For Matt Stein, the loss of his eyesight in 2011 was the start of a comedy career.
"When I could see I was a smart-ass," the Peoria native said in a phone interview from Madison, Wis., "And then when I lost my sight I was 'optimistically funny' somehow."
Billing himself as "Blind Stein," the 29-year-old Peoria native won a summer comedy contest at The Speakeasy in Rock Island, earning him headliner status in a showcase of the top five finishers Saturday at the club.
Stein has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease where the blood doesn't allow the proper nutrients to the corneas, he said.
After a few successful open mic nights in 2011, one of Stein's first big breaks was as an opening act for comedian Costaki Economopolous.
"My vision was shrinking down by then," he said. "My right eye was pretty well blacked out and my left eye was like looking through a paper towel roll."
Only scheduled to go five minutes, Stein got enough laughter and an adrenaline rush that took him through a 15-minute set.
"It just kept rolling and rolling," said Stein, who was called back out on stage and praised by the national comedian.
Knowing he was losing his eyesight — which is now like looking through a coffee stirrer, he said — "I wanted to see a Denver sunset before I lost it completely. So I moved to Denver, kind of couch-crashed with a couple of friends and started hitting the open-mic scene heavier then."
He later moved to Chicago, where his $800 a month disability payments didn't last long, then moved back to Peoria. He's one of the house comics at a club in Mason City, Ill., and counts Peoria comedy legends Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison among his idols.
Although being blind is a fact of life for Stein, it doesn't dominate his comedy sets.
"It definitely gets brought up because a lot of my comedy is my life," he said. "I myself put people in awkward situations, because I do everything that I used to do when I could see. That kind of freaks people out a little bit."
Stories he shares include growing up being legally blind at night, where as a teenager he had to teach friends how to drive his stick-shift car to get them both home.
"That was a part-time job for me, not being able to see half the time," he said.
Now just able to tell the difference between light and dark, Stein said part of his humor is adjusting to his blindness.
"It's still a huge learning curve for sure," he said.