Waite’ for the punchline

Adrian Northrup

One after another, amateur comedians took the stage. Some stumbled over their words, and swayed as they looked about the dark lounge full of patrons drinking their cocktails. Others stood so close to the microphone you could here their breathing and when they spoke it was nearly inaudible.

Most comedians heard only laughs of pity from the crowd of 80 to 100.

Then Jarrett Waite took his turn at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis. It was amateur night, and most customers were waiting to see some of the later acts, a more-experienced talent. But as the lanky 6-foot-4 UW-Eau Claire senior with shaggy blond hair walked to the stage with a limp, the crowd got an early surprise.

“I am going to run for president . qualifications for president: I’m white. It helps . I’m also a male . a trend . I’m kind of a socialist . so I got that going for me.

And I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m also a cripple,” he told the crowd. “So it’s like I’m FDR without the wheelchair and the b—- wife.”

For the first time all night, the crowd gave a genuine laugh.

That monologue showed two important aspects in Waite’s life: a challenge that he faced and the way he dealt with it.

‘The big lake they called Gitche Gumee’
Judith Lokken-Strom, Waite’s mother, said April 15, 2002, was an unusually warm day in Bayfield, a small town on the shore of Lake Superior. Waite was out enjoying the day with some friends. After running around for a while, he was hot and sweaty. His friends had left, and he decided he wanted to jump into Lake Superior.

“I thought to myself, there needs to be an audience,” he said. “It’s no fun if nobody sees me.”

Waite found a group of his friends who had just finished baseball practice. Waite said he asked the group what they would give him to jump into the lake. Waite said they responded by telling him they would give him $5 to make the jump, but later minimized the award to $1.

So Waite said he made his way down to the shore, collected his $1, stripped down to his underwear and tried to do a shallow-water dive.

To this day, no one knows what Waite hit.

Lokken-Strom said it could have been a piece of ice, a rock or a submerged log. Whatever the object was, it broke his fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae.

Waite said he realized he had broken his neck right away because he couldn’t move. Still submerged in the water, Waite said he tried to get his friends’ attention, but could do very little due to a bruise in his spinal cord from the trauma, causing temporary paralysis. His last memory was sucking in water in an attempt to breathe before he passed out. His accident occurred on a Monday and he didn’t wake up until Wednesday in a hospital bed in Duluth, Minn.

Dad to the rescue
After his friends pulled him out of the ice-cold water, Waite’s father, Alan, an EMT on duty in Bayfield, received a call about a possible drowning near the lake. He rushed to the scene. He said that at the time, he had no idea who the victim was, he got his first clue as he caught an initial glimpse of the victim.

“As I walked up I saw his lower body,” he said. “His legs are so long and I had to hope this isn’t what I think it is.”

His suspicion proved true.

“My initial response was one of shock . extreme frustrations and nausea,” he said. “It all comes on pretty fast.”

Alan Waite said he put aside his emotions and gave his son the medical attention he needed. He said he focused on the body, and tried not to look at his son’s face.

Waite’s broken neck was not the most important thing the EMTs dealt with. Alan Waite said they had to first attend to the fact that he was drowning. Second, Waite needed oxygen. Alan Waite said that if his son continued on without oxygen, he could have faced severe brain damage.

Lokken-Strom said an ambulance took Waite to Duluth. She said the doctors didn’t think her son would survive through the night because he had pneumonia from the cold water that filled his lungs in Lake Superior, but later told her Waite would have a 50 percent chance of survival overnight.

Lokken-Strom said she didn’t leave her son’s side that night. She talked to him all night, even though he was still unconscious.

Both of Waite’s parents called their son’s survival a miracle. Alan Waite said that if his son had severed a nerve and had a complete break, he likely would have been paralyzed from the nipple level down.

Waite spent six months in a hospital in Duluth where doctors told him there was a possibility he would never walk again, but he put any doubt to rest, because during that time he got out of his wheelchair and walked again.

He then traveled to the Courage Center in Golden Valley, Minn. He spent six months rehabilitating through physical therapy.

Waite’s parents said their son was determined on making a recovery. They attributed much of his progress to his support group of family and friends.

“He was always convinced he was going to recover,” Alan Waite said. “He was fortunate to recover as much as he did. I think that was purely luck.”

“His friends rallied around,” Lokken-Strom said. “There was always love in the hospital room.”

Waite’s accident still leaves its mark on the 22-year old. He has a scar on the front of his neck where medical personnel gave him a tracheotomy to remove the water from his lungs and get him breathing again. He walks with a limp, and Alan Waite said his son has felt down at times about not being able to do some of the things he used to do.

“He struggles with it still,” he said. “He lamented one time he missed the running and jumping.”

Comic relief
Waite said he refused to sit back and ask himself, “why me?” Instead, he focused his attention on getting his life back. His accident forced him to miss his first year of college, but he started attending Eau Claire in 2003. During his junior year, he started doing stand-up comedy, which he said gives him freedom.

When Waite was still deciding if he wanted to get into stand-up, he said he went to The Cabin in Davies Center and watched his future friend, Phil Kolas tell Mitch Hedberg-type rip-off jokes and laughed at how terrible Kolas’ jokes were.

“After watching two or three times, I thought, I can’t do any worse than this guy,” he said. “I told him that story and he’s flattered.”

Kolas said he was glad Waite saw him that night and said he knew Waite could perform better than he did. Still, Kolas said his performance wasn’t that bad.

“It wasn’t a vicious bomb (at The Cabin),” he said. “They weren’t throwing fruit or anything.”

So Waite started performing and The Cabin and after two or three performances there, he started performing at the “I Said It Comedy” showcases at House of Rock, 422 Water St., as a paid performer by February. He said he has only been able to perform in 35 to 40 shows since then; a number he said is only a start.

Recently, he competed in The Wisconsin Stand Up Comedy Project’s annual “Funniest Person in Wisconsin” competition in Madison, but didn’t come away with the title. He expressed disappointment, but understood the results of the competition. He said when he first started doing stand-up, he was na’ve to how many comedians there were. The competition made him realize how much talent he had to compete with.

“It’s a local crowd. It’s tough for anyone to go (to a different place) . there were a lot of local people there, and I guess they just had a better night. . I’m upset, I thought I did better. But the crowd doesn’t lie.”

Making it
Lokken-Strom saw her son perform at one of his shows in Eau Claire. Although Waite’s material can be edgy at times, she was impressed.

“I grew up in the ’60s . when you’re on the planet so many years, nothing shocks you,” she said. “I was really proud of his confidence. Getting people to laugh in a bar is not easy.”

Waite said he knows making it in the world of stand-up comedy is tough, but it’s what he has focused his career on.

“I don’t know if I have a shot to make it,” he said. “There are so many people out there.”

But Waite said he will continue to work at it.

“Just like everything else, if you want the good gigs and the good jobs you’ve got to fight (to get them).

“I don’t see myself doing the nine-to-five,” he said. “It just doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

His parents are supportive of his choice to pursue a career in comedy.

“I think everybody, especially when they’re young, that have a dream should pursue it. . If you don’t, you may resent it for the rest of your life,” Lokken-Strom said. “I am very supportive for someone reaching.”

He is a mass communications major and plans to graduate in the spring. Waite said he will then begin working in comedy full-time. Waite said he is ready to make the sacrifices that come along with a stand-up comedy career.

“I’m probably going to get a (bad) job scooping ice cream cones in the day, and at night, practice the craft whenever I can.”

He wants to continue to do local shows, and maybe be featured in some, but said he knows he must travel to find real success.

He has an upcoming show at House of Rock on Dec. 20, an Eau Claire stand-up showcase, where he will perform along with many of the local stand-up comedians in Eau Claire.

Rio Hillman, a local comedian and promoter of the Dec. 20 show said Eau Claire is making progress in the way of comedy, coming a long way since he started around six years ago.

Hillman said Waite has improved greatly since first seeing him perform earlier this year.

“From the first time I saw him to now, he’s definitely gotten more confident and a lot better on-stage.”

Waite said he is still searching for a certain level of comfort on stage, but he has a rare confidence that comes from his accident.

“Once you’ve been so close to death, dying on stage is a cakewalk.”