Friday, November 26, 2010

Comedians with disabilities perform their act in Sacramento, Calif.

From The Sacramento Bee:

If the notion weren't so dark, so to speak, the concept of a blind stand-up comedian would be funny.

At least Eric Mee (pictured) thinks so. He's a blind stand-up comic who will join funnymen Michael O'Connell (wheelchair user) and Steve Danner ("I'm a little-person comedian") in the Comedians With Disabilities Act Nov. 26 at the Sacramento Comedy Spot.

"It's been 2 1/2 years since I went blind. Of course I'm up on stage making fun of it," said Mee, 21, sounding surprised at the idea of any other option.

"Yeah, it's funny, though you can't imagine someone who's been blind since birth telling jokes. That's because they have only two facial expressions – normal and smiling. All the other expressions are socially learned. Since I did go blind later in life, I have all the facial expressions, so I don't seem to be blind. Some people think my cane is a prop.

"I get on stage and start with a joke: 'If you didn't notice the cane I'm using, I am blind. Actually, I'm visually impaired, which is like upper-class blind.' "

How do audiences react to a blind comedian?

"Some people don't think I'm really blind, and they'll come up to me after the show and say, 'I thought you were really rude for making fun of blind people.' "

Mee's jokes don't always resonate, but he's never shy about trying out his routines on classmates and staff at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento.

"We get to hear his material being worked out," said Heather Frank, the sighted executive director of the organization. "He's very gregarious."

Frank points out that any career followed by a blind person "that puts them in the public eye is a positive thing. It helps show that a blind person is really not that much different from a sighted person, except they cannot see. (Such exposure) will allow the public to be more comfortable in approaching a blind person, and help them learn more about what blindness means."

Mee tells jokes about being blind and audiences laugh, but the incident that caused his blindness was horrifying. He was attacked and stabbed in the chest with a long-bladed hunting knife in May 2008 while protecting a 7-year-old girl from a drunken assailant. He lost so much blood that his optic nerves essentially died. The assailant is serving a 12-year prison sentence for attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

In 2009, Mee was honored with an Outstanding Citizen Award from the Sacramento District Attorney's Office. He now is a student at Sierra College with plans to transfer to California State University, Sacramento, next summer. He's also taking computer training classes at the Society for the Blind. Mee lives at home with his parents in Citrus Heights.

As for his eyesight, "I've been slowly progressing since (the stabbing) happened. Now I can see outlines, shadows and some colors in the inner periphery of my left eye. The doctors are amazed I'm getting any sight back. They told me I'd be blind the rest of my life. I told them, 'That's the only reason I'm getting some sight back – to spite you.' "

In typical style, Mee acted to turn his liability into an asset. Shortly after becoming blind, he began experiencing "embarrassing moments" such as running into walls and having food drop off his utensils during meals.

"I began cracking jokes about it to put a positive spin on a bad situation," he recalled. "People would tell me, 'You're really funny, and you're overcoming (your disability) really well.' "

For the next two years, friends and family urged him to put together a stand-up routine based around his blindness. "So I started recording notes that turned into jokes," Mee said.

While attending a scholarship awards ceremony sponsored by Crime Victims United of California, Mee was asked to do a stand-up segment at a fundraising dinner in January. A second one in February followed.

"I was bored over the summer, so I started writing more jokes and signed up for open-mike night at Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento," he said. "Since then, I've tried to hit every comedy club close to me, honing my jokes for the show at the Sacramento Comedy Spot."

It will be there that the Comedians With Disabilities Act could ignite a spark. "All three guys are phenomenal comedians, and I'd love to see them take this show on the road," said comedian Keith Lowell Jensen, the show's promoter and booking agent for the Comedy Spot. "The theme will get people's attention and we'll see what kind of excitement it generates."

"Every mike we hit, we're hoping it will be a springboard for more," said Danner of Napa.

"It's a chance for people to experience something different, and from the sources," said Sacramento's O'Connell, who has muscular dystrophy. "Every comedian has blind jokes, little-people jokes and wheelchair jokes, but we have a unique perspective into our situations. We can educate as well as entertain."

Like Mee and Danner, O'Connell breaks the ice with audiences with an initial joke referencing his disability. His is this: "A quadriplegic, a paraplegic and a double amputee don't walk into a bar ..."