Friday, May 20, 2011

Florida comedy show, Special O'Laughics, empowers comics with intellectual disabilities

From The St. Petersburg Times:

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's hard to be funny when you look like you're drowning. Tim Hedley knows this cruel rule of comedy well.

Standing under bright stage lights, Tim grasps note cards he has just pulled from his trusty black Spider-Man folder. He licks his lips. Totters side to side. He leans into the microphone and reads each word slowly, one by one, sans nuance or mirth.

"WHY ...

"DID ...

It's November 2010. Tim, 29, is practicing his shtick at the world's first, and only, comedy workshop for the mentally disabled. He has Down syndrome, and it comes with what experts call a disfluency: Tim's socially strong, academically weak. He also has a severe stutter and often searches for words as if he's violently gulping air. Only slowwwing down solves this.

"THE ...

"FISH ...


"I don't know, Tim," says the workshop's creator, Les McCurdy, sitting just beyond the stage. "Why DID the fish blush?"

Tim gets ready to unload the punch line.

As always, this could go either way.

How are men like laxatives?

They irritate the crap out of you!

First, a few ground rules. If you don't like opening a family newspaper and discovering jokes about sex, bowel movements, blind people and how truly dumb guys are, this story is not for you. Just because these folks have a disability doesn't mean they don't enjoy a good poop joke.

Also, please understand that this workshop is not one of those gauzy, super-slo-mo Special Olympics deals. This is the Special O'Laughics, a 6-year-old program in which people with mental disabilities become even more vulnerable, if that's possible.

On this night in November, 14 unlikely comics have gathered at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre and Humor Institute, a small, dark club on Tamiami Trail. Their stories vary with heartbreak: fetal alcohol syndrome, hypoxia at birth, Down syndrome, a few generically described as "slow" for lack of a definite diagnosis.

Every two weeks for the next six months, they'll practice the same material over and over. They won't write it themselves; they'll borrow routines from books, plunder the Internet. Sets range from a couple of grade-school knock-knocks to a 52-year-old guy who fills 20 minutes with some of the worst magic and prop humor you've ever seen.

The payoff? In April, they'll perform their acts in front of a paying crowd of 200 "normal" people. If all goes well, the disabled, for the first time in their lives, will control the laughter, with people snickering at their jokes, not staring at them as they wander through Publix or wait at a bus stop.

That's why they do this: to feel normal, to feel included, to feel whole, even if it's only for the span of a few really bad zingers.

Now on with the story.

Unless you hate poop jokes.

A short, handsome man with a blond ponytail and an endless supply of snug polo shirts, Les McCurdy, 55, sits behind a mike just offstage, taking wild looping notes on a yellow legal pad.

His concern at the moment is Joe Spath, a shy, skinny kid with a ventriloquist dummy named Cracker Ford. Joe is stuck with a potty joke that's flopping: "What did one toilet say to the other toilet? You look a bit flushed." Not even the Down syndrome guys laugh at that one, and they laugh at everything.

McCurdy thinks Joe can handle specific instruction — that is, remember it — so he offers, "Hey, for the punch line, we're taking you up a notch. Why don't you try: 'You look like you've been dumped!' Now the joke is going to really pow!" Joe breaks out in a picket-fence grin. Cracker Ford also nods appreciatively.

After a lifetime in the comedy biz, McCurdy knows how to rescue a flailing joke.

A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., who learned humor from his Uncle Jug, McCurdy kicked around the comedy world for years, getting paying gigs, building a solid rep, but mainly watching friends like Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Dunham become really famous, while he really didn't. Three decades ago, he settled in Sarasota. A few years later, he opened the club.

In the mid '90s, a guy named Greg Bates came to McCurdy's on a regular open-mike night. Bates was mentally disabled but determined to go onstage. McCurdy was worried, but telling this guy no just wasn't an option. The club owner panicked only once, when Bates threatened to pull a gun. "Hey, you want to see my .38?" the comic asked the crowd, which promptly fell silent. After a few unsettling seconds, Bates revealed a giant number 38.

After that, McCurdy started thinking of a special workshop, something that had never been attempted before. What if he invited mentally disabled people from around the area to come and learn comedy? McCurdy had no experience working with the disabled, but he was on to something. It's simply wrong to think mentally disabled people are not intelligent.

"It's all up there," says Benny Weaver, developmental director of the Loveland Center, where many Special O'Laughics comics take classes and socialize. "It just takes them longer to process it."

When the Special Olympics eventually contacted the comedy club about hosting a fundraiser, its owner finally had the chance to pitch the O'Laughics idea. McCurdy — some parents call him Saint Les — wasn't concerned about anybody's diagnosis. He wasn't even interested.

"I don't care much about backstory," he says. "It doesn't help me to know their disability. It's not going to change my approach. Everybody can be funny. Everybody is funny."

What did Adam say to Eve?

You better stand back. I don't know how big this thing gets!

McCurdy's is a small, blue-collar joint with merlot-colored walls, worn carpets, the kind of black metal chairs you'd find at the DMV and tables that wobble no matter how many coasters you jam under the legs. It's a dive. But it's a warm dive, and every other Tuesday night, the 14 comics, plus parents, guardians and friends, wander in and wait for McCurdy to call names.

On this December night, Seth Winners, a new guy to the program, gets an early nod. Seth, 22, was born to an alcoholic. As a result, he has "global damage," says his adoptive father Stephen Winners. Seth is all bony joints and distant stares, his Brett Favre jersey hanging on him like drapery. He was too frail to compete in the Special Olympics. With the O'Laughics, says his dad, "we figured we'd try it, and if it doesn't work, we'd walk away from it."

Onstage tonight, in just his second practice, Seth lights up; it's like he gets bigger, his Favre jersey filling out just a bit. His trademark "Get it? Get it?" is not obnoxious, just joy. A seemingly benign knock-knock joke involving oranges, bananas and apples turns into an impromptu rendition of New York, New York.

"Love the energy, Seth," McCurdy says. "Just work on those words."

Next up is Marc Portnoy, a Down syndrome comic with heart problems. His dad, Len, tiredly pushes Marc's wheelchair. Marc's jokes are pure Borscht Belt — that's his Adam and Eve zinger — but tonight, like most nights, his short, racy act doesn't really take off until it devolves into a shouting match with his dad.

"Go on to the next joke!" Len hollers when Marc loses focus or starts stuttering. "How long you been in this country?!"

"Watch it, old man!"

"Tell the joke! The audience is getting ready to leave!"

"Knock it off, Old Man River!"

McCurdy watches with a bemused grin. "The insults on your dad were stellar tonight, Marc," he says with sincerity.

McCurdy then calls for Mollie O'Connell, who terrifies pretty much everyone. The youngest of 12 children — six girls, six boys — Mollie is highly guarded, giving up little about what she's feeling. Adding to the sense of foreboding are a dark pageboy haircut, a wide-eyed glare of menace and a way of walking that looks as if she's always playing Red Rover.

Her dad, Ray O'Connell, is known as a pillar of the Special Olympics in Sarasota. Last year, he brought Mollie to O'Laughics, worked on her jokes with her, sat in the crowd and laughed and beamed. Mollie is a vet of all six O'Laughics and always demands to be the show closer.

Tonight, she takes the stage, flips open her index cards and sighs. Something's wrong.

"My dad didn't want me to do these jokes, but I don't care."

She pauses, drops her head, mumbles: "That's not true. I do care."

McCurdy later finds out that Mollie's father died last night.

Sometimes at O'Laughics, you can't avoid backstory.

Why did the redneck plant Cheerios in the back yard?

He thought they were doughnut seeds.

On a weekday afternoon, Tim Hedley is at home, fidgeting at the kitchen table, working with his speech therapist. Robyn Sadlo is using Tim's O'Laughics routine — five simple groaners that stopped being funny to most of us in fourth grade — to help Tim tame his disfluency: slow down, focus, enunciate. Stop drowning.

She's also incorporating props to help him concentrate: a toy fish, a box of Cheerios. She wants Tim to memorize his jokes, stretch his brain a bit, but so far, he's forgetting most of them as soon as he reads them. Even after hours of practice, he still needs those note cards, still needs that Spider-Man folder.

He's quiet, restless in front of Sadlo. But before she shows up, Tim Hedley is 100-percent dude. "Let me show you around," he says. Tim is proud of his domain, and his tour through his place reveals a man-cave fantasy. Look at this wrestling poster, look at these cookies in the cupboard, look at these bikini posters. He motions to his bedroom closet and slowly opens the door, as if about to reveal awesome archaeological treasure. Inside hangs a Hooters calendar.

"I like Jamaican women and Britney Spears," he says.

One of four children — and the only one with a disability — Tim talks with bravado about working at Longhorn Steakhouse two days a week, wrapping silverware. His hobby, he says, is weight lifting; he can full squat 274. He's a roly-poly smart aleck, but he's a strong one, too.

Tim talks a good game with the boys around, but at McCurdy's, he's as much a genial assistant as a comic, lowering and raising the microphone for everyone, making sure people have drinks. His parents say he has always had a big heart. "We were at a McDonald's in South Tampa, and this fight is about to break out," says his father. "Tim walked right in the middle of it and broke it up. It was amazing. He looks at us and says, 'Mom, Dad, I got this.' I'm telling you, that kid has never met a stranger."

Tim is aware of his disability in abstract ways. He says he knows he's different and has been raised by his parents to accept that uniqueness as a thing of beauty. "I worry about my feelings," Tim says. "I'm a human being."

"Tim's a funny kid," says his dad. "We were driving around the other day, at some store, and Tim says, 'Dad, there's a handicap space. Park there.' And I say, 'Why there?' And Tim says, 'Because you're retarded!' "

Why do men whistle when they go to the bathroom?

It helps them remember which end to wipe.

As the most fully functional comic at the Special O'Laughics, Amanda Warren (pictured) often feels like a stranger in a strange land. "Almost every single time I go to rehearsal," she says, "I have a moment when I look around and think, 'What am I doing here? This is nuts.' "

Amanda, 29, had severe complications at birth, at one point going without oxygen for a prolonged time. She was blind and paralyzed. Her mother, Connie Lang, who raised her alone, refused to let doctors give her life-altering bad news. Amanda still has a palsied arm, but she can move and see well.

"People thought I was nuts, and I probably was," Connie says. "But my prayers were answered."

As a result of her disability, Amanda's thinking is slightly skewed. "I get things. I do. It just takes me a little bit longer than most people." Flipping her long red hair, Amanda puts it another way: "When it comes to money, I can't make change. I don't understand that concept. But I can use my mom's credit card just fine."

Amanda is extremely close to her mother. "We're more like sisters," the daughter says. Connie, who has worked for Paul Mitchell for 31 years, is sharp, successful, beautiful, intimidating. She and Amanda do everything together, including buying strings of pearls for their matching chihuahuas. "I've taken her all over the world," Connie says.

They talk about shopping a lot; they talk about men a bunch, too, but those conversations often end in exclamation points. Connie doesn't trust Amanda's judgment; Amanda, however, is very much interested in dating, finding Mr. Right. She may rip on the boys in her act, but the truth is she's more than willing to deal with dude problems to find love, somewhere, anywhere.

The closeness between mother and daughter can cause complications when Amanda is performing. During Amanda's set, Connie sits at the front of the stage, leans forward and gives cues. Amanda wants to memorize her act — no note cards or cheat sheets for her — and gets frustrated when her mother has to prompt her. Sometimes Connie cues her before she needs it; this causes Amanda to lose her stride. "Mom! Wait a minute!" Their bickering isn't playful, like Marc and Len Portnoy's. It's often combative.

"Being protective is good, but being overprotective is — well, let me breathe!" Amanda tells her mother during lunch one day. Connie is having none of it: "Without me, you would trust the wrong men! You would get in a car with the wrong man!"

At the next rehearsal, Connie is there again, prompting Amanda on her jokes.

I haven't spoken to my wife in 12 months. I didn't want to interrupt her!

McCurdy le ts his students perform however, whatever, they like. As the months go on, a couple of comics, both with Down syndrome, cap their acts by caterwauling karaoke. It's a little off-putting. While those guys are singing, a few of the other men don wigs — bought on a whim by Amanda's mother — and pretend to be a backup band. The novelty wears off pretty fast.

Are they being set up for ridicule? "I just want them to walk on that stage and have a good experience," says McCurdy. When Marc Portnoy wants to wear the wig throughout his set, McCurdy leaves the decision up to him. "Marc, do you want to keep wearing the wig?" Marc cackles out a yes. "Okay," McCurdy says, "that's fine."

McCurdy says his only concern is "how I can help them make the presentation the best it can be." And to be honest, he says, "In some cases, they're not going to be understood." But they are going to be allowed to put their own stamp on their act.

That's exactly the point, says professional touring comic Tom Rhodes, an Oviedo native who has been playing McCurdy's for years. "Comedy clubs have Black Nights, Latino nights. But nobody has this," says Rhodes.

"If it wasn't for programs like this, these people would just be home, staring at the walls," says Loveland Center's Benny Weaver. "Unless you have a special-needs person in your family, they're out of sight, out of mind."

"This gives them a chance to be normal," says Lynda Chace. Her grandson is J.C. Chace, a blind comic who opens his O'Laughics set singing I Can See Clearly Now and waving his cane.

A few years ago, a documentary was filmed on the O'Laughics. But even with that exposure, nobody has copied McCurdy's program. He says it's merely a matter of funding, that this country needs to rethink priorities when it comes to the mentally disabled.

But others are harsher: It's not lack of money; it's our collective lack of guts.

"Anything you're not exposed to, the unknown, it's a fearful thing," says Pam McCurdy, who helps her husband run the club. "With these people, there's more fear than love."

What do you call Tinker Bell when she doesn't take a shower?

Stinker Bell!

What do you call Tinker Bell when she doesn't take a shower for an entire month?


Get it? Get it?

January turns into February, February to March. The big show gets closer. McCurdy still takes big looping notes on each act, but his vocal instruction is now limited almost exclusively to "Slow down," "Don't forget to speak clearly," and so on. It's easier to gauge setbacks than progress. Tim has started seeing words backward — he reads "saw" as "was" — which makes his jokes sound like Lewis Carroll riddles. Tim deals with this problem by drinking Diet Coke and working on his thunderous burps.

Since her father's death, Mollie's act has taken on a sweet, tender vibe — and it's freaking people out. She doesn't so much tell jokes as talk about her friend Kitty. McCurdy does almost no critiquing of her set. "She's just not being Mollie," he says about his show closer.

Some of the acts aren't just improving; they're borderline inspired. Larry Aubin is ambitious, and wants to do an improv sketch involving a resuscitated chicken. But that's not the funniest thing. He shows up at every practice in a paramedic's uniform, walkie-talkie, medic bag, the works. He is tall, strapping — someone's brother, you might think. Until he leans in, motions to his outfit, and whispers, "This is all make-believe."

As for Amanda, she's still insisting on memorizing her act, but she's remembering less of it. She's all fits and starts during practice, especially as her mom's help gets louder. At a March practice, McCurdy finally steps in.

"From here on in, for the last few workshops, when you get to a point when you need a line from your mother, just go to her, but try to keep a light smile on your face," he says. "Try not to let the frustration show to the audience. Be light and nonchalant and have fun with it. There's no reason to get frustrated."

How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

One. A man will screw anything.

Amanda has trouble sleeping the night before the big show. She tosses and turns, running through her set, forgetting her jokes. "My mind was awake the whole night. I could hardly turn it off," she says. As for her mother, "she slept like a baby."

Amanda wonders if she'll get a date out of all this. There's this one guy, but "he's too much of a church freak. And I mean that in a nice way."

On the day of the show, her mother takes Amanda to Bee Nails so Amanda can get made up. They go over some colors. Green Age of Aquarius polish is "on the edge of fashion, but too screeky," says Connie. They settle on Turned Up Turquoise.

As Amanda gets her nails done, two women sitting next to her strike up a conversation. She tells them she's a comedian and has a big performance tonight. "My outfit's going to be all black," she says. Why? they ask. "Because I'm the star of the show."

Later, back at their apartment to get ready, Connie will temper her daughter's confidence. She doesn't like that "star of the show" talk. As Amanda has her face made up by a family friend, a professional makeup artist from Fort Lauderdale, Connie lays down the law: "Every time you think a limo is going to show up, you go and clean a toilet and that will fix you right up."

Amanda stays silent as an eyeliner brush dives in for the finishing stroke.

McCurdy's is sold out. The place looks almost classy when it's full. Friends, co-workers and the curious order drinks, mingle. The comedians have been here for a while, eating pizza, watching the door.

Someone asks Mollie how she's handling the loss of her father, who has been gone now for a few months. Mollie unleashes a Godzilla-sized burp — Arrrrp! — says, "Good," and stomps away.

The light dims, the crowd quiets. In a classic fedora, McCurdy saunters onstage. He swings a golf club, a wooden driver to be exact, a la Bob Hope. "If at any point of the show," he says, "you think something is a punch line, it is!"

Waiting in a small, cramped corridor behind the stage — bathed in religious red, it's a corridor walked by some of the most famous comedians in the world — is Tim Hedley. He grips his note cards. Is he excited?

"Yeah, baby."

Is he nervous?

"No. I've been doing this for six years."

McCurdy sits stage right, in front of a microphone. Even though he wants his performers to succeed on their own, he will still "emcee" through any tough spots. He won't need to help Tim, who bounds onstage in hat and sunglasses, his fingers raised in a victory salute. He looks at his cards and breathes deep:

"WHY ...

"DID ...

"THE ...

"FISH ...


The crowd hushes. Only the tinkling of glasses is heard.

"IT ...

"SAW ...

"THE ...

"OCEAN'S ...


He punctuates the punch line by jamming a pudgy finger into the flesh of his rump. Bingo. The crowd roars: from laughter, perhaps from relief. Tim reads all five jokes perfectly. He never memorized them, but still, there was no stutter, no hitches. Success. He then sets down his cards, rests his hands on the mike and closes his eyes. He's not finished. He's about to go rogue.

"My mother is old!"

"My dad drinks too much bourbon!"

"Why is Les McCurdy bald? Because he got old!"

McCurdy beams. After six months, he still gets surprised by these guys. Improv from Tim Hedley! Saint Les laughs into his microphone: "You never did that joke in rehearsal."

In that same bright red corridor, Amanda waits, hands folded in front of her, head down as if in prayer. When McCurdy announces her, she slowly steps out onto the stage and squints at the lights, which seem brighter tonight. This is her second year at O'Laughics, she says in her opening, "and yes, I hate to say it, but I'm still single." With that, Tim stands up, pumps his fist. From McCurdy: "Tim Hedley still has a chance!" The kid's on fire.

And so is Amanda, who hooks the throngs from the start, tweaking men with gusto, the crowd reacting to a set that is adult, vicious, hilarious, so unlike everything else they're hearing: "It's hard for a woman to find a man who is sensitive, caring and good-looking ... because those men already have boyfriends!"

Amanda gets tripped up here and there, mainly because the audience is responding to her setups as well as her punch lines. McCurdy didn't warn her about that. When you kill onstage, it's a whole different game.

There's one more surprise: Because of the stage lights and the volume of the crowd, Amanda can't see or hear her mother that well. After all that bickering, Amanda is pretty much on her own. Independent. Just as she always wanted.

Closing her act, the redhead says: "Hey, I've had fun tonight. I hope you have, too. My name's Amanda. See you next year!"

And for the first time all evening, the crowd lifts to its feet and gives a standing ovation.

Amanda looks confused.

It's not registering yet. As she once said, it takes her a little longer to process things, to get stuff. Amanda leaves the way she came, through that glowing red corridor. And somewhere back there, in that weird magic portal, with success still ringing in her ears, Amanda no longer feels so frustrated, so out of place. As a matter of fact, she has never felt better in her life.

The crowd sings along to Seth Winners' New York, New York. They love Larry Aubin's rubber chicken sketch, Joe Spath's dumped toilet joke. They dig the songs; they even clap for the guys in their wigs, not out of pity but because it's fun. They love Marc Portnoy's Adam and Eve gag, which he delivers with ailing father Len not razzing him in the crowd, but onstage, behind his son, making sure he's okay.

The edgier the material, the louder the crowd response. You don't hear boner jokes at Special Olympics, that's for sure. And you don't hear boos, either, which is what greets Joe Kelly, the 52-year-old with the lousy magic and endless props. He's gets raspberried — and loves it. "You can't please everybody," Joe grins. There's not much pity applause or fake laughter at the O'Laughics (although everybody does get a trophy); if the crowd doesn't like something, it gets quiet, restless.

It's a subtly powerful scene. There they are, alone onstage, allowed to kill or bomb or freak out, just like any other comic. For these performers, simply having the freedom to tank in front of hundreds is a beautiful thing.

Finally, it's time for Mollie, who no longer has the luxury of a father by her side. Her jokes are still tame; Kitty still gets a shout-out. But then something happens. Something goes wrong. McCurdy's wife, who runs the audio in the club, is supposed to play the Beach Boys' Kokomo during Mollie's set, but the CD was never cued up right. Mollie throws her head back, ticked off. She hurls insults. "Come on, Pam!" she rants. She stomps. It's a full-on protest. She's not leaving until she gets Kokomo. Minutes from the end of the show, somebody's melting down.

But then, those same 200 people — a few voices at first, then more, then more — start chanting: "Mollie! Mollie! Mollie!" And like a switch, like the speed of an idea forming in your head, no matter how cluttered and different your head might be, Mollie does something she hasn't done much in the past six months.

She smiles.

A few days later, Tim and his family celebrate by taking a trip to the Kentucky Derby.

On the plane, Tim tells his jokes to the flight attendants. He tells them to the passengers sitting to his left, his right.

Without his Spider-Man folder.

And without his note cards.