Two and a half years ago, Michael O'Connell of Sacramento, California, was a recently unemployed automobile claims adjuster and wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy. At first, he had a hard time laughing off his situation. Then he turned laughter into his career.
Said 43-year-old O'Connell in a telephone interview, "I was funny as a child, but not in front of people. I went through 41 years of life without trying comedy (before being unemployed). Then Tommy T's Comedy Club (Sacramento) had an open mic comedy night scheduled for January 2010. I told a friend about it, and he said, 'Let's do it.' I'd never been on stage doing comedy before."
O'Connell was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at 2, and has used a wheelchair full-time since 1995. He has trunk and leg muscle weakness, can't lift his arms above his head or straighten them, and has heart issues requiring a pacemaker.
After a month preparing a five-minute comedy routine, he drew upon his experiences having a disability and using a wheelchair. His opening line: "I have a problem with the term 'stand-up comedy.'"
O'Connell won that competition, and after other competitions finished second in the finals. He beat out 30 other comedians. Audiences loved his routine. Since then, his life has been a whirlwind. Over time, he joined other comedians with disabilities: Steve Danner, a little person; Eric Mee, who is blind; and Nina G., who stutters. They call their group the "Comedians with Disabilities Act."
The four have played the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, and on his own O'Connell played the Hollywood Improv and Jon Lovitz Comedy Club. O'Connell has become friends with actor Adam Baldwin and motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
He said, "Unemployment was the best thing that could have happened. In my performances, I talk about using a wheelchair on airline travel and in grocery stores, and about interactions with people. We are less about making fun of disability than of our interactions with the world and the crazy things people say because of your disability."
Before becoming a comedian, he never talked about anything related to his disability, feeling it would make people uncomfortable. Comedy was his chance to let it "all out in a way that was not only funny, but also educational for people," he said. O'Connell and his friends have been actively trying to find and inspire other comedians with disabilities.
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