Will Lautzenheiser loved teaching in the film department at Boston University, his alma mater. But as an adjunct professor, he wanted some security. When he was offered a faculty position at Montana State University in 2011, he grabbed the opportunity.
“If I didn’t blow it there,” he says, looking back, “I could have had a good full-time job.”
It’s a funny choice of words. Lautzenheiser didn’t “blow” it, he contracted a fierce, deadly infection just as he was starting his first semester. To save his life, the staff at a Salt Lake City trauma unit made the terrible but life-saving decision to amputate all four of his limbs.
Three years later, as he waits patiently for word about an experimental double-arm transplant to be performed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Lautzenheiser has been coping with his unimaginable ordeal with the best medicine available: laughter.
When he gets his “new” hands, they won’t really be new, he says, sitting in his motorized wheelchair in the Brookline apartment he shares with his partner, Angel Gonzalez. They’ll be, quite literally, second-hand.
“We’ll have to work that into the act,” says Lautzenheiser, smiling.
While undergoing rehab, Lautzenheiser agreed to be filmed for a short documentary directed by Robin Berghaus, a fellow BU alum. Quickly recognizing how his sense of humor was aiding his recovery, Berghaus suggested he try doing a bit of stand-up comedy.
That would be “sit-down” comedy, Lautzenheiser replied.
On a whim, he said yes right away, figuring the likelihood of actually arranging a gig was remote. What he didn’t know was that Berghaus is friends with Myq Kaplan, another BU alum with a successful comedy career. Within weeks, Kaplan was in Lautzenheiser’s living room, making connections and coaching him on his jokes. His first gig took place at Improv Boston, where he has since performed several times.
“Any time you can add humor to a tragic story, that’s a powerful thing,” Berghaus says. The film, called “Stumped,” has enjoyed sold-out screenings at several film festivals, including two in April at the Somerville Theater at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. It screened Sept. 20 at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival.
Lautzenheiser credits the dark humor of his I.C.U. nurses with helping him get through the amputations.
The situation was so grim, he needed someone to lighten the mood. After testing positive for group A streptococcus, Lautzenheiser suffered from toxic shock: His vital organs were shutting down, and his limbs were being attacked by necrotizing fasciitis, the so-called “flesh-eating” disease.
“I’m pretty sure their humor helped keep me sane,” he said.
When he began preparing his act, he found that his physical therapists were the consummate audience. “Rehab turned out to be an ideal incubator for the show. They know exactly where I’m coming from.”
‘I’m pretty sure their humor helped keep me sane. Rehab turned out to be an ideal incubator for the show.’
Onstage, Lautzenheiser sticks to what he knows. Inevitably, he runs through a litany of amputee jokes: What do you call a man with no arms and no legs hanging on the wall? Art. In a leaf pile? Russell. Same guy, two years later? Pete.
“Those jokes were one of the currencies of the schoolyard,” he recalls of his childhood in Reading. Now, they might not be funny at all, if he weren’t the one telling them.
A deeply thoughtful, deliberate person by nature, he acknowledges that some might find such humor inappropriate. But he’s been grateful for the relief that laughter has given him, and how it’s boosted his attitude.
There are benefits to being a quadruple amputee, Lautzenheiser tells audiences: “I don’t have to wash my hands when I pee.”
As Lautzenheiser discusses the increased independence he hopes to gain with arm transplants, Gonzalez looks at him and smiles.
“I’d be psyched if you could just get your shirts on,” he jokes, noting that his boyfriend still insists on wearing the button-down kind.
Kaplan says his job as Lautzenheiser’s comedy consultant was easy: “Mostly what I did was provide moral support. Out of the gate, I could tell he had a great comedic mind.”
Noting that human creativity thrives on limitations, he says Lautzenheiser’s material has flourished in part due to its sharp focus.
“Nobody else is talking about being in his condition. The originality card — that’s what’s taken care of.”
Plenty of comedians, of course, mine their own personal crises for material. Tig Notaro’s career took off when she began making light of her cancer diagnosis. Onetime “Last Comic Standing” winner Josh Blue bases his act on the fact that he has cerebral palsy. Comedy, after all, is often described as “tragedy plus time.”
Lautzenheiser prefers not to see his own situation as tragic. He’s not always comfortable being held up as an “inspiration” for others. He does, however, agree that making himself visible — he and Berghaus are continuing their work together, filming a full-length feature documentary — can lend some welcome perspective about life’s struggles.
“My struggles are just a little more dramatic,” he says.
For the moment, his comedy career is on hold, as he awaits word about a donor. He’s hoping he can be back onstage by late October, so he can reprise a Halloween act that involves getting his fake limbs “sawn off.”
Though that bit upset his audience a little more than the jokes, he loved it. “You work with what you got,” he said.James Sullivan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.