There's nothing funny about being in a wheelchair.
"By the way, I was the guy who invented those [handicapped] parking spots . . ."
Or is there?
"I was coming out of a bar one night, a little drunk. I came out into the parking lot, tipped over sideways and the cop thought I was dead and outlined me in chalk. The rest is history."
Jeff Charlebois (pronounced charley-boys) calls himself a sit-down comic. A stand-up he'll never be. He can't stand up. But, he points out, this is not always bad.
"Since I've been in a wheelchair I've yet to wear out a pair of shoes."
A part-time professional comedian -- who works by day as a humor writer and consultant for a software company specializing in computer games -- Mr. Charlebois will put his talent to lTC appropriate use Sunday as one of the featured acts at a benefit performance for United Cerebral Palsy at Slap Stix Comedy Club (see box, 5E).
He's always been the funny guy, the class clown. Even before the accident. In fact, his friends thought he was kidding that foggy, drizzly night 12 years ago when the car skidded off the northern Baltimore County road and hit a tree and Jeff, in the back seat, told them he couldn't move.
"I think I'm paralyzed," he told his two friends -- both uninjured -- who had been in the front of the car.
But his reputation preceded him. "C'mon, man, quit joking," his friends told him.
Jeff, then 16, wasn't joking. "My body was tingling," he recalls. "My neck felt a little sore. My whole body felt like pins and needles, like when your foot falls asleep. I was trying to make sense of the whole thing. I thought, geez, what is going on? Could this be serious?"
It was serious all right. Three-weeks-in-Shock-Trauma serious. Ten-weeks-on-a-Stryker-frame serious, his body fastened to the ungainly metal contraption. Good way to keep up the old math skills: "You get to lay flat and count the ceiling tiles. And then they flip you over and you get to count the floor tiles. Then you get to check your math every two hours."
There would be six months total in the hospital, time for it to finally sink in that he wasn't going to walk out the door. And time enough for Jeff Charlebois, onetime competitive diver, life of the party in the Calvert Hall junior class, to question everything he had ever thought his life was about.
"My biggest question," Mr. Charlebois remembers now, "was 'Why me?' I'd ask God, 'Why couldn't you pick on someone else? I like to go out with the guys, pick up girls, play sports. Why couldn't you pick the geek by the computer who stays home all the time?' "
These days, doing comedy shows, working not only at clubs and colleges but also at rehab centers, at meetings of physical and occupational therapy associations, he thinks maybe he's getting his answer.
"God's answering now," he says reflectively, sitting in the dining room of the Lutherville home he shares with a friend, in a rare completely serious moment. "I'm looked at as a role model. People can look at me and see, not only how you can get past something like this, but how valuable a tool humor can be."
It's a tool he's trying to turn into a a full-time profession, hoping to line up 50 to 100 dates for next year. He's got the talent, say some observers.
"Jeff has done very well for us," says Lee Nardyz, general manager of Slap Stix. "Because he's in a wheelchair it takes people a couple of minutes to get adjusted. People sometimes feel uncomfortable at first. He sets them at ease. He'll give the crowd an icebreaker, a joke about his handicap, and then the crowd can kind of forget it."
He adds, "I think Jeff has the stuff to succeed even without the handicap. Either way, he could have been a comedian. It takes a certain attitude, and he'd have it, in or out of a wheelchair."
Lon Kieffer, a onetime stand-up comic who put together the cerebral palsy benefit, wanted Mr. Charlebois for the show, he says, "because he has impeccable taste, he's appropriate for any audience and for obvious reasons he would send a message that's consistent with the theme of the night." As for Mr. Charlebois' talent, he feels "maybe he gets the benefit of the doubt because he's handicapped, but in his own right he's very funny."
Mr. Charlebois, who first performed comedy when he was a college student at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, has always used humor to deflect potential uneasiness. He remembers going back to high school in a wheelchair and "everyone was supportive. But it was weird for some. The guys I'd clowned around with didn't know how to act. My sense of humor came into play and I felt the best way to put them at ease was jokes."
Since he graduated from college he has had jobs doing inside sales for a steel company (mostly telephone work), writing advertising copy, and distributing soil and erosion products. He has also written some so-far unproduced scripts for TV and movies, material for other comics, and is working on a book about people you meet in the hospital.
He got a little refresher course on the hospital subject two years ago. He decided to do "something I've always wanted to do," gave in to "that feeling of saying, 'Hey, I can do what I want.' " He went sky-diving.
Strapped to the instructor, he went plummeting 10,000 feet to the ground and thought he was home free when the chute opened.
He broke his leg on the landing.
He heard the crunch, had enough sensation to feel the pain and knew for sure that it was broken when he felt the bones rub against each other. His roommate splinted him with a roll of newspaper and some tape and drove him from the airfield in Virginia to GBMC, where he was admitted. He told his parents he'd fallen out of his wheelchair, but then had to confess. "Word was leaking out that the crippled kid had gone sky-diving."
A couple weeks later he broke it again transferring from his bed to a chair. A metal rod was put in this time. More time in the hospital provided more material for jokes. "Hey, I was on Demerol for a month and a half. I'm hoping to break the other leg."
Besides hospital jokes and wheelchair jokes his act includes impersonations -- Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Kermit the Frog, to name a few -- and a broad range of jokes about general topics. But the wheelchair comes up again and again.
"I guess you could say," says Jeff Charlebois, "I'm always on a roll."
Laughs for charity
Slap Stix Comedy Club at the Brokerage will feature a team of comedians in a show at 8 p.m. Sunday to benefit United Cerebral Palsy.
Performing will be Jeff Caldwell, Jeff Charlebois and Chris Coccia. Lon Kieffer will emcee the show.
Admission is a $20 tax deductible contribution. For ticket information call Lon Kieffer, 296-0511 (day) or 242-8527 (evening).