Abilities talks to four comedians with disabilities about how they crack up audiences – and maybe teach them something at the same time
THE ROOKIE: ANDRE ARRUDA
It’s a special night at the legendary Yuk Yuk’s comedy club in Toronto. In a bid to win cash prizes, dozens of comedians take turns entertaining the audience, trying to outdo each other. The competition is fierce, and every punchline fills the crowded room with bursts of laughter.
Then it’s Andre Arruda’s turn. As he slowly walks up to the stage, an awkward silence falls over the crowd. He grimaces as he struggles to get his threefoot- four frame onto the stool in front of the mic, using his cane for support. A few patrons mouth, “Does he need help?” and all of them wonder if it’s okay to laugh.
Arruda’s cane falls. People begin to shift in their seats as he gets up to retrieve it, Mr. Magoo style, only to have it fall again. He picks it up and painstakingly remounts the stool. Finally, he gets himself situated and the house lets out a collective sigh. Then, leaning into the mic, Arruda delivers the kicker: “I’ll be brief.” The room explodes in laughter.
The 24-year-old comedian, whose short stature was caused by Morquio’s syndrome, has just figuratively given the audience the finger, and they can’t get enough. More importantly, his gleeful exploitation of people’s typical gut reaction to disability puts him on equal footing with the audience and confronts their discomfort: “Yeah, I’m disabled. You know it, I know it, can we move on now?”
Arruda’s been doing comedy for five years, personally drafted by Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin out of the comedy program at Toronto’s Humber College. Arruda always dreamed of being a comedian, but there was a time, growing up in suburban Kitchener, Ontario, when he thought it was impossible. He hoped to get into an acting program at a college in Toronto, but was turned down. He was ready to give up, but a persistent high-school drama teacher pointed the talented young man toward Humber. Arruda hasn’t looked back since.
He performs every other Wednesday night at Yuk Yuk’s and has scored roles on MuchMusic’s Video On Trial and Kenny vs. Spenny. He’s also done some live theatre, playing a bank robber in John Feld’s play Oops! at last year’s Summerworks Festival in Toronto. Things are good, but Andre the “Anti-Giant” wants more. For one thing, he isn’t paid to appear at Yuk Yuk’s. Recruits promoted from amateur enter a system called the Fast Track. They receive only experience and discounts on food and drinks until Breslin decides to move them to the main roster – the path to paid gigs across the country. Arruda has been on the Fast Track for three years, watching other comics get promoted.
Three years seems to be the maximum, so Arruda thinks he’s due. He says Breslin has told him he needs to be patient, but Arruda suspects he’s languishing on the Fast Track because of untold concerns about transportation and accommodation on tour. Even the Toronto club, which was accessible when Arruda joined, moved to an inaccessible venue. “I just get some of the guys to lift my scooter in,” he says. “Part of me feels guilty I’m hurting their backs, but if they put in an elevator, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Arruda may be in limbo at the moment, but his frustration is giving him ample material for his act. “Comedy comes from difference and pain.”
THE RISING STAR: JOSH BLUE
Josh Blue is where every struggling comic wants to be. Born in Cameroon and now a resident of Denver, Colorado, he went from amateur comedian and Paralympic soccer player to winner of the most recent season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, beating out hundreds of other hopefuls. This bohemian Gomer Pyle with dirty blond hair wins over audiences with his self-deprecating humour and something he calls “The Palsy Punch,” a riff on the spastic limbs that come with having cerebral palsy. According to Blue, “It’s good in a fight because no one knows where it’s coming from and neither do I.”
Blue’s career is now in hyperspeed, with performances wedged between appearances on hit shows like Mind of Mencia, Live with Regis and Kelly and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He’s also released his first comedy DVD, 7 More Days in the Tank, based on a bit where he tries to convince a cop that he’s not drunk and just has cerebral palsy.
Despite his early success, Blue is still the same easygoing guy he’s always been, and no one is more bewildered by the past year than him. “One day I was just a regular comic and the next, everybody knew my name. It’s a world-changing experience.”
Blue hopes he’ll eventually do movies, a sitcom, maybe even direct. For now, he’s adjusting to his newfound fame and continuing to make people laugh. He is only mildly concerned that he’ll be painted as a novelty act for using his disability as fodder for comedy routines. “I know I have to do a variety of things and not just rely on the palsy, but my career is crazy right now. It’s making me very successful,” says Blue. After all, he adds, he can’t write from someone else’s point of view. “This is all I’ve ever known. I don’t want to be stuck in that loophole of being typecast as a disabled comic, but I am a disabled comic. I have the forum right now, but I do comedy because I thoroughly enjoy it. If someone takes inspiration from [the fact that I have a disability], I’m cool with it, but it’s not my intention.”
THE VETERAN: BRETT LEAKE
Brett Leake knows it’s possible to have a career in comedy without focusing on disability – he’s been doing it for 24 years. Known for his Southern charm and squeaky clean act, Leake starred in his own PBS Special, Laughing Matters with Brett Leake, which continues to air regularly on the network. (Watch part of it at www.brettleake.com.) In 1991, he became the first comedian with a disability to perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and was invited back four times. “I think it’s an advantage for me,” Leake says about diverting his act away from his disability. “I wouldn’t be as successful as I am had I chosen the other path.”
One event helped Leake make that decision. In 1985, comedian Frankie Bastille saw Leake perform at an open mic night and was impressed. He invited Leake to open for him at a set in Athens, Georgia, a few states over from his native Virginia. That night, after the show, Leake was awoken by a pounding on his door. It was Bastille, demanding to know why Leake had spent so much time talking about his disability when he hadn’t done that at open mic night at his home club. “My answer was, ‘This is defensive, I’m away from home and regardless of their reaction to me, I want them to know that what I’m talking about is informed,'” says Leake. At that time, he says, he couldn’t disassociate the audience’s reaction to him as a comedian from their reaction to him as a human being.
Leake, who started out as a stand-up comic and later switched to sit-down, has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. He has learned that his disability is only one part of him, and no matter how comfortable he is with his material, that can’t save him from the judgment of the audience. He is an observational comic, one whose comedy draws on the ironies of life (“Dumb has a silent ‘b.’ I don’t think that’s fair to dumb people.”) He eventually developed “irony fatigue,” which he defines as “the symptom of someone who’s done it a long time and realized that exposing ironies isn’t going to change the world.”
Leake wanted to see his world differently, so he turned his comedic talents to motivational speaking, a forum seemingly built for comics with a disability. “When someone looks at a person with a disability, they’re thinking, ‘I wish I could keep things in perspective like that person.’ They look to them for optimism,” says Leake, who often speaks to rooms full of educators and health professionals. “It makes it easier for a comedian with a disability to become a motivating personality because it’s already built into the observers’ and listeners’ mindset.”
Motivational speaking isn’t for everyone. Before taking this route, comics must decide what brought them to comedy in the first place, says Leake, and it can be a soul-searching experience. “Was it that you needed to explain yourself on stage so that you felt better about yourself when you were out among others?” asks Leake. “Or do you have a different mission?”
Leake’s own goal is no less than to understand the desires that make us human. “I want to know what suffices. Living with a physical limitation when so much of what brings us pleasure is physical leads to a search for what is enough – how much comprehension, achievement, happiness- is necessary to flourish.”
It’s a study he’s undertaking one performance at a time.
THE TEACHER: DAVID ROCHE
David Roche (a.k.a. Reverend Dave) is on a mission to heal through comedy. Being born with a rare facial difference has made him part of an exclusive gang, Roche explains: “Frankenstein, Igor and Quasimodo. Those are my homeboys.”
Roche uses his various presentations, including his most popular one-man show, The Church of 80% Sincerity, to teach people about self-acceptance and the universality of his experience. (A book based on this show will soon be published by Perigee Books.) He also appears in Bonnie Sherr Klein’s recent film, Shameless: The Art of Disability, Anne Lamott’s bestseller Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, and on CNN’s Paula Zahn: Now.
Comedy is essential to Roche’s success and teaching, but it wasn’t always that way. “I resisted the healing part of it, but it’s sort of been forced on me,” he says. “People would come up to me and say I’d changed their life and I would think, ‘You are so pathetic.'” It took four or five years of performing for Roche to realize that it could be inspirational. “I realized that it really helps me to be inspired and I could relate to that feeling as a human need.”
Roche once used alcohol as a coping mechanism for his emotional pain. Then he recognized the power of comedy, and that changed his life. “Humour is the most subversive of the arts and it offers instant reframing, so while people dig around for months with a therapist, humour can fix them to an attitude and turn it around and hold it up to the light and change something entirely.”
Aaron Broverman is a journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto.