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Funny Motivational Humorist: 2012 Year in Review

Professional highlights:

• Laughing Matters with Brett Leake is picked up by American Public Television marking its tenth consecutive year of distribution to the nation’s public broadcasting stations.

• Added a funny humor workshop and a funny one man show

Comedian plays Gateway Theater: “... big laughs ... held over.”

The line for the Women’s Room is always at least ten deep at the Gateway Theater in Waynesboro. And that’s just the one in the painting.

It hangs just inside the restroom’s big door so when you see it, try not to laugh becauSe you’ve almost made it ... one more time.

Clair Myers, the theater’s executive director, saw it hanging in a downtown art show and exclaimed “I’ve got to have this for the theater.” Next thing I know I’m getting a call from my mom, the artist, saying “I’m playing the Gateway Theater, too ... in the restroom on the wall.”

Brother! One man show plays second banana to Kooky Mom, again.

I played the theater twice in 2012. I asked Clair, “Will I be working with you in 2013?”

I held my breath.

He said, “I think your days here are over.”

The smiling face is Julie Scott’s, the theater’s graphic artist and the hand behind the brush of these lovely images on her site.

My days are over because I work nights. The theater and I work together in March when we do the show off site at the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center.

They’ve got just one stall, too. Mom, get out your acrylics.

Selected Presentations:

Educational Humor: Funny Motivational Keynote Speech

  • US Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
  • Virginia Association of School Superintendents
  • Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery County, VA
  • Wattsburg Area School District, Wattsburg, PA
  • Christ the King Catholic High School, Mooresville NC
  • Tennessee Business Leadership Council
  • Fredericksburg (VA) City Schools Lafayette Upper Elementary
  • Henrico High School Warrior Jubilee Henrico, VA

Healthcare Humor: Funny Motivational Health Speech

  • The HUMOR Project’s 55th International Conference, Lake George NY
  • Washington County Department of Social Services, Hagerstown, MD
  • CR Wood Cancer Center Survivorship Celebration, Glens Falls, NY
  • Tennessee MegaConference, Nashville, TN
  • Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks, Silver Bay, NY
  • Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
  • Community Care Connections, Butler, PA

Community Care Connections, Butler, Pennsylvania. Thanks for the fun billboard!

Service Humor

- National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- The Myositis Association
- Muscular Dystrophy Association

Sitdown Standup Comedy

Comedy Clubs

- Comedy Caravan, Louisville, KY
- Jr.’s Last Laugh, Erie, PA
- McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, Sarasota
- DC Improv, Washington DC

The people you meet in this business: Camera, Lights, Sound, Cut!

I first knew something was wrong when I was taking this photo of David Johnson, my high school buddy and later my college roommate, as he described a hook shot he once made from beyond the arc.

David weaves a fine tale but this one was unusually compelling. David in high school was more a man of books than hooks known more for his Mark Twain than Meadowlark Lemon and he hit few shots from beyond the arc ... or from the foul line or from inside the paint or from above the rim hanging from a rafter or standing on a ladder.

“Coach Vega whistles gym over. Instead of rolling the ball into the corner like I usually did I just throw the ball,” David began,”...I just throw it... I don’t look, I don’t aim, I just throw the ball.”

“David, did you take careful aim?”

“I ... throw ... the ... ball ... and... Nothin’ ... But... Net.”

“I turn and Coach Vega is just staring at me. No sound. Nothing. Just staring. He can’t speak. How could he? He just saw The Shot. I just threw the ball and nothing but net.

Coach Vega nods. I nod. I jog to the showers like this is how gym always ends: you whistle; I swish; class dismissed.”

I’m listening to this thinking somebody slipped a Red Bull mickey in David’s Mirolax this morning.

Such a performance merits a standing O. “Bravo, David. On your feet everybody” I call out to the imagined masses inside the empty gym. I go to hit the button on my wheelchair that raises the chair to a standing position and nothing happens. It doesn’t work. No sound. Nothing.

Nothing but sweat.

The seat didn’t rise just like an hour earlier when the seat failed to rise at the conclusion of the Warrior Jubilee as I tried to stand up to say bye to David Baldacci.

Old wheelchairs are like that though. I bought it used in 2007, and it was 3 years old then. An 8 year old wheelchair is at least 40 in car years so this sort of thing has happened enough that I know there’s a chance it will fix itself. I dismissed the red flags and spent the next hour rolling about the campus, bouncing up and down on the grass, until it would kick itself back into gear, so I hoped. It didn’t.

I ask David to look under the hood, the chair’s battery box. We check the usual culprits: there’s a pressure plug that needs to be all the way up that sometimes gets stuck half way down. We check a wire that sometimes needs wiggling. That doesn’t work either. I fiddle with the joystick some and it only makes things worse; now the seat is no longer level. It’s now raised higher in the front than it is in the back – I’m sitting like I’m driving the clown car at the circus.

With David having done all he can do, I roll into the van and bid adieu leaving him behind at our ole school to dream up passes he once threw or pitches that once broke. I call my brother who is good at fixing things. He can’t crack the code either. I drive to my mom’s house -- two hours away -- where my step father Max works on the chair in his heavy jacket and under a flashlight because now it’s cold and getting late.

It’s a Saturday night and my wheelchair isn’t working. Oh well. Unless I’m working a comedy club I usually have no more than one show on a weekend. Today’s show had finished at noon. I’ve been down this road before. With nothing pressing, I would just wait for Monday, call Steve, the wheelchair tech, and ask him if I could come in to the service bay sooner than later.

But this Saturday night is different because this is a two show weekend and I’m working on Sunday expected in Baltimore, a three hour drive away. The audience I’m performing for throws my present situation into high relief. I’m the keynote speaker for a disability awareness event and we’re heralding adaptations – in this case, a community wide push for inclusion featuring the launch of a website focused on abilities with chat rooms for parents to share best practices. Attendees will include high school students with special needs. I’ve been chosen to speak, in part, because I have this really neat wheelchair which elicits from youth a Joe Biden degree of excitement:“You’re gonna’ love this thing; wait ‘til you see what it can do?” And I’m there because I have a cool job; I get to tell jokes for a living.

But now returned from Mom and Max’s and back home at midnight my chair’s not working and I’m feeling very unfunny.

I wake up early. It’s a long morning shuttling between my backup chairs – a manual Quickie and a table chair -- and climbing aboard the non-standing stander and getting it into the van. I make it, tough, though, and I arrive at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills, Maryland at 5:00 pm, 2 hours before show time.

At the door I meet Stacy, the event’s organizer, and Jen, her colleague. Audience members are already arriving and gathering around laptops navigating the new website.

And the walls are lined with works by members of the League for People with Disabilities.

There’s Tyrone’s Ladybug for Jill There’s Elaine Gregory’s Cat’s Meow Gregory Bannister’s Mosaic Vase

I recall snippets of a quote by John F Kennedy I’ve seen carved into the exterior wall of the Kennedy Center:


Letter to Miss Theodate Johnson, Publisher, Musical America, September 13, 1960

My shoulders relax. I hadn’t even noticed how tight my neck had been. Was this the first full breath I had taken in the last 24 hours? I begin to feel capable again.

Inside the auditorium I meet Dave and Roger. Dave is the theater’s technical director and Roger runs the lights. 2 hours is a lot of time for a run through for most standup shows but we’ve planned to meet early to try out an adaptation requested by the parents of one of the attendees. A young man, we’ll call him Ted, has multiple disabilities among them hearing loss. He’ll be sitting on the front row because seeing body language helps his hearing, and because we’ll have sign language interpreters. The adaptation is an FM transmitter. A microphone on me hanging from a lanyard will transmit my voice to a receiver connected to his hearing aid.

We test my end of the device and it appears to be working. We set it aside to test the rest when Ted arrives. .

Dave (left) and Roger (right)

We run through the standard comedy set up: we position the microphone stand, a floor monitor, and adjust the room lights. We’re running ahead of schedule.

“Is there anything else?” Dave asks. I say, “How much time do we have?” Plenty

I describe my situation: how my chair would usually stand up and why I’m sitting on an angle as if I’m awaiting launch on a Gemini rocket.

“Can we look under the hood?” Sure

We check the pressure plug and the wire. I throw the switch. No response.

Parts of the battery box are inaccessible with the seat at such a severe angle. With the standing actuator not working we decide to disengage it.

“Can we lift you out of the chair?”

“We’ll need to”, I say, “because with the seat stuck in a slant I’m gonna’ have to perform sitting on a barstool.”

I get lifted out and we pull a pin and throw the chair into manual mode. We stand the chair up and a gas spring on the chair helps push the seat into a standing position. Now the battery box’s entire wiring harness is open for inspection with more plugs to push and wires to wiggle and, as it turns out, more ways to get to nothing.

With the chair in manual mode, though, we see that we can realign the seat bottom making it more level. We just need something to support the bottom of the seat.

Roger raises his index finger “I know what to do” and he heads off to stage right and returns with a 2 by 4.

“Perfect length like it was made for this.” He says as he uses tape and plastic tie rods to fasten it to the chassis.

The seat still declines toward the back but its close enough to level for me to sit comfortably again.

All of this has taken a little more than an hour. They lift me back into my chair.

“I believe, gentlemen, I can work seated here in the chair. No need to lift onto and off the barstool.”

“This” I proclaim, “is the next best thing.”

“What would be the best thing? How you like this to look? Roger asks.

“How much time do we have?” goes me.

“Plenty.” again goes them.

I say, “For all the nights to not stand up.... “

You want to stand up?

“Sure ... but the gas spring isn’t strong enough to keep the chair in a standing position with me in the chair.”

Roger tells Dave “I think I’ve got another”. Another what? He goes off stage right. I hear a saw.

He comes back. “You strapped in?”


“We’re gonna’ lift the seat. When you’re at a comfortable height say when.”


“About two inches shorter?” he asks Dave. Apparently, Dave nods and off Roger goes stage right. And again with the saw.

He returns and back up I go. “How’s that?”


“Done. With time to spare -- doors open in ten minutes”.

“You OK with this?”

I can’t see what they’ve done: “Anything I need to be worried about?” “Yeh, Pray for ...” and he says something that makes me laugh.
“Can I use that?”


And nine minutes later 125 people walk, roll, and walker in. Ted’s parents are on the front row, Ted beside them hooked up to the transmitter’s receiver. I nod toward Ted and Ted’s father gives me the thumbs up. Maybe it’s the launch of their new website, maybe it’s Mosaic Vase, and maybe it’s Ms. Jolly Soul seated in the back of the room whose Laughing Gull-like vocalizations mark the moments for all to come together. For whatever reason, a spirit pervades, there is laughter, and we have ourselves a little comedy show.

Where to find help

I need assistance more than I used to. One of the hardest things getting used to is asking for help a lot and from the same people over and over again or from a person who happens to be walking by. A fix breaks, a new fix fixes the old one, and another fix waits its turn.

There’s a lot of good in this world and it doesn’t always need to be teased out of someone. More times than not it’s as close as “Please excuse me but... “.

I leave events like the one at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore with reminders that people want to help and benefit from providing assistance: Dave and Roger that day turned my malfunctioning wheelchair into a sculpture Calder would admire.

How did I stand? Let’s just say I learned what it looks like to 
be a mannequin. Or to take Dave’s line. “What am I glad for this 
evening? No termites.” 

The Gordon Center’s acoustics are peerless; nearly as good as 
the sound reported after the show by Ted to his parents. 
These FM transmitters really work well 

In the link we learn that optimal hearing for a hearing aid is 3 feet in a low noise environment. Ted’s mom said he heard everything. I felt I did my part. I provided the low noise environment; I kept the ambient sound down using a series of jokes. I commend Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Center for its proactive outreach for folks with disabilities. The new Jewish Abilities website is quite impressive. They found a void and responded: out of nothing, something. People helping people: Our fate? Nothing but kismet.


Da capo

And David Johnson, that guy at the beginning, who I was teasing about the stories he tells.... He’s the author of two critically acclaimed biographies – Douglas Southall Freeman and John Randolph of Roanoke. David ‘exactly limns’ two extraordinary men.

It’s the story these books tell of him – devoting precious spare time to chronicling how legendary figures thought, believed, lived -- that move me just as much.

Stories of everyday perseverance and acts of kindness serve as reminders of what each of us can do with our lives motivated by the deeds of others.

It’s the story about the hook shot I have a hard time believing.

Image Credits: My thanks to The Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Center, The League of People with Disabilities, Baltimore Jewish Times

Comedy credit: The line “Let’s just say I learned what it looks like to be a mannequin” is in honor of comedy great Jim Hanna.

I worked with Jim for several years touring from Burlington, Vermont to Orlando, Florida to Los Angeles, California. It’s fitting to include Jim here in a reflection on ‘make a difference’ humans. Jim’s compassion is bottomless. I’ve never met a more decent being.

Jim’s a post to himself; for now, the mannequin piece is linked below.

Jim Hanna - "Just looking" (part 3) Mannequins and Fast Food Restaurants


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