It was a Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Morty’s Comedy Joint was at capacity for the finals of Trial by Laughter, the club’s annual stand-up competition. The field, which once featured 30 up-and-coming comedians from all over the Midwest, had been narrowed to eight, with the winner of the $1,000 cash-prize to be decided by a panel of judges, plus an aggregate audience score.
Chris Bowers, the owner of the club and that night’s emcee, was on stage making fun of his purple sequined jacket, keeping the crowd warm in between sets, while two comics worked in the shadows to set up a ramp on stage. Bowers got their thumbs-up, nodded to the cameraman in the back of the room — the show was being filmed by Comcast for their on-demand service — and fell into his announcer’s voice:
“Alright folks, let’s keep it going for your next comic!” He waved a purple arm in the air to signify how much more noise he needed. “LUUUUCCAAS WATERFILLLLL!”
There was a small commotion off to the side, and then a wheelchair user was lifted over the lip of the wooden ramp. With a smile as wide as the curtains, Lucas Waterfill rolled onto the stage and into the spotlight.
More Than a Pipe Dream
I met up with Waterfill a few weeks prior to his performance at Trial by Laughter, at a bar in Broad Ripple, a trendy neighborhood on Indianapolis’ northeast side. It was a Tuesday night, and the club across the street, Crackers Comedy, was hosting its weekly open mic, which meant the bar was full of local comics loosening up before the show. Waterfill, who has cerebral palsy, is one of the best comedians on the scene, an ascendant talent, a guy with a real chance of making it in the world of comedy. He is the type of guy people want to rub shoulders with, and as we made our way to a seat, he was greeted with head nods and back slaps and hey-buddy’s.
We ordered drinks, beer for me, vodka-Sprite with an extra-long straw, for him, and settled into what I planned on being a one-drink, half-hour conversation. The first thing he told me, almost apologetically, was that he wasn’t as funny in person as he was on stage. Which is true. In private, Waterfill is far removed from the loud, profane, laugh-making machine who apologizes onstage on behalf of the disabled community for Japanese internment camps (“That was our fault,” he says on stage, pausing a beat to see how many people get the Franklin Delano Roosevelt reference) and breaks down the “Four Levels of Crippled,” yelling in faux-anger about “active cripples” and how, “those smug sons of bitches make being crippled look easy!”
In person, Waterfill is quiet and low-key — a polite, thoughtful alter ego of his stage persona, someone who isn’t afraid to talk seriously about the craft of making people laugh. That’s not to say he isn’t funny. Despite his best efforts to respond earnestly, he couldn’t help but test out some material when I asked about the difficulties of getting booked out of town by club owners who weren’t familiar with his disability. “It’s kinda like trying to pick up women,” he said, cracking a sly, sideways smile. “A lot of my life is convincing people what I’m capable of.”
We talked about 2017. It was a good year for Waterfill — there was no debating that, although we quibbled a bit on how to define it. A breakthrough, is how I tried to frame it. Progress, is how he saw it. Either way, after nearly four years of hustling to pay his dues — taking the bus back-and-forth to open mics, hanging around on the alt list, doing shows in dive bars for three people and no money — all the hard work and sacrifice was finally starting to feel worth it.
Earlier this year, Waterfill won the highly-competitive Funniest Person in Cincinnati contest, embarked on, and survived, his first tour — a nine-city, five-state DIY adventure with two other local comics — and found himself in the penultimate slot on the main stage at the Brew Ha-Ha Comedy Festival, featuring for the festival’s headliner, former Saturday Night Live writer Brooks Wheelan. It was a nerve-racking experience with over 1,000 people in the audience, but Waterfill killed, absolutely slaying the largest room he’d ever played. It was the highlight of his summer, he said, a turning point, the moment he realized this comedy thing might not be such a pipe dream after all.
Despite all the success, however, Waterfill emphasized he wasn’t satisfied. It’s nice to win competitions, validation is always good — sometimes desperately needed — and going on the road was a great experience. But it was all in the past. Same thing with Brew Ha-Ha. It was a thrilling, confidence-boosting 15 minutes, but it was in the rearview.
“Comedy is a young man’s game,” he explained, noting that his 27th birthday was coming later that month. “Every comic has this internal clock, where you’re like, shit, I’m 27, I’ve been in three years and nine months, I should be here, I should be here, I should be here.”
I asked whether the clock was starting to tick a little louder for him and if it added another layer of pressure to an already pressurized situation. He admitted that it had, but in a good way. It’s inspired him to up his game, he said, get more professional, write new stuff; stop sitting back waiting to be seen, and go get himself discovered.
“[The pressure] is motivating,” he said, leaning over to take a long pull of his vodka-Sprite. “It’s put a fire under my lazy ass.”
The Thrill of the Tension
“So the other day I was rolling down the street and I stopped at a crosswalk …”
There’s a moment during every comedy performance, in the seconds between a comic’s introduction and the punch line of their first joke, when the room fills with a nervous, uncomfortable energy, a collective feeling in the audience of oh God, please, please be funny. There is nothing more awkward, no more painful experience as an audience member, than watching someone up on stage who shouldn’t be up there, telling jokes that aren’t funny. It actually causes a physical reaction in some — a reddening of the face, a tingling of the skin, an undeniable urge to cover the eyes and run from the room. The comic up on stage feels it, the weight of that expectation, and for the vast majority of people who ever attempt stand-up comedy, it’s that pocket of pressure that crushes their dreams, turns them back into accountants and teachers and data analysts.When Waterfill takes the stage, that tension, the enormous responsibility of making people laugh, is intensified by 10 times. Nobody, not even the meanest of drunk hecklers, wants to watch a guy in a wheelchair bomb.
“This woman comes up to me, and she says, ‘May I pray for you? …”
Sitting in the showroom at Morty’s for the Trial by Laughter competition, I felt that tension firsthand. I had seen Waterfill before, so I knew what to expect. But crammed into the packed showroom, surrounded by people just checking out a random comedy show on a Saturday night, I could actually sense the crowd get stiff — pucker-up, as the comics like to say — when Waterfill started into his first joke. It was as if everyone had taken a deep breath all at once and was holding it until the guy in the wheelchair could make them stop feeling so damned uncomfortable.
“I said ‘sure’ … thinking that she would pray, you know, AWAY FROM ME!”
And with that, the crowd fully exhaled. Shoulders loosened, drinks were brought to lips; the tension in the room evaporated and was replaced, just like that, by a buzz of excited energy, one that just kept building and building throughout his set, seven-minutes of frenzied, pointed absurdity that by the end had the audience on its feet, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind who the winner of the competition would be.
“I love the tension,” Waterfill said, leaning his seat forward when I brought it up at the bar. “I take full advantage of it, blow it up. I like embracing that awkwardness, having them feel like that, and then being like, OK, he’s in control of this situation. He knows what he’s doing.”
It’s one of the reasons Waterfill said he was drawn to comedy, the reason why he’s constantly seeking out stage time — the power he has up there, that level of control, it’s a high, and it’s something he doesn’t get a lot of in his day-to-day. It’s not the only reason, of course. As his mom, Missy, put it, with a laugh, when I spoke with her on the phone from the family’s home in Plainfield, a small town on the outskirts of Indianapolis: “Lucas is a person who loves attention. … It’s just his personality,” she explained, noting that he fronted a hardcore straight-edge band back in high school.
It’s a characterization that he acknowledges, and fully embraces: “I want to be famous,” he told me at the bar, without apology. “I want to have Netflix specials, go on tour, be a panelist on Bill Maher.” He paused and leaned down to take another drink. “I want to give Bill Maher shit,” he said, flashing that half-smile again. “That’s a goal of mine.”
The Disability Advantage
Logistical issues like inconsistent stage access, not being able to hold a mic, and having to write and store jokes entirely in his head are daily realities for Waterfill, but he believes his disability is an advantage. As he sees it, while having a disability can make it harder to advance in many systems, in comedy, all the added adversity gives you a different perspective and more material to work with.
“I think comedy is a good vehicle for us,” he said, as the comics in the bar — almost all bearded white guys in their mid-20s — began to head across the street to the club. “There’s something inherently funny about looking different, or limping, or using a wheelchair, or whatever, and I don’t think it’s bad to lean into that.”
It’s not just the material, though, or the different perspective. From a young age, because of his disability, Waterfill was very aware of what people thought of him, and it forced him to confront those perceptions, to accept or reject those notions of himself, much earlier than his nondisabled peers. At the age of 12, for instance, angry at people who kept telling him he’d be able to walk one day, Waterfill adopted a motto, which he later had tattooed on his thigh: Crip 4 Lyfe.
It’s that attitude, a defined sense of self, that Waterfill brought with him to the stage when he first started, and it translated immediately in his comedic voice, imbuing him with a personalized authenticity that most good comics take years to develop.
When you get right down to it, in fact, the biggest conflict that Waterfill’s disability creates for him on stage is internal — how much should he talk about it? How should he talk about it? It’s an issue he came back to several times during what turned out to be a three-hour, multi-drink conversation. Waterfill was a political science major at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, interned for U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) while there, and had hopes of becoming a political organizer after graduation. It didn’t work out — Indiana isn’t exactly a hotbed for liberal activism — and so he traded the bullhorn for the microphone with the idea that maybe he could help bring some of those issues into the mainstream through comedy.
There’s a fine line though, he said, between saying something, making a statement, and being a “cheesy liberal social justice warrior guy who wants to change everyone’s mind.” It’s something he’s continually trying to balance. His goal, he said, as the waitress plopped down our second drink, is to “talk about being disabled the way [comedian] Patrice O’Neal talked about being black.”
“I just want to make it that out-of-control, and that ridiculous.”
That’s what comedians do, the good ones anyway — they take what’s personal to them, something that’s unique to their experience, and they exaggerate it and make it so outrageous that it somehow becomes relatable to all. It’s a cathartic process for Waterfill, whose initial emotional response to many of society’s interactions with disabled people isn’t good humor, but frustrated anger. He can’t help it — half of him, he says, just wants to have a good time and laugh everything off, but the other half is “so fucking pissed.” Comedy bridges that divide. It allows him to take a negative emotion, something that could fester into full-blown bitterness if left internalized, and turn it into something positive, a sharable, laughable, example of the absurdity he deals with daily.
Waterfill cited his opening joke, the one about the lady who prayed for him, as the sweet-spot. The joke blossoms from the initial punchline into a piece of performance art in which Waterfill pretends to be healed by the woman’s prayers. “I knew I was pissed about it … but I needed to make it funny, so people could understand how ridiculous it is for someone to pray for you in public. If I went up there and said, ‘somebody prayed for me in public,’ [the audience] would go, ‘ah, that’s sweet, that’s so nice.’ I have to demonstrate how absurd that is. If someone did that to anyone else, they’d be like, ‘What the fuck? Get off me,’ but because it’s me, someone in a wheelchair, it’s socially acceptable.”
That’s the needle he’s trying to thread, juxtaposing how people perceive his situation against the reality he experiences, and doing so without getting up on his soap box, or worse, having people feel sorry for him.
“I never want to be the corny crippled guy, the made-for-TV movie crippled guy. That’s my biggest fear,” he said. “Well, not my biggest fear.” He cracked another sideways grin. “My biggest fear is failing and having to move back into my parents’ house.”
Go Big or Stay Home
The future is still unfolding for Waterfill, and what it reveals is anybody’s guess. 2018 has been even better than 2017 — not only has he climbed another rung of the ladder, establishing himself as a steady feature act around town, but he had a killer showing at Laughing Skull in Atlanta, one of the most prestigious comedy festivals in the country. It’s more progress, there’s no doubt about that, and that’s great, but the success has brought him to a crossroads, one that every legitimate comedian from the Midwest has to face at some point — does he stay in Indianapolis, working his 9-to-5, hitting the road on the weekends in the hope that somebody, somewhere sees him, or does he start saving his money for a move to one of the coasts, where the dream can become a reality in an instant (or crushed just as quickly).
It’s a Catch-22 for Waterfill. In order to make a permanent move to Los Angeles or New York City, he needs to go on the road to make more money, but the road is not economical. The Crippling Egos Tour he went on with his two comedian buddies required meticulous planning, special accommodations, and the agreement among the three that they would tell everyone they “broke even” when they got home. It was fun as hell, but the road-life is simply not practical for Waterfill. Neither is making a temporary move to New York or LA, crashing on a buddy’s couch for a couple months to find out if he sinks or swims.
That’s why Laughing Skull was such a big deal. Not only was it one helluva confidence-booster, just getting the invite — what he refers to as “fuel” — but the festival is famous for its industry showcases, where dozens of television bookers, casting agents, managers and talent scouts show up to find the Next Big Thing. It’s the kind of situation where, if the right person just happens to catch your act on the right night, it can make your career. And this year they saw Waterfill. They approached him after the show, handed him business cards and told him they’d be in touch. It was exactly how he’d played it out in his head, the kind of break he’s been dreaming of. But he doesn’t want to dwell on what could be. He has jokes to write, bits to iron out, more festivals on the calendar. He knows he can’t get complacent, no matter how well things are going, or how bright the future seems.
“I won’t be satisfied until my second buddy-cop movie,” he told me that night at the bar, after ordering a round of tequila shots. He was smiling that sideways grin of his, and I laughed out loud. Both of us knew he wasn’t joking.