Joe Eurell, a comic with cerebral palsy, uses laughter to lift himself, others up

As a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, Joe Eurell might have the hardest profession when it comes to being a person with a disability. But when it comes to telling jokes, he sees his unique traits as a way to lift himself above the crowd.

“I don’t want people to feel bad for me because I’m in a wheelchair, because if I wasn’t in a wheelchair I'd be stealing cars," he joked. "And I know that because I stole this wheelchair.”

Eurell lobs playfully self-aware lines like this in rapid succession in his act, pushing through the moments when his voice cracks to deliver jokes with the cadence of a seasoned comic. While recapping his history at a coffee shop on a recent afternoon in Huntington Beach, he makes such wisecracks in regular intervals.

“I was born in Cocoa Beach, Fla. When I was 10, my birth family put me in foster care and I was adopted by a family in Huntington Beach when I was 12. My mom adopted 60 kids with her nonprofit. Kind of a hoarding problem.”

While sharpening his skills in stand-up comedy, Eurell managed to complete a master's degree at Cal State Long Beach.

“It gave me some context for a world outside of being a s—-talking roaster," he said. "It was rad; I could ride the city bus directly to and from school. It sounds corny, but being able to ride the bus and look at the ocean on the whole ride, I actually think it improved my grades. It was really relaxing.”

After getting his bachelor's in political science, Eurell finished his master's in public administration.

“The graduate program was extremely frustrating and I really wanted to quit, but I pushed through," he said. "My idea was that I could have a public admin job during the day and do comedy at night. I like public administration because poli sci is the theory of policy, and public admin is the application. It’s applicable to something other than just two people having a debate.

“I became a comedian in part because as a kid I remember asking, ‘What am I going to do as a job?' I would watch 'Live at Dangerfield's,' this series that launched the careers of Kinison, Hicks, all these comics. I thought, those people just talk into a mic. It was a very non-labor-intensive job. I can do that!”

Eurell said he was 26 before he thought himself able to have the emotional maturity to try stand-up. "For a long time I felt like, ‘It’s my disability, and I don’t want other people laughing at it.’ Then I realized I’m taking myself a little too seriously,” he said.

The biggest hurdle to overcome was his difficulty enunciating, something that the comic affectionately refers to as his “cerebral palsy accent.” Though this improved dramatically from years of performing.

“It was free speech therapy that I would never have gone to under any other circumstance,” he said.

Due to the modest stipend Eurell gets from Social Security, he is required to report any earnings he makes over $65. This is a regular part of welfare benefits known as “means testing,” and makes supplementing with regular income from gigging very difficult. Last August, Eurell ran a successful Go Fund Me campaign to raise enough money for a van to travel to gigs in. Unfortunately, the celebration was cut with disappointment. Even though the full amount of proceeds went directly into the vehicle and despite Eurell filing all the necessary paperwork to document the transaction in the required amount of time, he was notified five months later, in January, that his Social Security stipend would be docked for three full months.

“Sometimes I do wonder if it’s worth it,” he said earnestly. This is the only brief window he opens into displaying the struggle he endures. Its effect is stark in contrast with his bubbly demeanor and steady stream of jokes that he offers almost involuntarily as he shares his story.

His grim countenance quickly turns back to one of buoyancy as he recalls the excitement of watching the campaign climb toward his target mark.

“It was incredible. Our goal was $31,000, which was the cost of the van. We raised $33,500. I don’t mean to brag, but I nailed the price because we got exactly what we needed. After the cost of registration and fees, I had $250 left over and I used all of that on gas, so every cent went into the car. We had 456 backers. I emailed every single one of them back individually. I fought the urge to joke with them and put out a mass email that said, ‘My whole goal when I started comedy 10 years ago was to raise enough money to buy a van. Now that my dream is realized, I can finally quit!’”

Eurell has come an impressively long way since he started almost 10 years ago, which he attributes to relentless gigging.

“At one point before the [pandemic], I was averaging three shows a week. April 14th, 2013, was the first mic I ever did. It was at La Cave in Newport Beach. Then I started doing Anchor Bar in Costa Mesa every week for almost five years. The regiment of that was huge for me. I would try new stuff constantly. My rule was: If it bombs three times, it’s gone.”

The comic reported mournfully that the venue he spent so much time in refining his craft has since closed.

“I miss Anchor Bar a lot, but life marches on. You can’t get too stuck in nostalgia.”

Eurell's consistent gigging garnered the attention of Comedy Central, which offered him the chance at a segment on "Roast Battle," opposite fellow comedian Nicole Becannon.

“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. It was at the Fonda Theatre. The best part for me was they had us do an entrance, so I hired a bagpiper to walk out with me.”

Most recently, Eurell has been working with the Comedy Store in Hollywood to make its stage more accessible. After a particularly difficult time getting on stage during a "Roast Battle" last fall, he took to social media to voice his gripe with the management.

“The owner heard about what happened and they were very open to hearing what I had to say," Eurell said. "They asked me to write up a list of recommendations. I ended up giving them something a little more detailed than I think they wanted, haha.”

A video on YouTube from Eurell's episode of "Comedy Central Roast Battle" has nearly 1,000 comments from people showing respect for his performance. When the conversation turned to the idea that he is likely an inspiration to many strangers, he said it came organically.

“It’s not something I used to think about, but I have slowly started to realize that there’s more to life than just myself. A big inspiration for me before I ever started was a friend of mine from middle school and high school named Nick Waterhouse, who ended up becoming a very successful musician. I remember feeling like, 'If somebody that I know could get a song in a Lexus commercial, then I can do anything too,'" he said. "I like the idea that I could be that inspiration for anyone who feels like they can’t do something for whatever reason.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.