy, we shut the door for ½ hour between shows. In teaching, it’s two minutes. I have to refocus and start up. When the door opens, I’m working that class.”
Rivera appeared three times on “The View” as part of the “Most Hilarious Teacher” competition. It changed his life. “It opened up a whole new world,” he said. “My friend said I should do this and I said, ‘Maybe I should.” I had two hours to fill out an application and send in clips. Club comedy is very different from television comedy. They picked five finalists from North America and I won. The day Barbara Walters returned (from illness) was their highest-rated day and the day they announced I won. “Mayor Bloomberg was there and Regis Philbin. I got to meet Lily Tomlin. She was one of the greatest character comics. Sigourney Weaver bumped into me and introduced herself. She knew I was ‘the teacher guy.’ You have to play it cool, but you wasn’t to start screaming, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Rivera’s success was big news at his school and he expected to return home to high fives. When he walked into the school, everyone screamed, but when he walked into his class, there was complete silence. “I brought out my stool, which is the signal to talk,” Rivera said. “Finally, one kid asked, ‘Are you leaving us?’ Seconds later, another said, ‘Yeah, are you gonna leave?’ I was so taken aback. It affected me. It was the first time I really knew how much impact I have on my students. I said, “No, I’m not going to leave.’” I realized I wasn’t going to leave my kids.”
His presence on “The View” has led to increased bookings. During the school year, he usually works two weekends a month. During the summer, he works non-stop. He has also started doing ‘teacher shows,’ where he and several others do comedy centered around schools and teaching,
“That’s really taking off,” he said. “All the comics want a niche. I’ve had it all along.”
He has also gotten a book deal and is in the editing stage of “From Stand-Up Comic to Stand-Up Teacher.” “It’s about using strategies from stand up comedy and putting them in the classroom,” he said. “You don’t have to be a stand up comic. You can do it your way, I’m giving a structure. It’s about building teacher-student relationships, being engaged and knowing boundaries. I’m a student advocate and my students know that. When they say, ‘we,’ they mean we, the teacher and students. When you can say that, you got ’em.”
Rivera’s stand up show at the Sunrise is about more than teaching. I talk about everything,” he said. “Everything is on the table, from kids to traveling to being a single dad and dating to being middle-aged. I love to do improv, like to have fun. I have a set routine, but if something happens, I can go off for a few minutes. I played the Sunrise Black Box a year ago. There are no tables. Their focus is intense. It’s almost like working a classroom. Casey (Peruski) and Spaz (McGoorty) run a room so well. They’re happy to have you there and they pump you up.”
Mike Rivera appears at the Comedy Club at the Sunrise Theatre’s Black Box Theatre, 117 S. Second St., Fort Pierce June 27 at 8:30 p.m. Ticket are $15 or call for tickets (772) 461-4775 or online