Blind ambition: Peoria comic brings a unique aspect to his act
Peoria’s Matt Stein is not like the typical stand-up comedian most people have heard before.
Stein has performed in front of audiences all across the country, from California to the Carolinas – including a recent sold-out show in Peoria Heights.
He’s drawn inspiration from comedy legends like Peoria-area native Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. And he uses his personal experiences to generate material.
Seems pretty standard, so what sets him apart from his fellow performers? Matt Stein is blind.
“I started off in comedy briefly after I lost my vision. So uniquely, I was able to take the perspective of having sight for 25 years and kind of morph that into my new life of not having it, and kind of flip-flopping those around,” said Stein, who started his foray into stand-up in 2012.
“So about – what is that, 11 years if I can do math?”
Stein was born with a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes a slow progression of vision loss.
“I was always legally blind at night as a kid, and then slowly tunnel vision kind of developed and kind of hit all the checkpoints,” he said. “I had a driver's license, but stopped driving at 19 because it was within my shoulders and I didn't feel comfortable. Then slowly it just closed off right around my early 30s, and now it’s just colored spiraling Slinkys and flashing booms of light all the time.”
Performing as “Blind Stein,” he does incorporate his lack of sight into his routine – but not extensively.
“I try not to get too hacky and into the niche, but it definitely needs to be addressed,” Stein said. “Sometimes people, when I first get on stage, you can feel the awkwardness because they're just like, ‘Is this real? Can we laugh at this?’ So it just, I would say it's a 60/40 mix that flip flops, depending on show to show.”
Stein’s November show at the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts kicked off a four-month, third-Friday comedy series called Caliente, hosted by Café Santa Rosa.
Upcoming shows feature Greg Batton and Kyle Fields on Dec. 15 and James Draper on Jan. 19. Stein will be the opening act for headliner Mike Armstrong at the series finale on Feb. 16.
“I'm a local Peoria boy (and) I love this city,” Stein said. "I feel like we need to help expand the opportunity for the art of comedy to have a couple different venues in which people can either perform and or go and enjoy the entertainment."
So why did Stein turn to comedy after losing his sight?
“Beforehand, I just did – like, I roofed and poured concrete, and was in retail. Of course, when you can't see, all those options are definitely out the window, and it's like, ‘all right, what can I do?’” Stein said. “And just after the events kind of happened, the way that I kind of burdened it, everyone seemed to think that like when I could see I was kind of a smart aleck, and now that I was blind I was optimistically funny.
“Nothing changed, you know; it was just other people's perspectives, and I just kind of ran with it. It was like, I only had so many tools in my bag and having kind of a silver tongue in a carefree attitude allowed me to kind of just dive right into this stand-up game.”
Stein said one of the biggest challenges his blindness presents is related to getting from one show to the next.
“I'm in my mid-30s, single, and I have, like, 17 states that I perform in. So the travel aspect is always unique, because being a blind guy rolling on a Greyhound can get sketchy pretty quick,” Stein said. “Luckily, I was born in Peoria where it creates a certain breed of human here in the Peoria area. So it's like, you trust people but you also know not to trust people all at the same time.”
On stage, Stein said the biggest issue related to his blindness is getting the signal to wrap-up.
“When I first started, the running time – you know, you'd only get a certain amount of time and then they would show you the light to let you know that like your time was up,” Stein said. “So I had to learn how to start a mental clock because I was blowing through those, pretty repeatedly.”
Stein said his audiences respond well to the “Blind Stein” act, particularly in his hometown.
“The reaction here in Peoria is great, because everyone does hold true to the mirage of with Pryor being from here and Sam Kinison being from here,” he said. “There is a little bit of pride in the comedy game in Peoria. But also, it’s Peoria crowds are also no nonsense. We're definitely a nice melting pot of all different cultures and mindsets. So I think it helps kind of develop your comedic game, because you have to be able to go high-brow or low-brow, and you can't just stay in one vein and expect to grow.”