“This is torture. It’s like being waterboarded,” said 28-year-old comedian Jonah Bascle about 1 a.m. outside of La Nuit Comedy Club on Freret Street.
It was the first brisk evening of the year and Bascle had already waited two hours for his turn at the Friday night open mic. Apparently, he was scheduled last.
Across the street, Hannah Engelson inconspicuously snapped Bascle’s picture. A photojournalist and filmmaker from Michigan, Engelson is producing a documentary about Bascle. She’s spent the last year filming the wheelchair-bound comedian. Bascle has muscular dystrophy. But more important, he is witty and disarmingly self-aware, both of which make him an evocative figure for a film.
“A lot of people are interesting and have interesting perspectives,” Engelson said, lounging on a couch in Bascle’s childhood home where he still resides. A bass guitar and drums rumbled below — the wails of Jonah’s brother’s band — and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Samuel Adams hoisting a beer stood across the room. “But the question is: Does it make sense to do a film about them?”
In the case of Bascle, Engelson has decided it does. So, she’s been filming Bascle doing things both quixotic and mundane.
Sometimes, that’s performing stand-up, painting, writing or filming sketch comedy with the melange of friends that constantly stream through his home. Other times, it’s the wheelchair repairman toiling to give Jonah a fresh set of wheels, or Jonah playing video games or just getting out of bed.
Despite his limited mobility, Bascle’s life appears infused with vitality. In addition to comedy, he’s been campaigning for years for better transportation options for those with disabilities. He even staged a protest in which he blocked the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line because it didn’t accept wheelchair-bound riders.
He also ran for mayor in 2010.
“I lost by 68,702 votes,” he quipped during a standup performance. “It was close.”
Bascle said for years he made his disability part of his bit, cracking wheelchair jokes, but recently he’s tossed them for a fresher repertoire that showcases his dry sense of humor and observational wit.
Regardless of the change in tack, he says humor has been instrumental in helping him engage the topic of his disability. He and his brother, Jesse Bascle, were both diagnosed with muscular dystrophy around the age of 12 and started using wheelchairs in their late teens.
“People are either super nice or they ignore you,” Jonah Bascle said, “but comedy helped, because I could make fun of what people said.”
Engelson encountered Bascle at a film meetup in 2010, where she was struck by his humor. According to Engelson, part of her motivation in producing the film is to flip the script on how people with disabilities are characterized in media.
“We don’t often see portrayals of characters like Jonah, and when we do, they often rely on tired tropes,” she wrote on the film’s website. “We are meant to be inspired by the thought of someone who is ‘confined’ to a wheelchair doing something mundane or simply being able to survive their condition.”
The film won’t shy away from the tough moments in Jonah’s life.
Bascle and Engelson plan to create an animated sequence to portray Jonah’s memories of being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at 19. Bascle said he spent time in Children’s Hospital, gazing out the window at the giraffes in nearby Audubon Zoo as he pondered whether he might need a heart transplant.
The film is titled “Jonah Stands Up,” and thanks to roughly $9,700 in Kickstarter contributions, Engelson plans to begin editing in the winter.
Until then, she’ll be spending plenty of time with Bascle, both in his home and at his various gigs.
The two have formed a close friendship, and when it was finally time for Bascle to take his turn at La Nuit, Engelson looked on pensively from the back row.
In order to get Bascle on stage, the emcee had to attach a portable ramp. It was a relatively fast process, but felt interminable as Bascle waited under the gaze of the remaining spectators.
“This next guy, he’s so cool, he ran for mayor, but the best part is that he didn’t even have to run,” bellowed the emcee.
Bascle motored his chair, with a Schlitz sticker on the back, up on to the stage with his back to the audience. He put it in reverse before making a three-point turn.
Bascle had been battling a cough all night, seemingly exacerbated by nerves, and he hacked as he first faced the crowd.
“You guys forget how to work the light?” he said with a smile to the small crew, who had neglected to turn the spotlight on for any of the other performers. The crowd chuckled.
The light flashed on, providing Engelson with enough illumination to snap a few candid pictures of Bascle in the timeless seconds before his first joke.