Two years ago, film professor Will Lautzenheiser noticed a persistent cramp in his leg. Within days he was comatose, his organs failing one after the other as vicious strep bacteria swept through his body. He ended up spending five months in a hospital Intensive Care Unit, and the attack of necrotizing fasciitis — flesh-eating bacteria — cost him all his limbs.
Here’s the punchline: Will now performs stand-up comedy. Except that, lacking legs, he calls it “sit-down” comedy.
“The amputations have been, in a way, the grim apotheosis of my sense of humor and sensibility before this,” he said. “My kind of gallows humor is maybe uniquely suited to such an absurd and horrible situation. And humor is a great way to be resilient — if you can’t laugh, you weep.”
Humor is also a way of lightening up a very serious topic — say, disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark federal law on the civil rights of disabled people, turned 23 this week, and to mark the anniversary, the New England ADA Center invited Will and three other comedians with disabilities for a public “Laugh and Learn” panel to discuss being disabled and being funny.
Humor has historically been a way of dealing with difficult issues, said Oce Harrison, the center’s project director, “and we’re also feeling like we could all really use a laugh right now in Boston, because of the marathon bombings, and every day in the paper there are evildoings.”
I can’t imagine cracking a joke about a marathon victim’s injury — or joshing as an outsider about the other panelists’ disabilities: paraplegia, ADHD, Asperger’s. But this is something different: people with disabilities laughing at the situations they find themselves in, and at the world’s reaction to them, and thus making it OK for others to laugh as well. It’s another way of “being seen,” and educating the public, Harrison said.
In an interview before the panel, Lautzenheiser ran easily through the amputee jokes that he heard long ago in the schoolyard: What do you call a man with no arms and legs who’s by your door? Matt. Who’s in the ocean? Bob. Who’s on the wall? Art.
He can tell those jokes to relax his audience, but he avoids certain variants that don’t describe his own injury. “I can’t make fun of anyone else who’s lost limbs,” he said. “But I’m entitled to make fun of my own disability. And the situation — it’s a lot more absurd or ridiculous than one might think, and the jokes are, day to day, practically endless.” Continue reading