These days, New Orleans is a minor comedy mecca where amateurs choose from tons of clubs and event nights at which to practice their jokes. Most recently, Louis CK, Hannibal Buress, and Zach Galifianakis have at various times done weeks-long impromptu residencies. But before all that, Jonah Bascle was wheeling around the stages of New Orleans making people howl with laughter.
Local comedy fans shed a tear this week upon hearing of Jonah's death at 28 from the muscular dystrophy that had begun attacking him when he was ten. In addition to being a comedian, he was also an artist, filmmaker, activist, and general rabble-rouser.
In the years after Katrina, New Orleans hosted maybe one weekly open-mic standup comedy night—until a small band of local comics including Jonah began building a real comedy scene. Jonah helped establish and produced the "Comedy Catastrophe" night at the Lost Love Lounge in Marigny, which continues to this day.
I visited and spoke with Jonah's family about the most depressing thing they've ever had to face. Jesse—his brother, who also has muscular dystophy—told me about how they played sports together, thanks to the level playing field.
"Jonah taught himself everything he could," added his brother, Frankie Ford. "Near the end he got really into the cosmos, and learned everything about black holes and Stephen Hawking."
"You know, if you have sex with a person in a wheelchair, you get a tax break," was one of Jonah's best jokes. A more Andy Kaufman–esque conceptual piece involved Jonah rolling up to the stage and struggling to adjust the microphone, as if he just couldn't manage. Beforehand, a friend would set a small table on stage topped with a glass of water so that Jonah's wheelchair could bump the table over, and he'd bumble and stumble trying to fix it. Inevitably, sympathetic audience members would stand and approach Jonah to help. "No, no! I can do it!" Jonah would shout, and continue to simulate pitiful struggling. Sometimes people howled with laughter. Just as often, no one caught on that he was doing a bit.
Jonah's comedy didn't fixate on his wheelchair, however. He peppered the handicap jokes in artfully—though he almost always closed his sets with the line, "I started taking Ambien because I heard it makes you walk in your sleep." Jonah's doctor didn't laugh at that joke during Jonah's last days in the hospital. In his weakened state, a still-smiling Jonah, air tube down his throat, scrawled on a piece of paper for the doctor, "It's a good joke, you just don't get it."
Though Jonah would prefer to be known as a creative and artistic force, he got more press—tons of press, really—for advocating in extreme but thoughtful ways for wheelchair access, mostly in places where it was already mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jonah could have sued many establishments to make his point, but instead he and his family spent hours building and painting wheelchair ramps personalized to each of Jonah's favorite bars and comedy clubs. The "Ramp It Up" project, as it was officially known, served as a precursor to Jonah's mayoral run in 2010 on a wheelchair advocacy platform, under the slogan "I Will Stand Up For You!"
Jonah's most widely covered advocacy stunt involved the brothers parking their wheelchairs across both lanes of tracks on St. Charles, stopping the streetcar for four hours. The RTA, which runs the streetcar, suggested the police not arrest Jesse and Jonah, but the police didn't have a wheelchair-accessible car anyway, nor was the jail equipped either; the boys would have been detained in a hospital room.
In the last days of Jonah's life, Mayor Mitch Landrieu awarded Jonah a proclamation for his artistic contribution and his wheelchair advocacy. Neither the mayor nor the city have done anything else to honor Jonah's wishes though. "We're gonna bring Jonah's ashes for a ride on the St. Charles streetcar," Jimmy joked to me in the days after Jonah's death, "since he never got to ride it his whole life." Because of Jonah, the city did mandate a single taxi with a wheelchair lift. "But I've never gotten it to actually come get me," Jesse Bascle said.
Six weeks before Thanksgiving, Jonah's heart began to weaken. At the hospital, Jonah's health seemed to improve, but the doctors' predictions remained dire. This might have served as a grim scene for some families but the Ford/Bascle clan's wild charm took over Jonah's whole floor.
"Especially over Thanksgiving, man, Jonah's room, it was like a rave was going on," brags Jimmy. "We had loud music, and they let us have a little bar and we were making cocktails for everyone. We should have charged admission to Jonah's room."
Despite the fact that Jesse has lost his shadow, he and Frankie and I had a genuinely fun time talking about it all—because this is how they are. And this is how Jonah was. Jimmy gets super happy describing the elaborate nature of Jonah's upcoming jazz funeral, which will happen on December 28.
And so I left the Ford/Bascle house feeling mostly uplifted, almost happy—because despite the tragic loss of Jonah, his surviving family remains the opposite of torn apart. His spirit clearly lives on.
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(Note: A previous version listed Frankie as Jonah's father, when in fact, he is his brother. We regret the error.)