The most basic elements of being a stand-up comedian are, quite obviously, standing up and telling jokes.
Six weeks after suffering a stroke, Rodney Perry entered a conference room at the VA hospital in Denver eager to find out if he could still do either.
This performance would go a long way toward determining whether he could resume his career as a comedy headliner and actor. It also was a perfect thank-you gift for his caregivers, especially the therapists who’d studied YouTube videos of his shows in hopes of getting him back to moving and talking at his best.
He hadn’t been this nervous since his first open-mic night.
Using mostly new material – partly because he couldn’t remember some of his old lines, partly because the hospital stay provided great fodder – Perry proved he still had it. Two months later, he launched the “FAST & Funny” tour.
While the logo borrowed from “The Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, the real homage involved the acronym FAST, which teaches the warning signs of a stroke. Because as much as Perry wanted to keep audiences laughing, his new calling is stroke awareness. He wants to teach people how to recognize when someone is having a stroke and, better yet, how to prevent it.
Perry’s devotion comes from the least-funny part of his story: How easily his stroke could have been avoided.
Around Sept. 15, 2016, Perry was talking to his assistant, Madeline Smith. Only, she couldn’t understand him. He was slurring his words. It lasted only a few minutes and neither thought much of it.
The next week, Perry flew into Charlotte, North Carolina, for a show. Getting off the plane, he stubbed a toe on his left foot. At least, that’s what it felt like. But he was on flat ground; there was nothing to have stubbed it on.
“Focus,” he told himself. “You’re just tired.”
The afternoon of Sept. 30, Perry was talking to writer-comedian Joey Wells about another comedian, Mickey Gordon, who’d just suffered a stroke. Wells described how Gordon felt in the hours leading up to it.
“I feel like that right now,” Perry thought.
Knowing that he hadn’t been taking his high blood pressure medicine, Perry became frightened enough that he called another friend, a physician’s assistant. Told to get his blood pressure checked, Perry walked across the street to a store with a BP machine. His reading: 221/140, two extraordinarily high numbers.
“This is where the story gets really dumb,” Perry said. “I had this thought, `If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die on stage.’”
Perry powered through his show.
The only hint of trouble was how often he leaned against a wall. But at some point during the night, he confessed to Rion Evans – his brother and opening act – that he wasn’t feeling well. He asked Evans to take him to the VA hospital at the end of the night. They left right after the final laugh.
Perry figured he’d get some medicine blood-pressure lowering medicine in the emergency room and be on his way.
When he arrived at the VA, Perry – a Navy veteran – hadn’t yet suffered the stroke. He was only spiralling toward it.
It hit while he was in the ER.
Perry spent eight days in intensive care. The next 32 days were spent in rehabilitation, relearning how to be Rodney Perry.
He also got a crash course in stroke, the No. 5 killer in the U.S. and a leading cause of long-term disability among adults.
Perry suffered the most common kind, an ischemic stroke. The blood supply to his brain was blocked. Because he was already in the hospital, time was on his side. Doctors soon cleared the blockage, reducing damage to his body.
Still, Perry needed to use a wheelchair. He was so determined to walk – and walk well – that he sneaked out of his room at night to get in more steps.
Eighteen months later, he considers his balance close to where it was before. However, he’s still working on his finesse.
“I’ve got to get the swag back in my walk,” he said, laughing.
Most other deficiencies have returned. The biggest problem is his energy level.
“I’m like a cell phone that won’t keep a charge,” he said. “I’m great if I get my rest and get back to 100 percent.”
As an African-American man, Perry was at an elevated risk of stroke compared to white men, with nearly twice the chance of dying from a stroke. Poor diet, infrequent exercise, drinking and smoking further upped his odds.
High blood pressure is a major cause of stroke. Perry rolled the dice even more by not taking his BP-lowering medicine.
Then there were the warning signs he missed: the slurred speech (that’s the S in FAST) and the balance problem.
“Had I known about FAST, I would not have had a stroke,” he said.
Had he better understood his risks, he might have never even come close.
“Eighty percent of strokes are preventable,” he said. “When you hear those numbers, it’s staggering. That information can change your whole outlook.”
During his first few days in the hospital, Perry did a lot of soul-searching.
“I’m like, `God, you could’ve texted me this little stroke thing,’” he said. “Then I began dealing with it, mentally. I wondered, `What am I going to learn from this?’”
Like many survivors, Perry believes he was spared to use his story to help others. He certainly has the platform – and the personality.
He’s hosted Bounce TV’s “Off The Chain!” and co-hosted “Who’s Got Jokes” and BET’s “The Mo’Nique Show.” His acting credits span dramas and comedies, including the role of Harold in the movie “Madea’s Big Happy Family.”
“I’m a comedian by profession but also by choice,” he said. “I love making people laugh, telling jokes.”
He talks about FAST and prevention whenever he can, on stage and off. He’s been especially vocal in May, which is American Stroke Month.
He knows he’s making a difference, too, like the friend whose stroke was immediately identified by his wife because she’d learned FAST from Perry. He’s also lost weight and overhauled his lifestyle, prompting some of his closest friends in comedy to follow his lead.
“They were smoking cigars and eating horribly,” he said. “Now we sit around and talk comedy over salads.”
Perry is freshening up his act again, ready to launch the “Survivor” tour. His new routine offers more clever ideas and wordplay, and less physical comedy – working smarter, not harder, he proudly notes.
“I’m more honest than I’ve ever been,” he said. “Great comedy always comes from an honest place. Standing on stage and talking about my stroke lets me do that. …
“I thank God for the stroke. Really, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Life is about perspective. As I step back and look at the broader picture, I have a new perspective. My stroke prepared me to live.”