The Current

David Roche has built a career joking that his face is a 'gift from God' — but he's not kidding

David Roche's face was first bathed in a spotlight more than 30 years ago, when he stepped onto a San Francisco stage to deliver a comedy routine in front of a champagne-sipping crowd, but people have been staring at him his whole life.

Roche was recently awarded the Order of Canada for his contributions to the field of disability art

Order of Canada winner David Roche is a self-proclaimed "inspirational humourist" who took to the stage with jokes and personality to explain his facial difference so that others could get past it. (Tanya Workman)

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David Roche's face was first bathed in a spotlight more than 30 years ago, when he stepped onto a San Francisco stage to deliver a comedy routine in front of a champagne-sipping crowd, but people have been staring at him his whole life.

Roche, 78, was born in Hammond, Ind., with a large face tumour. When surgeons removed and radiated it, it left the left quarter of his face mottled by burns, appearing to almost melt in a scribble of veins.

"There is purple, red, violet — actually, quite lovely colours — on one side of my face, which got affected by radiation when I was one year old. It did not grow as well as the rest of me, so is noticeably smaller," Roche told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Yet, with all of that … I'm actually quite cute." 

In December, Roche, who now lives Roberts Creek, B.C., was awarded the Order of Canada for what he calls his "inspirational humour" work writing books, blogging and appearing on stage everywhere from comedy festivals to schools. He's also starred in and written films, including: Shameless: The Art of DisabilityHappy Face and Love at Second Sight, featuring his wife of 25 years, Marlena Blavin. 

The Order of Canada recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication and service to the nation. Roche was awarded the honour for "his pioneering contributions to the field of disability art, and for promoting acceptance, inclusion and diversity across Canada and the United States."

Using humour to help healing 

Roche grew up in the Chicago area and moved later to San Francisco. He was the eldest of seven children in an Irish-Catholic family. He didn't always accept his facial difference as a gift, he says, and when he was younger he abused alcohol. But, during recovery, he happened to take a class about using comedy to help with healing.

They put on a show, and that's where he first performed. He got applause, laughter and a career idea.

"If you want to be funny, you don't tell jokes. You just tell the truth about your life," said Roche.

As part of his shows, he said that he always challenges the audience to ask what happened to his face. Then, within minutes, he watches the perception of who he is shift as he confronts them with confidence, wisecracks and an open heart.

Roche says he challenges audiences to ask what happened to his face. Roche was just awarded the Order of Canada for more than 30 years of work changing the way others relate to physical differences. (Mark McNulty)

"I am out there looking disfigured, which I am, but in about 10 minutes, I transform myself into somebody very attractive," he said.

Roche said he relishes the effect he sees on his younger audiences.

"I often get told that I changed people's lives. I'm funny. I'm physical and I'm authentic," he said.

Roche jokes that his face was God's gift, if at first unwanted,

"We do know things about the human condition that you 'handsome people' don't necessarily know, and that is how to find inner confidence," said Roche.

Awareness of facial differences

More than 2 million people in Canada are living with a facial difference of some kind, according to the charity AboutFace. These differences can be congenital (such as a birthmark or cleft palate), acquired (the result of a disease such as cancer, or an accident), or episodic (such as Bell's Palsy). 

Roche makes no apologies for using his disability to inspire others. To Roche, it's not his facial difference that makes him an inspiration. It's what he did with it.

"Well the fact is ... I am [an inspiration.] I feel like everybody needs inspiration. I certainly do," Roche said.

By speaking out about his face, he's now plugged into a global community of people with facial differences, and he hopes he's changed the way others relate to physical and other differences.

"When I [first] stepped on stage, I was alone. I am no longer alone," said Roche.

Not 'inspiration porn'

But some in the disability community might see Roche's brand of inspiration as a trope they'd like to escape. Stella Young was an Australian comedian who coined the term "inspiration porn" in 2012. It is the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspiring on the sole basis of their disability.

In a 2014 Ted Talk, months before her death at age 32, Young explained how people with disabilities are not there for people's inspiration. "[Disability] is not a bad thing and it doesn't make you exceptional," she said.

But Roche said he believes his facial difference propelled him to do psychological strength training that others do not realize the value of.

"Everybody has a place inside themselves where they feel disfigured, ashamed, body shamed, stupid, fat, etc. With a face like I have I am forced to deal with it. I can't fake it," he said.

"That's why it's a gift. I had to go inside and find that self-confidence. And you know what? Everybody does."

Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Kate Cornick.

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