Che Guerrero has always had a great knack for conveying one of his signature jokes about being undocumented for over 20 years with an awesome escape story. One of my favorites goes a little something like this:
“I got here courtesy American Airlines/I watched ‘Erin Brokovich’ my whole way for freedom.”
But after witnessing jokes like these fly off his tongue at least a dozen times, I only just realized that he never actually mentioned from where he decamped.
His answer is where our story, and his story, starts.
“You’re right, I don’t ever mention the fact that I’m originally from the Dominican Republic,” said Guerrero, who is the current Registrar at the Philly Improv Theater property.
Guerrero just got his Pennsylvania casualty and property license for a gig with State Farm Insurance. He’s using side hustles like these to fund the following goals: moving from his current home in Blackwood, New Jersey to Northeast Philly in order to be closer to Spanish language communities.
“I’d like to sell insurance without overcharging them, which is a big deal,” said Guerrero, who mentioned his other goal is to “build a small Spanish language club for comedy.”
In the immediate, Guerrero will record his first live album at Punch Line Philly as the headliner on back-to-back nights (July 24-25).
In the joke version of his life, his arrival to the United States is met with arguments from his mother about wearing sweaters to blend in. In real life, Guerrero, his sister China and his mother left to escape an abusive father.
“The problem was resolved early on, but I always felt as if I was collateral damage to that resolve,” he said. “I’m safe, but there is no relationship with my father.”
Landing and living in Blackwood, New Jersey, Guerrero does not play the personal-pain-for-laughs card. Instead, his work is swift and cruelly observational, yet he comes off as breezily at ease with his circumstances.
“I say those things to a group of strangers because my family refuses to hear it,” he said. “My family hasn’t even watched my stand-up because they find what I do to be disrespectful. The Latin community isn’t one to talk. Their formative years in the Dominican Republic were lived under a dictatorship, a heavy information blanket. These were people who didn’t realize World War II had happened, they were so secluded. My family brought that trauma with them, and they do not feel as if they can or will discuss that trauma.”
Guerrero will discuss it. It’s his only ways of dealing with the heartache and loss.
“And that makes you crazy,” he said.
Guerrero was 18, in high school and preparing for a life in medicine of some sort while living out of his uncle’s house. He was dissuaded — hard — from furthering his path to college. “‘You’re a fucking immigrant, what are you thinking of college for?’” his family would say.
Thinking he had little future, Guerrero took the advice of a girl he was dating at the time who thought he was “mad funny.”
“I had no idea where I could go with that. I mean, I was working at Toys ‘R’ Us,” Guerrero said. “I was trying to get a certified nursing certificate to clean butt. What did I know?”
So Guerrero did what anyone who doesn’t know something would do: “I Googled ‘funny jobs.’”
Luckily, the job of stand-up comedian in New York City was pretty close to the top, especially considering that he didn’t realize Manhattan’s role as a comedy Mecca. “I just wanted to do something where I wouldn’t be a loser, and something that paid cash as I had no working papers,” he said.
So stand-up it was. He couldn’t afford to suck at it since he desperately needed the money and saw the luxury that comics with money in their pockets had at their disposal. “If I was bad, and didn’t get money or a follow-up gig, I didn’t eat,” he said. Starting with open mics in 2007, then shows at the New York Comedy Club in 2008, Guerrero was good, stayed good and made his nut. “I did so well that I couldn’t go back for three months. I figured I had plateaued, that I couldn’t recreate that laughter,” he said.
Fast forward to 2015-16, and Guerrero seemed to be a fully-formed member of the Philadelphia stand-up comedy family, but not before he wound up in Indianapolis at the urging of another comedian. “So I’m there, right before Trump announces his run for the Presidency, then Pence as his running mate,” he said. “Me, an immigrant, right in the middle of Trump Country. I had gone from the Dominican Republic to New York City to Indiana without truly knowing what the political dynamic of this country was. Now, I knew.”
Guerrero managed to play Indiana’s comedy circuit and book commercial ad work during the year that he was there but ran through the gamut of options quickly and plateaued hard, again. Family members and girlfriends suggested a return to Blackwood but with a focus and concentration on Philly.
“So I did, and I wanted to start fresh,” Guerrero continued. “I burned all of my old jokes and worked up new ones. I waited around at Raven Lounge [on Sansom St.] to do five minute bits at 2 a.m. I made my way through the scene fast. And Philly is a beautiful city when it comes to comedy, especially to start over. People allow you to grow, find your voice, hone it and do what makes you unique. You guys are the birthplace of the revolution and that strife, so you’re not so easily offended. That’s great for a comedian testing the waters. Truly interesting.”
As an outlier who was told he deserved little due to his undocumented status, Guerrero doesn’t beat down the Trump train too heavily, but he does keep his finger on the hot-button pulse of the socio-political now.
“Hey, my parents grew up under a dictatorship, so I get it, but Trump seems like the most dangerous president of my lifetime,” Guerrero said. “What he’s doing at the border is heartbreaking and horrendous. That’s why I’m part of the group trying to shut down the Berks Detention Center, which illegally holds families seeking asylum. With that said, however, Trump is a galvanizer. He’s inspired me not just to complain on Twitter as everybody else does. He’s made me a foot soldier, on the ground for positive change, rather than be a big topic of my act. If anything, I almost thank him for coming into office. We were becoming complicit in our own demise. He woke us up. I’m more active politically now. Maybe people will vote differently and change.”
Change is a big part of Guerrero’s new set, something audiences will recognize if they have witnessed him at Helium and see him again this week at Punch Line while he records his upcoming live album.
“Before this, I was doing stand-up in a way that would get me on TV,” Guerrero said. “Talking about dating. Talking about Tinder. Then, the more I saw Trump demonize brown people, I realized I had to speak up. See, no matter how much I try to be the type of comedian white people like, it won’t make a difference. They’ll still find some way or reason to hate me. I’d much rather use my comedy as therapy for myself — coming here at age 6 wasn’t my fault, hey, I wanted to be a surgeon — and as a platform for overcoming what we’ve been through.”
Che Guerrero | July 24-25. 8pm. Punch Line Philadelphia, 33 E. Laurel St. punchlinephilly.com