The 'Can't-Stand-Up Comedian': Dan Smith on Finding Comedy in Spina Bifida

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Dan "The Can't-Stand-Up Comedian" Smith performs in Sacramento, prior to the coronavirus pandemic. (Aine Henderson/KQED )

For Dan Smith, mundane everyday chores can become fodder for his next comedy routine.

On a warm January day, Smith tackled the usual domestic challenges at his home in Sacramento. He began by taking out the trash,  groaning while gripping the heavy bin as it rolled down his steep driveway, dragging him behind it.

"That’s taking out the trash can of terror," he deadpanned.

Next, Smith grabbed a leash to walk his dog Kepi around the block. A "walk and roll," he called it. "[Kepi's] walking, I’m rolling."

Smith, who has used a wheelchair since birth, has coined phrases like this for nearly each part of his day.

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"You've got to keep things fun," he explained. "Laughter is what’s kept me sane through a lot of things."

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down entertainment venues around the state, Smith had become a regular at comedy joints around the Sacramento area. Nearly once a week, a group of comics would hoist Smith on stage at a local club called Punch Line Sacramento.

"Thanks for coming to the stand-up comedy show," Smith began one such set. "I’ll be your can’t-stand-up-comedian for the night."

Smith has spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t develop properly in utero. Smith was born with an opening in his back, which required surgery when he was just eight days old to close. His form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele, is the most severe.  After all, as Smith likes to joke, "if you're going to commit to something, go all the way."

Smith makes light of his disability now, but he remembers a shy childhood without many friends.

"I obviously knew what was different about me," Smith said. "Even if other people didn’t make a big deal out of it, I still knew it was there and felt like I didn’t really fit in."

But Smith knew he loved to laugh — and make people laugh. Comedy was always in the back of his mind, but being in the spotlight? At first, it wasn’t for him.

"Getting up on stage in front of a room full of people and being the center of attention? No. Absolutely not," he said of his initial reaction to the idea.

Dan Smith said it took years for him to gain the confidence to get on stage. "I wasn't ready in my mind," he said.
Dan Smith said it took years for him to gain the confidence to get on stage. "I wasn't ready in my mind," he said. (Aine Henderson / KQED)

Smith's confidence posed one obstacle, but his health presented another challenge entirely.

"The early part of the 2010s was really bad for me," he said. " I had a lot of health problems and some personal problems. Being in and out of the hospital a couple of times a year, that'll get to you."

Smith's string of hospital visits lasted roughly five years. During that time, one thing that boosted his spirits was the work of Michael O'Connell, another Sacramento-based comedian who used a wheelchair.

"I met him a few times. He actually visited me in the hospital, which I really appreciated," said Smith.

Though Smith and O'Connell didn't share the same disability, Smith saw a kindred spirit in O'Connell — someone who could relate to the hardships he'd experienced.

"I looked up to him," said Smith. "Here was a person with a disability doing comedy, and doing well at it. I thought, 'Hey, if he can do it, I'd like to try it sometime, too.'"

O'Connell's death in 2016 left an indelible mark on Smith. "It really affected me," he remembered. "I felt like I lost someone that I looked up to."

Soon after, Smith decided it was time to pick up comedy as a way to honor him.

"It took a lot of years for me to realize that, hey, I’ve got some good stories," he said. "And I want to share ‘em."

Entering the Spotlight

Since starting stand-up in 2016, Smith has devoted each set to highlighting life with a disability. He talks about what he calls "the perks of paraplegia" as well as the microaggressions he faces on a daily basis.

"I’ll tell you that the biggest middle finger in all of society to people in wheelchairs specifically ... it’s outside of every elevator," Smith joked during a comedy set. "‘In case of fire, use stairs.’"

Dan Smith has his logo tattooed onto his arm: a person falling out of a wheelchair while holding a microphone.
Dan Smith has his logo tattooed onto his arm: a person falling out of a wheelchair while holding a microphone. (Aine Henderson / KQED)

Smith does not intend to speak on behalf of all people with disabilities, nor does he want to be labelled as "inspirational" just because he uses a wheelchair.

"Inspirational is a four letter word for people with a disability," he said. "We’re not trying to be inspirational, we’re just trying to live our lives. I'll incorporate my disability into universal topics, like marriage and my sobriety."

At the time of our interview, Smith had been sober for exactly nine months and four days. He marked his 90th day with a tattoo on his forearm, and he tracks his progress using an app on his phone. Smith recalled that when he was younger, drinking was a way to help fit in.

"I didn’t drink every day, but when I did drink I couldn’t stop until I passed out," he said.

"I did a few sets when I was drunk. There was one set I don't remember at all. I was told that I got onstage and told one joke. Then I spent the next five minutes going in circles."

Smith bombed so hard that he vowed to never waste an opportunity on stage again. Now, he proudly broadcasts his sobriety, even incorporating it into his routine.

"I quit drinking this last year," Smith announced to a cheering audience. "But I’ll tell you, it’s just impossible to find a wheelchair accessible 12-step program."

Smith says his comedy work is a kind of therapy for him.

"You joke about the things that you're struggling with," he said. "That’s comedy. It’s turning tragedy into comedy."

Stand-Up in the Time of COVID-19

One topic, however, that’s been difficult to turn into comedy is the COVID-19 crisis, said Smith.

Smith is immunocompromised and said that he's had some difficult days emotionally. He’s attempted comedy sets over Zoom, but it’s tricky, without direct audience feedback.

But most of all, Smith said he misses his fellow comedians who made him laugh week after week.

"I miss the hell out of them," he said. "I miss hugs."

Smith hosted the first-ever "body posi" comedy night on Zoom in March 2020.

In May, Smith emceed a body positive themed comedy night over Zoom. Many of his fellow comedians from the Sacramento comedy scene were in attendance.

"Welcome to the first ever 'body posi' show," Smith announced through the screen. "Tonight we’re celebrating positivity in everybody and every body."

Over the course of the night, comedians discussed everything from fatphobia to gender norms. As the emcee, Smith placed a homemade banner behind him and wore a t-shirt that said “I run better than the government.”

He also tested out some new material — about those everyday, mundane chores.

"We have one of those top-down washing machines, so I have to lift myself over the side to reach [clothes] at the bottom," he said during his set. "Last week I was flipping my laundry. I fell in."

Smith doesn't get paid much to do comedy, but he considers the laughter of a room full of people his payment.

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"It feels like I gave them something," he said. "There's not much that makes me happier than to be able to make someone laugh."