The thought of living with a degenerative neuromuscular disorder would not occur to most people as a laughing matter.
But in the case of Asodog, who claims to be Japan’s first and only “bedridden” comic, getting audiences to laugh at his expense is precisely the point.
In one bit, the 38-year-old, who lies upright on a wheelchair stretcher, has a gag written on a page of a flip paper storyboard near his dangling feet that reads: “Bedridden. It happens.”
Then from a pin microphone placed around his neck he offers the punchline: “I can’t flip to the next page. This also happens.”
Some of the audience burst into laughter when they hear his standard shtick, while others squirm uncomfortably, unsure of the appropriate response under the circumstances.
“It’s fine for you to laugh. Actually, go ahead, laugh! Don’t you know by now that you have to be kind to the disabled!” he said.
Asodog (his stage name) was born in Saga Prefecture with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease causing gradual muscle weakness and loss of motor neurons, often leading to death. Now he can only move his eyes, mouth, neck and left hand.
He attended special-needs elementary and junior high schools near his home but after he enrolled in a specialized high school he moved to neighboring Fukuoka Prefecture because he disliked a teacher in Saga who suggested people with disabilities should live out their lives quietly.
Asodog performed his first show at a graduation party in March 1994. It was a comedy double act in collaboration with his classmate. The idea for this first came after Asodog’s friend told him to “do something funny.”
“It was a pleasure to get people to laugh,” said Asodog, who had embarked on a path to become a professional comedian with the same friend after graduation.
At the time, he was still able to move the upper part of his body. He sat in front of his computer and in a flurry of creative activity came up with ideas for his comedy. He even enrolled in a correspondence course to learn how to write scripts.
He found his confidence to perform onstage after many days of rehearsal with his partner. But his friend died at the age of 23. Stunned from the loss, Asodog’s desire to become a comedian vanished.
After his parents were transferred overseas for work and moved out of the country, Asodog was determined to live alone. “I stayed behind and had to take care of the pet dog and turtle,” he said, but his situation became more challenging as his condition deteriorated, leaving him nearly immobile.
“I felt frustrated constantly,” he said, recalling his days being helped by nursing staff around the clock.
It was right around this time that Asodog learned about video streaming sites on the internet. He was surprised how easily anyone could upload videos and thought it might be a way for him to rekindle his earlier dreams.
Starting over again at 32, Asodog was determined to put everything on the line this time, deciding he could turn his disability to comedic gold. “I said I would quit comedy if I don’t appear on TV in one year.”
At first, he got hardly any views on his site where he streamed one-man short stories. He also tried live broadcasts, but the results were much the same.
The comments he received were harsh.
Some viewers called him “revolting” or made comments such as, “What do you think you’re doing living on taxpayer money?”
Undaunted by the negative response, he pressed onward. He reasoned, the fact that people were watching at all meant that he was being noticed — any publicity is good publicity.
Other patients with the same genetic disease had also sent him warm words of encouragement and told him to “go to extremes.”
For more than 700 consecutive days, he has posted videos titled “Everyday Asodog,” where he made funny observations of his daily life.
His efforts paid off. The videos caught the attention of NHK, and Asodog finally made his debut on TV, appearing in the “Barrier-free Variety Show,” a program that focuses on disabled people, that was broadcast nationwide in 2012.
Today, Asodog usually appears in a live comedy show once a month in Fukuoka, the biggest city in Kyushu, after joining a freelance comedian union there.
Yuki Otsuka, 34, a comic who has performed on the same live stage as Asodog for two and a half years, said, “We usually don’t make fun of disabled people with comments like ‘Hey you, the bedridden guy!’ But because he is a real comedian, we make fun of him. He responds by turning such indelicate remarks into laughter.”
In April, Asodog gave a live performance in Fukuoka. There was sparse applause from the audience of around 30 people as they watched him rolled out onstage on his stretcher by a helper.
“When I was going to a TV station to perform comedy, another bedridden man next to me was taken to the studio instead of me,” he said, evoking laughter from the audience. He appeared to have won over most of the crowd after the nearly three-minute performance.
Of course, Asodog’s jokes are not well received by everyone in the audience, many of whom are puzzled by his use of his disease as material for his comedy routines.
In one performance where he bombed, an elderly woman rushed to him afterward and said, “I was really moved!” Although her words were well intended, they only brought him down. “I am not trying to move people, I’m trying to get them to laugh.”
Even so, audiences voted him the most popular twice in a row in 2014, but recently his ranking has dropped. It is the harsh reality of the life he has chosen.
Although Asodog does not reject the sympathy people feel for him as a disabled comedian, that is not what he wants.
Recently, organizers of educational seminars on disabilities have invited him to events as a guest speaker, but he always delivers his comedy there as well.
“I am a comedian. I don’t want sympathy, but just laughter deep from the hearts of the audience.”