My first stand-up gig was by far my hardest. Don’t get me wrong, I was funny, and it was great being up in front of an audience, but getting there was hard. Not just for the fact that the nearest comedy club wasn’t wheelchair friendly, but more that the chair makes people want to not laugh.
“I don’t think we can help you out,” explained Mr. Waylon (we’ll call him Mr. Waylon), “because, well, people in wheelchairs make people…”
“Laugh?” I asked, hoping that was the answer.
“Uneasy,” he sighed.
Even so, I was able to convince Waylon I should perform. Waylon has no sense of humor, which is actually a pretty good idea for a comedy club owner, but not so much for a manager. I convinced him people would come in for the novelty of a not-so stand-up comedian. So we signed the papers and I started going over my act for the next few days. I was up on Friday night.
So the big night rolled around and it turned out I was right; the place was packed. They had already been warmed up and were a little tipsy and I was ready to go in for the kill. A couple of the bartenders lifted my chair and me onto the stage and I wheeled on out.
I looked at them for a minute, looking at me. Some of them looked confused, some agitated, some almost concerned. I have to admit, this left me a little phased. I was expecting a wave of goodwill, some encouragement for being “so brave,” as they like to call it when us non-walking folk do anything at all. But no, I was getting the concern kids give a dead bird. “Poor little birdie,” says Suzy. This is quickly followed by, “No I will not touch it!” I was a dead cardinal in a polka dot bowtie.
“What?” I asked them. They stayed quiet and I glanced down. “It’s the tie, isn’t it?” I started taking it off. “My wife bought me this thing and it would break her heart to know you guys didn’t find it funny. Truth to tell, I hate it.” They chuckled and I decided to let them know what they were in for. “I was worried for a second you guys were all quiet because of the chair, which couldn’t have been the case. You can all read, can’t you? Then you weren’t befuddled by the wheelchair comedian ads, were you?”
The ones who still had sticks up their butts after the bowtie thing start smiling, offering “Well…” and “Yeah…”
Those of you who have done public speaking of any sort know you have to get your audience on your side, and I had about everyone. Everyone except those people. “Those people” is how I refer to… those people who see me and think, “Oh great. He’s gonna talk about being in a wheelchair. How unexpected.” I had a message for them.
“And for those of you,” I began, sounding stuffy as possible, “who are worried I’m going to spend my time up here talking about being in a wheelchair, I’m just going to let you know that you are, of course, absolutely right.” I could tell a couple of the people out there were some of them, particularly a fat old white dude with a perpetual jowl-frown. “But let me assure you I am not here for your pity. As a matter of fact, by tonight’s end you should all hope to be as fortunate as I. And hey, give me a break, will ya? You don’t have to be so hard-up about everything.”
I notice a pair of young lovers in the back. They are making out like there’s no tomorrow. I think about picking on them, but stick to the script instead. “Now, your parents probably told you not to laugh at people in wheelchairs and let me tell you, that simply is not fair. We can be funny, too. And, hey, we laugh at you guys.” A few members of my audience seemed legitimately shocked by this. “Yeah, we do. You guys trip and stub your toes and get bad knees and all I ever have to worry about is a can of WD-40 to keep me going strong. And as for us making fun of those less fortunate, which we all do (the honest ones always nod with me), my friends and I make terrible fun of quadriplegics. When we’re feeling really mean, we’ll sit in front of a few of ‘em and just comb our hair, talk about how great it is to be able to wipe our own asses.” The young couple in back have started paying attention with all the laughter going on around them, and cease to interest me. Now I’m gunning for the alcoholic on the end of the bar. He will pay attention to me. “So please, I give you permission, no, I implore you, please, laugh at me. It determines whether or not I’ll be able to keep up my extravagant lifestyle, including all the fine dinging I do. See, people ask me how I stay so fit, and I tell them I cannot cook very well at all. I make my wife do it. ‘What’s the difference?’ you ask.” I lean toward them, whispering into the mic. “She can’t use her arms.” The guy at the bar is still unimpressed, and I wonder why he’s here. “So we go out a lot. And I scratch her nose for her. This is one of the nice things about being in a chair, one of many by the way, is any place is a sit down place.” My audience, save a few stragglers, is with me.
“Oh, yeah,” I tell them, “there are lots of neat things you can do in a wheelchair. And I don’t just mean this,” I pop a wheelie, one of the first tricks I learned. “For instance, you’re at a coffee shop and you want cocoa in your joe. If you ask for it, they’ll tell you to put it in yourself. Me, I wheel on up to the counter and try to reach for it while balancing my coffee and lo and behold I have a pretty young lady bestowing the chocolaty richness unto me. Before, I was an asshole. Now, I’m pampered, and people are too busy being nice to notice I’m still an asshole.” Now my friend jowls is smirking, so I’m not too worried about him anymore. Bourbon over there is not rapt, but there’s still time. “The comfort of being yourself is the joy of the chair. If I get a little drunk at the ol’ watering hole, I don’t have to worry about stumbling home. My only concern is a drunk driving ticket.” I wobbly wheel around a little for effect.
This is where I like taking people with the wheelchair jokes: the mean stuff. They think being in a chair is so horrible. They can’t imagine how they would get by. Screw that. They like being taken here, anyway. “Incidentally, I entered the legions of gimp when a drunk driver hit me with his car, so naturally people ask if I’ve an aversion to alcohol. I can assure you I don’t. In fact, I’m a little buzzed right now.” I did waggle my eyebrows and I’m pretty sure they believe me. “But when people ask if I want to crusade against drunk driving, I get a little pissed. If you,” I tried not to motion directly toward the fella at the end of the bar, but to little avail, “want to get absolutely smashed and drive home and wrap yourself around a telephone pole, be my guest. Just don’t hurt anybody else. Other than that, go for it. Be the drunk you always knew you could be! I’m asked sometimes to go to schools and tell kids not to drink and drive. This happens on a lot of prom weeks. I tell those principals, ‘Hey, the kids might enjoy it and who am I to tell them not to?’ I hated those assemblies and they obviously didn’t do me any good.” I know I’m getting a little preachy, a little angry, and I decide to pull back. “People also ask me if I miss it. You know, using my legs. I tell them, ‘Oh hell no!’ What’s so great about your legs? Always havin’ to walk places, do things.” I glanced over toward the bar. The guy left and I was proud. “I wasn’t partial to walking, I hated running and I will never have to do it again.” Some of the dopes out there really looked like they thought this sounded good. I decide not to tell them about how damn hard it is to get into a car. “The hard thing, the worst part about losing your legs, though, is the initial depression. Learning you’re a cripple is the kind of news you have to take sitting down, ya know? Anyway, when I found out, I was really depressed. I sat at home playing video games all day, eating Hot Pockets and bitching online.” At this point I grew visibly despondent, staring off into space. Then, “Which wasn’t any different than any other day, mind you. I just frowned more doing it.” In the space of the laughter I noticed the guy back at the bar. Probably just went to the can. I can see he has slicked back hair and a brown leather jacket, and now that I’m not talking about drunk driving he is looking at me. “And I was doing this for like, a long time when I realized I was looking at this whole never walking again thing the wrong way. All I could think about was how I had lost my legs. I realized a great truth, though: I gained all of yours! You people will go out of your way for me, now. You’ll push the button at crosswalks and put cream in my coffee and grab stuff from the shelf and I could easily do all of these things but I’m just too lazy! It’s great!” The laughter subsides and I’m ready to wrap up. I try not to look into the eyes of the guy at the bar with the slicked back hair and brown leather jacket, but only because the lights hurt my eyes. “And I think you all do it because you feel a little guilty. You think that by helping me out you are appreciating your legs better. Don’t do that. Take your walking for granted. That way, when you get fat, I can beat you to the last doughnut. I may not even want it, but I love the look on a fat person’s face when they see me eat a pastry their handicapable fat asses couldn’t get to in time. Because a cripple was there first.” The guy at the bar was smiling, then. I realized that for the first time that night, I was, too. “So short of that, give yourself a break, okay? Night, folks.”
I nod to the audience, get a few nods back and make my way off the stage. I’m glad that guy was there that night. No, of course he wasn’t the guy who hit me. Don’t be so melodramatic. But it felt good to let him know it was all water under the bridge, anyway.