Comedian with EDMD Takes Sacramento by Storm

‘The wheelchair comics are coming,’ warns Michael O’Connell (Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy), who loves to leave ’em laughing

Article Highlights:
  • After one try on open mic night, Michael O’Connell became a local comedy success.
  • Audiences at first are nervous about laughing at wheelchair humor – until O’Connell unleashes his one-liners.
  • Accessibility in comedy clubs is a problem, but one he believes will improve over time because “the wheelchair comics are coming.”
by Bill Norman on May 28, 2010 - 2:54pm

 What started out as an item on O'Connell's bucket list is now an almost nightly occurance: performing comedy on stage.

“So this woman comes up and tries to give me a dollar. I wanted to say, ‘Hey! Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I’m homeless!’”

Comedian Michael O’Connell, 41, has his own brand of humor, unique in that it mostly has to do with his experiences as a fulltime wheelchair user with Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy (EDMD). His business card reads, “Michael O’Connell – 100% Comedy. 0% Stand-Up.”

For a fellow who’s been in the comedy business just about six months, his fan base in Sacramento, Calif., (where he lives) has grown almost exponentially. But prior to Jan. 5, 2010, he wasn’t sure whether he’d succeed or founder on the stage.

It’s OK to laugh at him

O’Connell says his comedy career “all started with my bucket list that I was putting together at the start of the decade: ‘Get up on stage and do five minutes on an open mic.’ I mentioned it to a buddy, and he said, ‘Let’s do it. Set a date and time; tell all our friends so we can’t back out.’ So I got up on stage and gave it a try. I got up there, and it was just a life-changing experience. I absolutely fell in love with it. I wound up winning their competition, and accolades from the club manager and other comedians. I haven’t turned back since.”

O'Connell made it to the final round of a comedy competition recently at Tommy T's comedy club in Rancho Cordova. Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton

O’Connell faces a challenge other comedians don’t, in that he has to convince his audiences that it’s okay to laugh at his wheelchair jesting. Usually he breaks the ice with a line that begins something like, “I have a little problem with stand-up humor….”

However, there’s also method to his madness. Behind the hilarity, O’Connell wants very much for people to gain real insight into the life of a person with a disability.  For him, humor proves to be an effective vehicle.

Accessibility is a common theme

Accessibility to the stage is a big issue for O’Connell, and frequently works its way into his delivery.

“There’s really no such thing as ramps in the comedy world. I just have to bring people with me to lift me up to the stage,” he says. “Stairs are tricky. I have a couple of friends that have been lifting me up and down stairs for over 20 years. If they can’t come to one of my shows, and I have to turn to someone else, that’s when I get nervous. Most guys figure if they can lift their girlfriend’s washing machine up the stairs to her apartment, I should be easy. Well, I’m not a washing machine, and I don’t have a warranty if they drop me.

“I realize there aren’t that many people in chair doing comedy right now, so I can see how clubs aren’t taking steps to accommodate us. I consider myself a reminder to them. The wheelchair comics are coming, and if you want us to keep playing your clubs, you’d better think about how you’re going to get us up to the mic.”

Writing background helps

O’Connell has an edge over many others in comedy in that he has a background in writing. For five years he was a successful script and dialog writer for comic books. “I’ve taken my knowledge of language and translated it into comedy,” he says.

O’Connell performs as many as six nights a week at Sacramento-area comedy clubs, dinner theaters and comedy rooms in bars and restaurants. Fans have started requesting him on the entertainment line-up. He hopes to branch out soon from the Sacramento scene and go on tour.

His website  provides more insight into this funny man’s special ability to wield words, and also an opportunity to examine some of the products he sells on his store. Most, whether mugs, t-shirts, aprons or hats, incorporate his distinctive logo: the standard emblem of a person in a wheelchair – but wearing an English tweed driving cap and smoking a cigar, microphone in hand.

Note:  On May 27, 2010, O’Connell and veteran comedian Bobby Slayton (“The Pit Bull of Comedy”) performed at Tommy T’s Comedy and Dinner Theater in Rancho Cordova. All of the proceeds from ticket sales were donated to MDA. Visit to see some of O'Connell's routines.

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