What happens late at night in smoke-filled basement rooms and requires you to entertain drunk or hostile crowds and tell them things you’d never tell your mother?
Stand-up comedy, of course.
Now what if you have to be lifted onto the stage, in full view of the people you want to entertain? What if you’ve already scattered tables, chairs and patrons to clear a path through the room?
Comedy, again. The sit-down kind.
Paul Ryan has threaded his wheelchair through all the people and the furniture, and is being pulled up the stairs to the L.A. Cabaret’s stage by two gorillas. “The other night,” he tells the audience, “only one guy pulled me up and everybody thought it was a ventriloquist act.”
Chris “Crazy Legs” Fonseca has abandoned his wheelchair for a walker to climb the stairs, but he’s back in a chair now, onstage at the Improv. He speaks slowly and meticulously, with immense cool: “I’d like to tell you a little about myself.” The audience strains to understand his words. “I’m handicapped and I’m Mexican, so you know what that means. If you piss me off, I’m gonna pull a knife and we’re both gonna get hurt.”
Nancy Becker Kennedy has made her own transit of the crowded room, her assisted ascent to the stage at the Ice House. She stares the audience down, then lets it out: “All right, who’s the asshole who took my parking spot?”
Jeff Charlebois has been delivered to the stage of Slapstix. He softens up his audience: “What a terrible day I had today. As I was coming into the club there was an old lady getting mugged by this guy, so I went over to help. But the guy got her purse, and all I got was this crummy wheelchair.”
Different times require different tales, and necessity is the mother of invention. Ryan, halfway up the stairs, is dropped by his gorillas: “That’s it!” he screams. “No more working without a net!”
Breaking the Ice
Disabilities aren’t funny. Wheelchairs aren’t funny. Speech impediments aren’t funny. Everybody knows that.
Ryan sees the wheelchair as a symbol he has to overcome: “If you’re in a wheelchair, you’re not funny from the get-go. It’s not like you’re wearing big shoes or something. Bob Hope can show up in a golf cart and he’s funny, but I show up in a wheelchair and I’m not funny.”
“It’s almost as if they have a balloon over their heads saying ‘My mom told me not to laugh at handicapped people,'” says Fonseca. He has the slow speech and exaggerated inflection of cerebral palsy, so he makes a point of talking about it at the top of every set. “Growing up handicapped is kind of weird. It’s kind of like growing up in Texas. Any people here from Texas? (The Texans cheer.) Well sorry, because I can’t talk any slower.
“It gets it out front right away,” he says. “People can obviously see that I’m disabled, but they can also see that I’m OK.” Once, when a club owner was reluctant to hire him because his voice was hard to understand on his demo tape, Fonseca asked, “Could you understand the laughter?”
Geri Jewell, after gyrating her way onstage, her spasticity out there for everyone to see, talks about getting fired from her job in a restaurant: “They didn’t like the way I tossed a salad.” She talks about getting traffic tickets: “I’ve been pulled over once for speeding and five times for walking.”
Barbara Leigh uses her wheelchair as a platform for recitation, mime, puppetry, juggling, music and song. A part of her show has her talking to her demons: “(Beep) Hello, Barbara, this is your self-doubt. Babs, honey, are you kidding? Paraplegic mime-major problem here. We’re talking about off-the-scale embarrassment. Now, mime with a limp, we could cover; mime with a broken leg, we lower expectations; but mime in a wheelchair? We’re talking nudo and crudo. (Beep) This is your masochism. Keep up the good work. …”
Kennedy sees her disability as an asset: “I’m doing it differently than other comics, and that has tremendous potential. There’s a lot of immediate sizzle.” This realization has prompted her to rethink her opening line. She’d been urged by her instructor to be mean, “because if you’re mean, they can relax.”
“The line about the parking places wasn’t me,” Kennedy says. “I don’t think I’m mean.” Now, after the long trip through the room and onto the stage, after sensing the trepidation that emanates from every audience as a wheelchair user approaches a stage, after the interminable period while she fits the hand-held mike to her uncooperative hands, she reels them in with this gentle sarcasm: “Well, the important thing is that nobody was uncomfortable.” It’s such an obvious denial that the crowd roars with appreciation. Then she’s off: “Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Such a beautiful girl, why, why, did she have to have that awful … perm?”
Sit-down comedy is not new, though it may be riding the wave of favor comedy acts are finding nationally on television. But it’s also a tough time for comedy, because the comics are being pruned by a ruthless form of natural selection–America has seen the best in its own living rooms, so to work the clubs, you have to be better than good.
And having steady work is not the same as making lots of money. Between the open-mike sessions, when nobody gets paid, and the harsh truth that even nationally recognized comics will work prestigious clubs for nothing if they’re trying out new material, sit-down comedy is rocky enough that you shouldn’t be in a hurry to give up your daytime job or your benefits. Fame and fortune may always be a guest shot with Leno or Letterman away.
Kennedy, 41, a quadriplegic actress and comedian from Los Angeles, is rattling off her gigs for the week: “The Ice House, the Mondrian, the Hilton. …” Charlebois, 29, a quad comic from Towson, Md., is playing the Comedy Factory Outlet, Garvin’s, Ohio State University. Jewell, 33, an actress and comic with cerebral palsy from Burbank, Calif., is playing Catch a Rising Star, Yuk Yuks, the Laff Stop. Leigh, 49, a paraplegic Renaissance woman from Milwaukee, Wis., is touring her show, Survival Revival Review, produced by Milwaukee Public Theater. Ryan, 37, a Santa Monica resident who has spinal muscular atrophy, is lining up dates for Comics on Wheels, showcasing the group at the L.A. Cabaret. Fonseca, 28, a Colorado-based comic with cerebral palsy, works 35 weeks a year on the comedy club circuit all over the country, and has played Evening at the Improv and Entertainment Tonight.
What do sit-down comics talk about? Their lives.
Fonseca: “The material I do is not really handicapped jokes, it’s jokes about things that happen because I’m handicapped. I’m not doing, ‘Why did Helen Keller cross the road?'”
Kennedy: “I think people want to hear oral histories about each other, and good comedy is a good oral history about a comedian’s life.”
What’s in those lives? What’s in any disabled person’s life?
There’s the problem of meeting normies. Ryan: “Is it just me or does everyone’s IQ go down about 50 points when they see someone in a wheelchair? It’s like when you meet your girlfriend’s parents for the first time and you don’t know what to say, so you say something really dumb. ‘Gee, sir, that’s a very realistic toupee.'”
And people ask you those terrible questions like “Is your wife disabled?” Fonseca: “No, is your wife stupid and ugly?”
“Are you all right?” Ryan: “Compared to whom?”
“Can you feel your legs?” Leigh has her audiences perform this terrible and funny exercise: “I’m going to show you what it feels like to have my legs. You’re going to try to lift your right leg. Easy. Now do the same thing, but push that leg into the floor. Resist as hard as you can. That’s it. Try to lift it, but resist. Now this time, resist again–but try to lift your neighbor’s leg.”
“How did you get this way?” Kennedy: “What other strangers do you go up to in the street and say, ‘Excuse me, but could you tell me about the most traumatic thing that ever happened to you?’ I don’t go up to people and say, ‘So how was that miscarriage? Were you blue?'”
People think you were born in a wheelchair, right? Kennedy wails out in pain, then does the doctor’s part: “Mrs. Becker, we’re having a little problem here. She has her front caster lodged in your fallopian tubes. …”
Charlebois: “I was doing wheelies since before I was born–until I ran out of womb.” The audience groans. “Hey, what would you do without me? You’d have to find your own parking spots.”
Parking. A rich vein here, because the audience knows what you’re talking about. Charlebois won’t let loose: “I got a ticket the other day for parking in a regular spot.” More groans. “And I’m the guy who invented handicapped parking spaces. I was thrown out of a bar one night, and I went over the curb and tipped over sideways. The cop thought I was dead, so he outlined me in chalk.”
And then there’s the burning question of what to call us.
Kennedy: “Well there’s cripple, invalid, handicapped, physically challenged, differently abled–my own personal favorite is ‘all boogered up.'”
Fonseca: “Physically challenged really gets my goat, because to me, someone like John Elway is physically challenged. I don’t have three lineman chasing after me. I’m not physically challenged.”
Ryan: “A lot of it has to do with the language that’s used to describe a disabled person. It’s never enough to say that someone is using a wheelchair. No, we’re confined, bound, glued, velcroed, nailed, stapled. …”
Hairdos are a persistent theme. Jewell: “I was getting married, and my hairdresser made me look like Little Orphan Annie. I was very upset, and he said, ‘Geri, don’t worry about it. In two weeks it will relax.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. I don’t have two weeks. This is the only part of my body I can control, and you just screwed it up!’ He said, ‘OK, Geri, we’ll put some more chemicals in your hair to relax the perm.’ This is a relaxed perm. My hair is beyond relaxed. My hair is in a coma. My hair is chemically dependent!”
The little things of life. Charlebois on drinking: “Sometimes I drink so much I can walk.” Jewell on women’s issues: “You know what’s the hardest thing about having cerebral palsy and being a woman?” Her hand jerks in front of her face. “It’s plucking my eyebrows. How do you think I got pierced ears?” Fonseca on his spasticity: “I went to Six Flags and won a teddy bear. Well, I didn’t really win it; they gave it to me so I’d put down the rifle.”
Sex, of course, is the stock subject that comics turn to for shock value and attention. But sex isn’t shocking. Sex and disability is shocking. Everybody knows people with disabilities can’t, or shouldn’t, have sex.
Kennedy: “Let me clarify any misconceptions right now,” she says as she sets up the kill. “People with disabilities can have sex. We’re just specially challenged when it comes to getting paid for it.”
Jewell: “How many of you felt the earthquake? I didn’t. I was sound asleep and my husband woke me up. He said, ‘Geri? Did you feel the earthquake?’ I said, ‘Richard, I told you–I saw the fireworks, I felt the earth move. How many times do I gotta tell you?'”
Ryan: “Last night my girlfriend asked me to tie her up. Great, now neither one of us can move.”
Jewell, on an early fling: “I didn’t tell him I had CP. He thought I was having a continuous orgasm!”
Then there’s air travel. Ryan: “My main complaint is that I can’t go to the bathroom on the plane. Now I know what my dog feels like when I lock him inside the house all day. Never mind the pillow and blanket, lady, bring me some shrubbery.”
Leigh: “Welcome to Incontinental Flight T-10. There will be no bowel or bladder control on today’s flight. If you encounter a full bladder, a catheter will descend from the overhead panel. Please insert as illustrated on the card located in the seat pocket. On behalf of the crew, thank you for flying Incontinental.”
Do audiences respond and do barriers fall? It seems so.
Kennedy: “I can feel that something very important is going on every time I perform. I see that people really like the humor and it’s a tremendous relief for me to get to say things I never could say. When I’m onstage, I can say all the unspoken things, and all those unspoken things are the wall between disabled people and ablebodied people. It’s such a relief!”
Leigh: “It seems to really work as a bridge for people. They come in feeling giggly or not so giggly, uncomfortable about disability, and they leave feeling that maybe they can talk to disabled people without that twinge.”
Fonseca: “When I first go on stage, you can practically hear a pin drop. A lot of times I hear murmurings on my way up to the stage–‘Oh God, what’s this guy going to do?’ By the end of the routine they for the most part have realized that I’m just another comic.”
That’s what Charlebois wants to be: “People say stuff like, ‘You’re really an inspiration.’ I say, ‘Yeah, but was I funny?'”
Kennedy gets the parting shot on the burdens of being an inspiration: “People are always saying to me, ‘Nancy, you’re such a courageous inspiration. How can you stay so positive?’ Well, I tell them what I’m going to tell you. When the storm clouds really gather and things look really tough, what I do is I lift up my chin, and count my blessings, and I compare myself to someone who’s been murdered. Good night and may God bless.”
Editor’s Note: Paul Ryan passed away in 1998.