Will Lautzenheiser: Comedy Survivor

By Erik Brydges

Will Lautzenheiser had just taken a job teaching film at Montana State University in August 2011. After studying English at Boston University from 1992 to 1996, he graduated summa cum laude, with distinction and as a Phi Beta Kappa member. Having been enticed by the arts from a young age, Lautzenheiser was especially interested in filmmaking, and in 2005 he made the decision to get his master’s degree from his alma mater in film, graduating in 2007. That same year Lautzenheiser directed a short film called Just Like It Was with funding which he and classmate Suzy Ryder were awarded for co-writing a script, which won the Joseph A. Lalli fellowship. Just Like It Was won a CINE Golden Eagle Award in 2008.

After teaching film production and screenwriting at BU, his next step was to teach in Montana. “I thought it went well,” Lautzenheiser reminisced of his first day teaching in an article written in 2012 for University publication Bostonia, “I was really excited about it. The kids were totally open and very responsive.” Less than a week later, Lautzenheiser was in a coma, experiencing organ failure, and less than a month after that, he had both his arms and his legs amputated due to the common Group A streptococcus bacteria finding its way into his blood. 

Nearly two years later, Lautzenheiser has had to put both his teaching life and his passion for filmmaking on hold, but he has not just succumbed to his situation. He has found an educational outlet in comedy, performing and hosting his own shows in Boston as well as becoming part of a four person “Laugh and Learn” panel, organized by the New England ADA Center, which discusses disabilities with the public in a relaxed and humorous way. I had an opportunity to talk with the self-described “sit-down” comic about his comedy and his personal philosophy on life as a person with a disability.


Tell me about your comedy.

LAUTZENHEISER:  Comedy is a great topic. In a sense, it has a lot to do with language. I was an English major in my undergraduate years, and I had a dry sense of humor that often had to do with word play. 

What it really comes down to is that so many common turns of phrase in our world have to do with hands and feet: “one foot forward,” “hands down,” “fingers crossed,” and they don’t really apply to me anymore, so one initial goal with comedy was to diffuse that.

The second component of it is how absurd it is to be living in a “handed” world, or an accessible world in terms of getting around on your feet and using your hands. And there are broader implications: so many products are designed to operate with your fingers or by picking them up, which doesn’t really apply to me.

So, there are really two components to my humor, the first is in language, and the second is navigating through the world for someone who has lost their limbs. You have to laugh; otherwise it is sort of painful. It’s a way to get through a really difficult experience and try to maintain my dignity through laughter. I had joked about it a lot, but I never thought about linking it to a public forum. My friend has been working on a documentary, and she said that, for the documentary, it would be nice for me to speak to a group about what I had been through. Then she said that I was kind of funny about a lot of this, so why don’t I try to talk to a group about it at a comedy club? I agreed to it because I didn’t think it had any chance of actually happening. She spoke to some people, and, in December of last year I got my first show. Someone at that show saw me and wanted to collaborate, so I did that, and then I did it again, and it sort of went from there. So I do one show a month on average now. I have been talking about it with other people who are disabled, with the panel, so I think we’re going to do that again in September. I have another show lined up in October I think. My energy levels aren’t where I can do this every night or even once a week, but it’s a good way to get out, it’s a good way to be visible, and it’s good to focus on something that isn’t my therapy and my problem.   

It sounds like you had a decision to make: You could be miserable and let that encompass your life, or you could find a positive aspect to it.

LAUTZENHEISER:  Yeah, it was a decision. I mean, I could sit in a corner and weep if I wanted to, but that didn’t seem productive for me or for anyone else. It’s really not a funny situation I’m in at all, but if I try to find humor in it, it helps a lot. Ability is a spectrum. At some point in our lives we will have some degree of disability affect us, whether that’s personally or through someone we know through the aging process or through accidents. Babies are not able, right? But we don’t call them disabled, we call them babies. There are some people who, for whatever reason, are unable to feed themselves, or walk, and I hope society will be able to help those people out, such as myself. But we don’t want to talk about it. I can’t say it’s taboo, but we don’t really want to talk about what we are unable to do that we used to enjoy doing. We don’t want to talk about losing our independence, something that we have gained through childhood and adolescence, but sometimes it happens. And it’s better to try to talk about it openly than chuck it aside, and I think comedy really does help bridge some of the gap between what might be viewed as the normal and enabled world. On the flip side, humor can also be wounding or alienating; people use jokes as weapons to separate groups and to put people down, and I don’t do that. My goal with my comedy is not that at all. My own ability and disability is fair game. I don’t even want to comment about anyone else’s. In my own particular case, I think I’m able to make some points for the community as a whole in the way that I approached what happened.

Because of rehab and the limitations of your disability, teaching and filmmaking are on hold for now. When you are able to get back to making films and teaching, are there any projects that you feel your experience has given you that you want to focus either a film or a class on?

LAUTZENHEISER:  Of course I have thought a lot about when I might be able to get back to doing these things, how I might be able to get back to doing these things, and everything kind of comes back to my medical situation. I’m on a list as a possible recipient of donated limbs, essentially a hand transplant, and the rehab required for that is a considerable commitment and the surgery is really grueling too. You have to be in great shape to go through it in the first place and preparing for that takes months. And I keep thinking: Should I try to teach on a limited level? Like, one class or something? But what if I get called back and have to go to the hospital for a month? Right now it’s not fair on the students for me to take that on, so the way that I am teaching right now unfortunately doesn’t have anything to do with filmmaking or screenwriting or anything like that, but I have recently talked with groups of occupational therapy students and physical therapy students about my experiences. Secondly, the panel I’m part of, the so called “Laugh and Learn,” I think is also really educational to the community. In terms of filmmaking, I have collaborated with a friend on a movie she is putting together, and it felt great to get back into something I have always enjoyed. I wish I could say exactly when I would be back doing it and how I would be back doing it. If there was one I would rather do or was more likely to get to first, I don’t know. The comedy is probably feeding into the teaching I hope, so probably the sooner I can get back to that, the faster the better. 

You see yourself as a person with a disability, not as a disabled person. Why the differentiation between the two?

LAUTZENHEISER:  You want to be a person first—not as an adjective: disabled. I am still a person, and I have some problems doing things, and I have lost a lot of independence. The word “disabled” in “disabled person” seems to stick in your head more. Maybe it’s not much of a semantic difference at all, but to me it is an important distinction. Every person is a person primarily, not a constellation of disorders. “Person with a disability” puts humanity in front of their issues.

On your blog, thegratefulwill@blogspot.com, there is an option to donate. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

LAUTZENHEISER:  Anyone who has suddenly and catastrophically become disabled will be familiar with the unfortunate yet massive expense that comes with everything. Medical, living expenses, everything becomes huge, and, furthermore, for me, I can’t work right now. So I don’t have anything other than social security. I had to sell the apartment I was living in as it wasn’t acceptable and look for a new apartment and try to make and adapt it to my specifications as close as possible, and renovations are hugely expensive. Some of my expenses are covered by insurance, but not all of it. The wheelchair that I have is a power wheelchair, and, while insurance covers some of it, it won’t really cover customization options. I had just taken an amazing teaching job at Montana State University. I had taught there for two days, and suddenly I have two million dollars of medical expenses! The lion’s share of that is covered, but if I didn’t have insurance, I would have bankrupted myself and my family, and it doesn’t really help anyone. There is still just day to day expenses, and it’s really difficult. As a quadrilateral amputee it is really difficult to go back to work immediately, and it really requires some type of contribution. It’s a complicated situation, and the response has been OK, but I can always use more money. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s not that anyone deserves anything, so for me to ask for a donation is really emotionally challenging from my mindset, sort of like I’d rather see how far I can get myself. Then I realized that it’s just utterly impossible, and I really need to rely on the generosity of a lot of people. And it’s not all about financial. I have had a lot of friends give so much of their time helping me too. They cook meals, or help with stuff around the house. Donations are really important, and I’m hugely grateful for anyone who is contributing.

Is there any sentiment or message you would like to share with the Phi Beta Kappa community?

LAUTZENHEISER: The main thing to say is that I don’t think I would have gotten through this circumstance or catastrophe, or whatever anyone wants to describe it, as well as I did if I didn’t have the mental resources I gained during my earlier education. Phi Beta Kappa is a community of intellectuals, and intellect is what really got me through it. Being able to think about literature, music, film and art, and being able to talk about it with people who would come to visit me was absolutely essential and critical to the survival of my psyche. In a way, I just want to say to have those resources is so essential, and we need to continue to think of these as values that are worth saving.

To read more or to donate to the Will Lautzenheiser Fund, visit his blog: thegratefulwill@blogspot.com. To see one of his shows, write to gratefulwill@gmail.com, and Will will let you know when and where he is performing.

Erik Brydges is a senior at Eckerd College, double majoring in International Relations and Global Affairs and Political Science. Eckerd College is home to the Zeta of Florida Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.