Laughing at Ally

26 Nov 2013, Posted by admin in Packages, No Comments. Tagged , , , , ,

Laughing at Ally

Cincinnati comedian Ally Bruener has come a long way to prove that it’s OK to laugh at the crippled girl. 

Story, photos and video by Dakota Wright

Most of the comedians are already inside the club, drinking their choice of liquid courage. Ally Bruener sits in her wheelchair-accessible van in the parking lot, scribbling notes as she inhales into an oxygen mask.

“I get out of breath when I’m performing,” she says, her voice muffled by the plastic. “And I’m nervous because I’ve never done this many jokes that aren’t about being crippled.”

Sitting in her van, she runs through punchlines. “Do you think they’ll like this one?” she calls to her dad from the backseat.

“I think they will,” he says.

The van, etched with names and inside jokes, hints of pilgrimages to sweltering summer festivals, assaults by multicolored Sharpies, and laughter. Lots of laughter. While muscular dystrophy mandates that she wheel her way through life, it sure doesn’t control where the 24-year-old can go.

Getting away

Ally was born in Alexandria, Ky., a small, sleepy farming community southeast of Cincinnati. Diagnosed with congenital muscular dystrophy at 3, Bruener entered first grade with leg braces and a walker. The next year, she was using a manual wheelchair. The year after that, she moved on to a motorized chair.

“It was a gradual progression that everybody got used to,” Bruener says. “That’s the only way they ever knew me.”

Bruener’s parents didn’t let their daughter’s condition define her or the way they treated her.

“Muscular dystrophy meant that she did things differently, but whatever she wanted to try, we let her try,” says Ron Bruener, Ally’s dad. “She would go outside in the yard, or play games at school, even if they didn’t want her to because it was more of a hassle for them.”

Ally served as president of the student council and a member of the academic team. Her older brother Adam, “the jock that everybody was friends with,” fended off taunting from the other kids.

Many of her classmates, including her brother, wanted to settle down in Alexandria after high school. Not Ally.

“The way I figured it, college was my only chance to get away from this small-town life,” Bruener says. “College was the perfect chance, because I can’t really just drop everything and go wherever I want to. I have to have people to help me.”

Bruener was accepted into the Harlan Scholars Program, guaranteeing her admission to University of Louisville’s law school. But she needed more than scholarship support. As Bruener searched for people to help her dress, shower, and prepare food, the process of starting college grew more and more stressful.

After the first few weeks with help from her mother, two of her fellow U of L undergraduates signed on to help Bruener live without her parents for the first time.

“That was a little different, because I’ve always been the one who has taken care of her,” Ron Bruener says. “But as long as her needs were met, it didn’t bother me. The fact that Louisville is only two hours away really helped.”

With independence came the requisite studying, partying, laughing, watching TV or playing pool in the dorm lobby.

Bruener developed a tight-knit group of friends. They ate in the dining hall together and turned the lobby into ‘Wheelchair Rodeo,’ a game like riding a mechanical bull, with Bruener’s wheelchair as the bull. Each player tried to stay on for a single-handed ride on the back of her chair for a solid eight seconds. The game almost got them arrested in the dorm lobby.

Although Bruener thrived socially, she began losing motivation academically. She viewed her undergraduate studies in political science as simply a stepping stone to law school. She had limited interest in the coursework, and the heavy reality of graduate school began to weigh on her.

“I saw all of these people that were a hell of a lot more dedicated than I was, and they were having mental breakdowns,” she says. “There was no way that I was gonna put myself through that… I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I told myself that I would take some time off and try to figure it out.”

Something to look forward to

Bruener’s semester-long break came and went, but she still found herself without a master plan. “I thought I knew what my life was gonna be like. And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t,” she says. “I got really depressed about it. I needed something to look forward to. So that’s when I got into comedy.”

The Comedy Caravan in Louisville was offering a first-timers course, and Bruener figured she had nothing to lose. What started as a way to kill some time for five weeks revealed a natural talent.

"Whatever (Ally) wanted to try, we let her try,” says Ron Bruener.

“Whatever (Ally) wanted to try, we let her try,” says Ron Bruener.

“I was in my element when I started, because I like having everybody’s attention on me, waiting to hear what I’m going to say,” she says. “It’s kind of powerful.”

Bruener conceived her special blend of satirical, provocative and brutally honest humor at the Caravan. “When I was six months into comedy, I was talking to one of my Caravan teachers. He said, ‘Ally, you could come up with a really good gimmick if you wanted to.’ I thought, You know what? I could.”

She didn’t want her website to be because of inevitable spelling errors. She wanted something people would remember. “So I came up with I Laughed at the Crippled Girl,” she says.

In her routine, she jokes about how “crippled people” are her “least favorite group of people ever. You know why? Because they take all of my parking spots.”

Most of the audience bursts into laughter, she knows, even from the stage, that some are holding back. “It’s OK to laugh at that,” she says. When she performs, every person is equal — and equally allowed to be the target of humor.

Fellow comedian John Richardson headlined the graduation show for Comedy Caravan students — Bruener’s first performance ever.

“I remember that night well,” Richardson says. “It was one of the most impressive, inspiring and motivating performances I’ve ever seen. She has truth in her comedy that allows people to focus on her, and not her disability. They’re able to laugh with her, not at her.”

She talks in her act a lot about her awkward dating experiences — for example, a guy once told her that if he were a dinosaur, he’d be a “pleasure-saurus” and a “whore-bivore.” But it’s not the R-rated humor that causes the most backlash; it’s jokes that stem from her disability. One of her most popular bits is also the most controversial: “Jesus doesn’t like crippled people. You don’t believe me? There’s a stairway to heaven.”

“My brother still doesn’t understand it,” Ron Bruener says. “He will not come to a show. He just cannot bring himself to understand why she makes fun of herself through comedy. It just isn’t right, in his mind. But it’s all about the way you look at it. A lot of people have understood and benefitted from the way she does things.”

Finding the positives
Not everyone understands Bruener’s unconventional methods, but those who do push her to continue. “I’ve had a pretty good reaction from people; even people with disabilities. They love what I’m doing.”

She says the people who get upset with her comedy are people who can walk. Others are more accepting. “I’ll get random messages that say, ‘Hey, I have a friend or family member with a disability, and I want to show them your stuff; I think it’ll influence them in a positive way.’ ”

Bruener wants to extend her positive influence to elementary school children. “I’d basically just go and sit with a class for an entire day, and teach them about disabilities,” she says. “Not so much lecturing them, but showing that, hey, I’m different, but I can still do all the same stuff you can do.”

For her, exposing young people to new ways of thinking, and new people, can lead toward acceptance.

“I think a lot of the reason that kids grow up to be uncomfortable with disabilities is because they’re not around it,” she says. “Many of them have never actually met someone in a wheelchair, so they don’t have any kind of positive disabled influence. I would really like to somehow change that.”

Bruener’s wheelchair-accessible van is etched with names, quips and inside jokes.

Bruener’s wheelchair-accessible van is etched with names, quips and inside jokes.

Breuner’s stage show ranges from her self-deprecating use of the word ‘cripple’ to unabashed sexual innuendo — she jokes that she wants a bumper sticker for the back of her wheelchair that reads “my other ride is my vibrator.”

“It’s okay to be who you are,” she says. “I’ve never really had any problems accepting my disability. For me, it’s all I know. There isn’t a time I can really remember that I wasn’t disabled. It’s about finding the positives in it, and that’s why I do comedy. That’s my positive.”

Laughing at the crippled girl

Ally Bruener’s wheelchair has the words BLACK LIGHTNING written in Sharpie and underlined twice for emphasis, just below where her feet rest. A University of Louisville sticker is placed between the two bottom wheels, and another reading “KEEP CALM CHIVE ON,” a reference to one of her favorite charities, is centered above it.

As she enters the lobby of the Go Bananas comedy club, many of the comedians come over from the bar, drink in hand, to tell Bruener they’re glad to see her.

When she rolls onto the stage, she knows that there is at least one person in the audience who is afraid to laugh at the young blonde girl in the wheelchair. Then she cracks a joke about hump day and the entire room erupts.

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