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Carrie Dearborn, Sit-Down Comedian

Carrie Dearborn grips her driving stick and steers the 150-pound wheelchair she calls Gertrude out from the backstage darkness into the spotlight, ad-libbing one-liners. The shaft lights up her round face, gray curls, and everyday outfit- turtleneck, sweater, baggy pants. No make-up, sequins or props – except for her rolling motorized chair.

This gig should be easy. Smoke-free room, good turnout. Looks like 50 people out there. She’ll  be able to eyeball each member of the audience. And tonight’s comedy line-up is all lesbians. She’s among friends.

She whips Gertrude around, faces front, and looks each first-row audience member straight in the eye. She’s taking control. And she’s prepared to make each woman lose hers: she wants a belly laugh from every one.

She launches into a riff about International Women’s Day. “It was a 3-day affair for me,” she says. A voice from the audience murmurs “Mmmmm,” and Dearborn shoots back – “Well, I wish it were a 3-day affair.” Adlibs come easily to her. She knows her audience will be amused by the pun and not by the idea of wheelchair user having an affair.

The crowd, like most comedy audiences, likes sex jokes. Dearborn accommodates: “I got this neat thing at the Dorchester Women’s Day celebration,” she says. “It’s something every lesbian should have. Let’s see if I can find it.” She reaches back with her right arm, the only one that works, and rummages in the pack hanging from her chair’s rear handle. The crowd shifts nervously. Has she forgotten what she’s looking for? What if she can reach it? Should we help?

“A penis!” she declares, pulling out a shiny blue thing resembling a large thumb. The crowd cracks up. “It even has condoms and directions on how to put them on,” she observes with enthusiasm. She adds, with sweet wonder, “I had to read the thing — I didn’t know how to do it!” She gets a spate of cackles.

Dearborn’s timing is good tonight. Her topics may seem mundane —  they come from her real life – but her treatment is quirky. Her jokes disarm. She uses everything she’s got – pitch, pause, rolled eyes and one handed-gestures. If she tangles up a line, she improvises. She keeps cool and her audience does, too. She’s performance tough.

Dearborn’s got to think faster than most comedians. One vocal cord and half her mouth don’t work, so she must choose words she can easily pronounce. Each time a word approaches with a “W” or an “R”: sound, she uses a synonym. She pauses often, for more than effect. “My brainstem is injured,” she tells me after the show. “It takes longer for messages to reach me –they have to go around the long way. I have to pause while they catch up.”

Midway through her gig, she turns to political topics: immigration, media intrusiveness, the President, Medicaid fraud. She affectionately teases her audience: “Watching the news is such an unlesbian thing to do.” When Dearborn’s time is up, her conventional sign-off segues into sexual innuendo: “Well, I won’t tell you to have a great night – that puts too much pressure on people – so I’ll just say, enjoy the rest of the show.”

Actually, she says: “Enjoy…the rest of…the show.” Each syllable Dearborn speaks takes time. No valley Girl speedtalk from her.

Must comedians scream like Joan Rivers to be successful? Must they transform their bodies into those of a dozen personae, like Lily Tomlin? Do audiences require comedians to point and shout and stride across the stage?

Not this audience.  No one is distracted by Gertrude, or by Dearborn’s out-of-action legs and left arm. They love her dyke humor. In return, she wins their guffaws. Winning those bellows of laughter is her aim. When every woman bursts out in a chortle and a start of recognition, Carrie knows they are seeing things her way. When each one looks WITH her instead of at her, she knows she controls how her audience sees the world.

Control is what she lost in 1981. A blood clot flooded her brain and plunged her into a coma. She was only 27. Her prognosis was grim. She was told that less than one percent of people struck by an AVM (arterial venus malformation) stroke survived at that time. She lay in bed paralyzed, drugged, mute, barely alive. “The meds,” she says – her painkillers, anti-inflammatories and seizure-prevention pills – “dulled everything but the pain.”

“My Body Was in Too Great Shape To Die”

Before the stroke, she’d been a kayaker, back-packer, and downhill ski instructor. “My body was in too great shape to die,” she says. Dearborn had worked as a numbers cruncher – a rare woman with computer expertise at that time. She was also a serious writer. “I got stroke mid-novel,” she says. “I was an athlete who couldn’t walk, a lover who couldn’t love, a writer who couldn’t write.
At least I was too old to fold boxes,” she jokes. In the early 1980s, disabled people were often shunted into “sheltered workshop” assembly-line jobs.

 

Dearborn gradually revived and retrained her brain to talk, write, and do algebra calculations. A bladder operation got her off medications that had clouded her mind. She returned to writing fiction and nonfiction for Lambda Book Report, Gay Community News, Hikane, New Mobility, Mouth, Athene, and Sojourner, but her style changed. “I can’t afford to be as adjectival as I used to be,” she says. The first post-stroke article she published was also her first comic piece: “My Ten Years as a Rolling Vegetable.” Her wits had returned and so had her sense of humor.

For years, Dearborn saw little to laugh about. Laughing hurt her gut, and anyway, she was busy protesting. She and 50 other wheelchair users launched a 9-day “lie-in” in 1991 at the Massachusetts State House. Their demonstration succeeded. The legislature dropped its plan to cut personal care attendance (PCA) funds. Without a PCA to move her from bed to wheelchair each morning and back at night, Dearborn wouldn’t be able to lead an independent life. At that demonstration, she tossed out wisecracks like: “I was reading the Gazette the other day, and saw a picture of Governor Weld’s wife feeding the homeless. Nice little family business: he makes the homeless, and she feeds them.” She made people laugh. She decided during those nine days to be a sit-down comic.

Dearborn’s repertoire includes “crip jokes” (she breezily uses words like “cripple”) from her experience. “At least I don’t remember the bad sex,” she tells audiences, then switches to a dour look and adds – “or the good sex.”

“Each time I go to the ATM, I get to pay the game of Wonder What I’ll Get” she says, then mimes how she’s forced to use ATMs not adapted to wheelchair users. She flings her arm over her head and gropes for whatever amount of money the ATM ejects to someone who must punch buttons she can’t see.

Dearborn does such jokes mostly before disabled audience. Her gags for nondisabled audience are more wide ranging. Her comedy routines allow her to show “nons” (non-disabled people) that disability is only part of what matters to her. “I don’t want to hide behind my disability – maybe I suck!” says Dearborn. ”It’s not like the only problems I have stem from my disability. I do have other faults – I can give you a list, if you want.”

“Disability is not an obstacle, not an excuse, she adds. “I can probably work around it – I just have to figure out how.” After all, says Dearborn, “since I became disabled, I’ve had to make my life up. I’ve become very inventive.”

How does Carrie Dearborn compare with other Boston comedians? Is she funny, funnier, the funniest? The hoots and hollers from live audiences would be the proof. The real question is: will comedy buffs get a chance to hear her perform?

Boston area clubs are starting to comply with access laws. Another wheelchair-using comedian, Matt Malley, does gigs all over New England. His show starts with him yelling gibberish and by signing frantically, shocking his audience into silence. He then enunciates perfectly: “I scared the shit out of you, didn’t I?” and everyone relaxes, now that they know he can talk like they do.

Dearborn makes no such guarantees. She needs to be “well-miked” so audiences are able to hear every word she says. She needs small audiences, so she can remove her hearing aid to keep from speaking too softly and still gauge reactions by sight.

She requires accessible stages. She needs smoke-free venues so she can get enough oxygen to think clearly. She needs listeners to shut up so she can tell her quirky stories at her own pace.

Dearborn does most of her gigs for neighborhood, disability, health care, and gay and lesbian groups, although she says the ideal audience would be “multi-everything – multi-ability, multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-gendered.” She has co-produced and MC’d an open mike comedy series. She performed at a butch-femme Halloween event. Usually, she’s a hit. Sometimes the location sabotages her. Boston’s Comedy Club had no lifts and she performed below the audiences’ eye level. She can’t control an audience she can’t see.

Take a Typical Wednesday

She also can’t control the fact that Social Security decides her income and how much can be paid for her equipment. She‘s allowed to earn – as a writer and a comic – no more than $500 a month. The Ride, Boston’s van service for people with disabilities, faces underfunding and overloaded schedules. Vans often arrive an hour late, which screws up Dearborn’s appointments.

Take a typical Wednesday. She has a meeting in downtown Boston on health care – Dearborn consults with agencies, schools, hospitals and legislators on access issues. She gets a last-minute call form The Ride saying it’s overbooked today – she must take a bus. She discovers that the left front tire of her wheelchair is bald: if it goes flat, she’s grounded. She calls the medical supply company about replacing it. A bureaucrat argues: What’s she done to wear it out?

On the bus, she’s at the mercy of each driver’s training. The first driver hooks a safety belt around Gertrude’s foot rest—that’s against MBTA regulations – skewing Dearborn’s footrest to the right. Her foot dangles unsupported, messing up her balance.

At the 20-person meeting, some of the discussion passes her by: she misses what mumblers say. The first time she tries to speak, someone breaks in while she’s sucking in the breath she’ll need. She persists, and gets her say.

Comedy, says Dearborn, offers a release from these and other daily hassles. “I get to bitch about stuff. It’s like therapy.” She often performs with comedy partner Helen Newberg: ”Helen is incredible. She’s so intuitive that I can relax. I know she can get me out of any jam.” At longer appearances, teaming up is necessary ”so my voice won’t wear out.”

At age nine, Carrie Dearborn read To Kill a Mockingbird and told everyone: I want to be a writer.” Nobody paid attention – yeah, yeah, they said. Now she’s decided to be a writer and a comedian. Yeah, yeah.  How far can she rise? Will audiences get a chance to find out?

First published in Sojourner: The Women’s Forum (June 1998); reprinted in New Mobility: Disability, Culture and Lifestyle (Nov 1999).