Humor and Disabilities: Gaining Control One Joke at a Time

In Features, Latest News by Ombretta Di Dio

On a sunny February morning 11 years ago, Alan Henderson’s existence took an unexpected turn. Henderson, then 24, was enjoying his first snowboarding ride of the day. Flying down June Mountain, Calif. at 50 mph, he could feel the fresh snow running smoothly under his board.

Henderson was just moving to the left at the split of a run when he realized ice surrounded him in all directions. He lost control and slammed into a pole. An eight-and-a-half-hour spinal fusion surgery followed.

Today, Henderson is a wheelchair user. As he adjusted to a different life, he had to leave beloved passions behind. He had to rediscover himself, but that took many years.

Up until that dreaded snowboarding trip, he had spent most of his days surfing in San Diego or playing the drums in a band. He cherished jamming to the sound of Jimi Hendrix and Sublime.

Now, he suddenly found himself spending endless moments in bed with “horrible chronic pain” that prevented him from sitting down for more than four hours at a time. Boredom and depression replaced what once had been a fulfilling and rich reality.

In 2014, however, Henderson began painting his life with the colors of humor. He had contemplated the idea of trying stand-up comedy before, but as a young surfer and musician, he was already so busy that the thought had remained a mere fantasy.

On a summer night that same year, Henderson entered the doors of The Comedy Palace, a club in his native San Diego. He did not know he was supposed to sign up for the open mic show online, and he was just sitting around, waiting for his turn to tell jokes.

“I almost left 20 times,” he said. “But the friend who was with me pushed me to go up.”

He sat for almost four hours when a drunk and tired host finally called out his name. His back was killing him, and his nerves were trembling, but he began to deliver his material.

He told jokes for a whole 8 minutes to a crowd of 5 people. It was 11 p.m., and almost everyone had already left. But those who stayed laughed without hesitation, convincing him that he had potential in comedy.

He soon found out that wheel chair he had fervently hated could be a source of inspiration. It could, in fact, make him a better comedian. Comics often use their bodies as a medium for entertainment. They move around, and they gesticulate, he said.

“But I can’t play it up. I am just sitting there,” he said. “So, I have to make up for it. My material needs to be strong.”

Words are Henderson’s only instrument, and they took him far in the local comedy scene. Even while being interviewed, he made sure everything was ready for the show he organized at Winston’s Bar, a club in Ocean Beach.

He reviewed his material, looking at the screen on his phone as he talked and strolled around the dark, spacious bar, greeting comics and welcoming crowd members.

By 7:30 p.m., the club was rapidly filling up. Some patrons did not face the stage just but turned around, drinks in hand, when they heard something that caught their attention. Comics were chatting in corners waiting for their chance to shine. Among them, sitting on a high stool and sipping a beer, was Michael Castleberry.

Castleberry did not intentionally try to discover humor, but humor found him as he wandered through childhood. The first time he performed, he was 7 years old. It was at an elementary school talent show.  

Growing up, he learned that nobody would “mess with him” as long as he was funny. The comedian, who was born missing his left forearm and two fingers on his right hand, said that comedy became an integral part of his personality.

His fiancée, Roxlyn Moore, explained that he loves being the center of attention. On their first date, Castleberry took Moore to an open mic comedy show. The person he is onstage is the same he is offstage, she explained.

“I didn’t know it was that big of a deal for him to take me to a show,” she said.

Soon, she saw that laughing was a constant in their lives. His sense of humor “definitely contributed to why I fell in love with him,” she added.

Every time he sets foot on stage, the 36-year-old comedian knows that he has a specific goal in mind: to make people laugh. Everything else is pure contour.

“I do it [performing] because I genuinely enjoy it,” he said.

And when he does perform, he is quick to address his physical aspect. This is more of a necessity than anything else. It is “pretty noticeable,” and “the longer you go without talking about it, the more people get preoccupied with it.”

Still, he does not want to be labeled as “a disabled stand-up comedian.” The need to talk about it comes with the deep awareness of people staring at him in public. Honesty would be compromised if he did not make references to his body.

Comics like Henderson and Castleberry are not exceptions in the scene. Sharon Lockyer, senior lecturer at the School of Social Sciences of Brunel University in London, wrote that “over the last decade the stand-up comedy landscape has diversified with the steady increased presence and prominence of disabled comedians performing live comedy routines.”

Through stand-up, comedians can control how much they are willing to participate in a particular social environment. Their material, which they control and manage, makes them able to define who they are, she wrote.

In addition to that, Lockyer wrote that, on stage, comedians are not perceived as the weak part of an interaction. They turn from “the object to the subject of comedy.”

Lockyer pointed out how the positivity of comedy can be somehow limited by the way audiences respond to disabled comedians.

“The audience plays a central role in the stand-up comedy process and the impact of stand-up comedy performances is partly contingent upon audience interpretation,” she wrote.

Henderson, however, reported never having negative experiences in his interactions with the public, at least not because of his wheelchair.

Sometimes people yell over comedians, and “nobody can make them shut up,” Henderson said, but “I never cursed at the world driving back home from a show.”

In his first few months of comedy, Castleberry, who started performing in 2012, received nothing but good feedback from the audience.

“Until a friend convinced me to do a set at a barbeque festival at 10:30 in the morning,” he said. “A Sublime cover band was doing sound check behind me. Nobody was paying attention.”

Of course, this had everything to do with the environment, he said, and the experience ultimately humbled him.

Around 8 p.m., during the open mic that preceded the show, and then again during the show, Alan Henderson approached the stage. The comedian who entertained the crowd before him passed down a microphone from the stage. Henderson remained off the stage for the entirety of his act.

“Who took the good handicap spot up front?” he immediately asked the audience, which in return erupted into laughter.

Castleberry followed him. He controlled the crowd by raising and lowering his voice during different parts of his routine. The smile never left his face.

He used to work at Target, and people found that inspiring, he told his listeners.

“But I’m 30 years old and live with my parents. Every day I want to kill myself, but it’s hard to fire a gun with this s – – -,” he said as he pointed at his arm.  

A captivated audience replied with loud cheers.

By 9:30 p.m., the show was over. The audience dispersed. New faces entered to enjoy drinks and music.

“It was a good night,” Henderson said. It was another comedy night.

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