San Diegan Finds Passion For Comedy After Losing Sight
August 7, 2013 1:24 p.m.
Patrick DeGuire, comedian
Michael Coleman, executive director, Laughter Matters
Related Story: San Diegan Finds Passion For Comedy After Losing Sight
CAVANAUGH: Just about now, the City of San Diego could use a good laugh. Psychologists tell us that laughter can relieve tension, stress, and the old adage says it's the best medicine. San Diegan Patrick DeGuire learned almost 20 years ago that he was losing his sight, but that bad news opened the door to a new career as a comedian. Welcome to the show.
DEGUIRE: Thank you so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Michael Coleman is a proponent of what some people call laughter yoga to promote well being. He's director of a group called laughter matters.
COLEMAN: Happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Patrick, that seems to be an odd turn of events, to become a comedian after becoming legally blind. How did you decide on that career?
DEGUIRE: How it happened as you mention, about 17, 18 years ago, I was afflicted with an eye disease called optic neuritis. It's nerve damage. So the bad vision that I have is not correctable. My mom read an article in the Union Tribune about how the manager at the comedy store in La Jolla was suffering from a disease called spina bifida and how he was able to turn a negative into a positive. In high school, I was class clown. So she said why don't understand you do some standup and use this as therapy? Went to an open mic, and one thing led to another. 17 years later, I'm here at KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Whoa! Now, what did you do before you were a comedian?
DEGUIRE: I was working at Pepsi as a merchandiser. And before that, I was in the police academy. I had to withdraw, and I was getting ready to get back into the academy again when I started losing my vision.
CAVANAUGH: So you were changing careers and it happened that you happened on this new opportunity. Now are audiences a little hesitant to laugh at first, at least if you're joking about your limited eyesight?
DEGUIRE: I think the fact that I don't have a cane or seeing eye dog, a lot of times people don't believe that I have a loss of vision. And it's important for me to set up credibility when I get up on stage. And you do that by most of the time bringing up the loss of vision later on in the routine, versus throwing at them in the very beginning. But I also think a comedy club is where anything goes. And political correctness leaves. So I don't ever feel as though I'm given an advantage for my loss of vision. They're expecting me to be funny, and funny is funny.
CAVANAUGH: How do you handle the fact that you're legally blind in your act? Is it self deprecating humor, is it humor about the world about limited eyesight or all of the above?
DEGUIRE: It's all of the above. I definitely talk about the complications. Having a loss of vision means I'm afraid to discipline my own children because they're the ones that help me cross the street.
[ LAUGHTER ]
DEGUIRE: And you have to make fun of it. Life is too short, and I've been able to meet a lot of people that have had no vision ever. And I'm grateful that I had vision for the first 20-odd years of my life. So I've been able to turn this negative into a positive, and hopefully be an inspiration to others.
CAVANAUGH: Did the process of joking about this help you deal with it personally?
DEGUIRE: I definitely think it does. If I wanted to, I could really get down on the fact that I can't drive, I can't see my children participate in sports from the stands. It's impossible. But I figure I have so many other things to focus on, I have to be strong, not only for my children, but for people that I come into contact with. Because maybe they can use my experiences to better their lives.
CAVANAUGH: Michael Coleman, what's the concept behind laughing yoga?
COLEMAN: Well, the word yoga, we think of it as the hatha yoga, the physical yoga. But it started in India, and we use a lot of breathing and the sense of relaxation, and a clear mind that we get from laughing together, and a sense of connection. And at the end of a class, everyone feels really relaxed and calm. So it brings that sense of balance into our lives. And the thing that's difference, we don't use jokes. We like jokes if they're good jokes, and not putting down anyone else. But we learn to in practice, laughing pretty much at anything. And at ourselves also, because we realize when we can laugh at ourselves, there's always something good that comes out of every situation. Once we can get that laughter in there, it opens up the door to think about what's the good thing. Patrick took his life around, something that was bad, and made something positive out of it. That's kind of the philosophy of laughter yoga.
CAVANAUGH: I hear that you're teaching a workshop today.
COLEMAN: I'm at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla, at employee and VA wellness fair.
CAVANAUGH: And is it sometimes a hard sell?
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Do people feel foolish about breaking out into laughter?
COLEMAN: It's funny. People are opposite ends of the spectrum. Some people just gravitate right to us and they get it. Other people feel really self-conscious and limited. And I was like that. I felt very awkward and self-conscious. Over time, that goes away. And we don't have to learn to laugh. What we have to learn is to get rid of all the things that block our laughter. Kids don't have to be taught how to laugh. They learn how to walk, talk, but laughter comes naturally. And so I think over time what happens, we bury that, some people do, so our process is really about unburying it and letting it free.
CAVANAUGH: I guess you could use this class sometimes on a hard night, Patrick, huh? Tough crowd?
[ LAUGHTER ]
DEGUIRE: I like it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, comedians make people laugh. But we've also heard that being a comedian can be a tough life. Does it also bring stress into your life?
DEGUIRE: I think it does. I just got back headlining at Bally's in Las Vegas, and the expectations definitely weigh on you. The one thing I love about standup though is that every crowd is different. You could do the exact same routine one night and the following evening do the exact same routine and they're not laughing as much for whatever reason. And having a loss of vision, a lot of time, it's hard for me to gauge facial expressions. So you got to go by your gut, and you sort of have to figure out right then and there what direction you're going to be going. There's definitely challenges, but it's something that I love, and it's great.
CAVANAUGH: How do you work up your routines? I hear that some comedians have file cabinets full of jokes, and other sort of are more extemporaneous. They have points they need to hit, but they like to ad-lib.
DEGUIRE: I perform so much, I write on stage, essentially. And having four children, being married, that's material right there! But I don't write as much as just think about it, and then when I'm up on stage, I'll start trying it out. Usually you try to throw your new material in the middle. You start off strong, and sort of practice what you're trying to put out there and polish it up in the middle.
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine you hear the audience, and one audience is just screaming, they love it! And the next night, as you say, sometimes, there's not so much of that. I'm wondering, what goes through your mind? Do you blame them? Is it the audience's fault?
[ LAUGHTER ]
DEGUIRE: I'm always funny. Unless you ask my wife. What I've come to realize doing standup so long, comedy is an art, and art is subjective. And that's something that I realize. I realize I could be extremely clean, and someone is going to complain that I was too clean. Or you could be bluer, and people are going to complain that you were too blue. What I've come to realize is that you have to do it for yourself. And as long as you're happy, that's all that really matters. You're never going to please everyone across the board. So I don't blame the audience, I just figure that's not their cup of coffee and move onto the next joke. But it is subjective. And that's what I try to stress to a lot of these comics that are coming up. So what you like, I might not like, and vice versa.
CAVANAUGH: Michael, how do you recommend people begin to laugh more? What should they do?
COLEMAN: Well, again like Patrick is saying, it's individual. I think if people are drawn to comedy or joke, go on the computer in the morning and find a good joke to share with yourself and other people. That could be a simple thing. But I think, Patrick is talking about attitude. So your willingness is really important in what we do what we laugh. It could just be starting with a smile, actually. And there's actually evidence and research that by smiling, that alone will help you feel more relaxed and calm and reduce your stress. So get out of your own way. Then you start going ha ha ha ha.
[ LAUGHTER ]
COLEMAN: But the thing about laughter yoga, by practicing this in a group, it unleashes the laughter, then it's easier to just laugh on command. People can say a word, and I can laugh just because I'm in practice to do that. But I would say find what works for you. Whether it's a joke. Stay away from the ones that are hurtful or harmful to other people. If you can find a thing to laugh about yourself, look in the mirror, look at your hair, whatever. And that's definitely going to improve your day and your mood.
CAVANAUGH: I think I know how you're going to answer this, Michael, but let me go to Patrick first. There are jokes going around about mayor Bob Filner's problems.
[ LAUGHTER ]
DEGUIRE: Do you think that's a healthy kind of reaction, Patrick? Considering these are stressful times in San Diego?
DEGUIRE: You know, I think it's up to the individual. I think it all depends how you view it. When I lost my vision, right away, I started making fun, deprecating humor. And I've been approached by people that have said why are you making fun of the visually impaired? That's my life. And this is how I deal with it. So I think it's up to the individual. For me, I don't get into politics. There are some areas that I won't touch. But I'm not going to judge another performer or entertainer if they want to go in that area if that's how they deal with it.
CAVANAUGH: And I think Michael, you want people to more or less find joy rather than that kind of a laughter or perhaps making fun of someone. However, doesn't that also relieve a certain amount of stress?
COLEMAN: Some of the research shows that if you're laughing at people, it doesn't have the kind of effect as if you're laughing at yourself, clearly. That's different. I think it's important to be aware of what we're laughing at. And the people dealing with these situations probably could use some laughter because they're probably really stressed out. But I think the benefits are less, and I think there's a sense of laughing at people is a way to make you feel better about yourself depending on the situation. And that comes from a beginning of low self-esteem or not feeling secure. If you look at the underlying reason when we laugh at other people, it's better if you don't. If you're laughing at yourself or making it more general, that's how we approach it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, no matter what's making you laugh, Michael, what physiological changes do people experience in their lives by taking up the practice of actually laughing more?
COLEMAN: Just laughing alone, when you're laughing, ha ha ha, it's a lot of breathing, you're getting a cardiovascular workout. So you're getting a fresh supply of oxygen. You're clearing out your lungs and getting a fresh supply of oxygen. We're getting your heart rate pumping, blood circulating, you're getting a nice massage to your internal organs. Your muscles in general are getting a workout. It clears your eyes, and that's just physiological. Then there's also the mental and emotional.
CAVANAUGH: Amazing. So this is what you have to tell your audience next.
DEGUIRE: I'll give them a pamphlet.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Where will people be able to see your act next?
DEGUIRE: I'm leaving tomorrow for Colorado Springs. I'll be performing at loony's. And the following week, Ace's comedy club which is up in Menifee.
CAVANAUGH: Coming back here anytime soon?
DEGUIRE: San Diego, I'm not sure when. They can definitely catch me on Facebook.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds great. And we'll post it if you let us know.
DEGUIRE: For sure.
CAVANAUGH: And Michael?
COLEMAN: Our website is laughtermatters.org. And there are 20 free laughter classes around the county. There's no charge. And as a nonprofit, we also go to places. We have a senior program, a homeless program, starting a veterans' program. A lot of people in healthcare. If you can't find a class to go to, give us a call, and we'll come to you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very, very much.
COLEMAN: Thank you, Maureen.
DEGUIRE: Thank you so much.