I share the same condition, Usher Syndrome Type 2, with my brother. That said, we are very different. Growing up almost five years apart and having separate interests led us to simply coexist. He was musical and I was a jock. He was never shy around women. They frightened me. He went to Notre Dame for four years and came back home. I went to multiple schools, graduated from the University of Colorado and lived in Colorado for close to 14 years. He followed our father and grandfather’s footsteps to become a lawyer. I became a professional mascot.
Ever since I moved back to Madison, my relationship with Johnny has become stronger. A big reason for this is stand-up comedy, which we both enjoy. In early 2011, Johnny started to work on comedy routines at the Comedy Club on State. He explores his disability as background for his routine. This, combined with his sharp dress and snarky lawyer humor have been a winning combination. He has had great success in the local scene. He also uses Twitter (@JohnnyWalsh) to humor the masses online. One of his tweets was even mentioned on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. I am happy for many reasons to see him do well with Comedy. He has always been a stand-up comedy fan and I am proud that he took the initiative to try it out. I have watched his act many times, and have often taped it for his review. His highlight to date was opening for Bob Saget in front of 2,000 fans.
On this trip, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to learn more about my brother and the condition we both share. I submitted some questions to him. These are his answers:
What was the moment like when you learned you had a genetic condition that may lead to blindness?
I remember that day well. The funny thing is, the day after this particular eye appointment I was scheduled to receive a tetanus shot so I was more afraid and worried about the shot than I was about the eye doctor. The other point I often make about that moment is at the time my eyesight had not degenerated all that much. And, I already knew there was an issue so I was not surprised the doctor was giving it a name. For instance, I already had difficulty seeing at night while my friends did not. I was having a hard time locating items I dropped on the floor while others could spot them right away. I fell off a pier and into the lake. So like I said, I already knew something was up and had assumed it was something that could be easily remedied.
So the moment the doctor gave it a name – that exact moment – was not a big deal to me. However, as he started to explain what may happen to me, my mother, who was in the room with me, started to cry – that’s the moment I knew I was in trouble. No child ever wants to see his or her mother cry and to this day I still have a hard time thinking about the pain she felt during that moment. I wasn’t scared and frankly, I was a bit naive. But when she started to cry… a few minutes after the diagnoses either my mother or the doctor called my father and he immediately came to the doctor’s office to receive the news. I have no idea what fancy lawyer stuff he was doing that day but obviously he dropped everything and came to my side. So again, that was another sign that maybe the tetanus shot would be the least of my worries.
The other thing I remember about that day – after spending hours at the eye doctor mom took me to the record store on Monroe Street, Strictly Discs, and I bought 3 CDs – Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, and Soundgarden – after all these years I still remember the 3 CDs I bought – it’s funny the things one remembers.
Lastly, I also remember calling two of my best friends, Evan Goyke and Nic Adamany, and telling themabout the diagnoses. Again, we were just kids – we really had no idea what we were talking about. The only difference was we now had a name for it and an explanation as to why I was so bad at night games.
Did you ever attempt to drive? What was that like?
Yes. Dumb. Heck, I was terrible at Mario Cart – that should have been my first clue.
How much can you see today?
“I have a central visual field of approximately 5 degrees in each eye. To put that in perspective, when I attend the movie theatre and sit in the back row – I can see about 5 percent of the screen – though I still pay full price for the ticket.” (answer taken from previous interview)
How does your condition affect dating? Positive and negative.
It’s a negative. Women never describe their Prince Charming as someone with a handicap so as far as first impressions go, I am probably overlooked. Of course, as women get to know me, they realize that the handicap may not be a deal breaker after all. In fact, my inflated ego usually causes the problems.
In all seriousness though, dating is difficult. It’s hard to ask someone you’ve just met to read off a menu for you or to have them drive everywhere.
What are the advantages of your condition?
Never the designated driver.
What do you know about being a car passenger that other people can learn from?
People are more willing to turn into traffic when cars are speeding toward the passenger side than they are when cars are speeding toward the driver’s side.
What are the things that really are tough that you constantly have issues with?
What are the chances you will go completely blind?
I have no idea.
Are you afraid of this happening?
Terrified. It’s something I think about every day.
When did you start using a cane daily?
What is it like using a cane everywhere you go?
It is like wearing a winter jacket when it is cold outside – a necessity.
What irritating statements do people say or ask about your use of the cane?
“You’re not blind, why do you use a cane?” That is probably the most irritating thing a person can ask. It’s like asking someone who is hard of hearing “you’re not deaf, why do you wear hearing aids?”. Another example is asking a person with a broken leg “why the crutches?” It is certainly true that I am not blind – but using the cane notifies others that I am visually impaired. And believe me, when I accidentally cross a street without looking both ways (this happens more often than one would think), the cane notifies the cars to look out.
What made you give comedy a try?
The Comedy Club on State provides a great venue for folks to get on stage – I took advantage of the opportunity and have a wonderful time doing it. Moreover, I was looking for a creative outlet/hobby to pursue outside of my law practice and stand-up comedy was always an interest of mine. After work, some people play club soccer or hockey, I get on stage and tell jokes.
What is your process for coming up with jokes?
Go to an open mic and try them out. It is that simple and difficult at the same time. You will never know if something is funny until you stand on a stage under a spotlight and try it out in front of a room full of strangers – you will bomb more often than not. It’s fun!
Where do you jokes come from?
User Syndrome, family, the law, and bachelorhood.
How has comedy helped you deal with your condition?
Comedy has forced me think about and examine the issue more than I would have otherwise. It has forced me to be more open about some of the obstacles I face or will face in the future. But of course, more importantly, comedy has offered a reprieve from reality.
How has Twitter helped your comedy?
Twitter is a great venue to test out new material – especially one-liners. However, there is no substitute for the stage.
How do you use Facebook vs Twitter for Comedy?
I use Twitter to be creative and if something really hits on Twitter, I may post it on Facebook – though, I do not use Facebook all that much.
What if we were picked to be on the Amazing Race?
I have never seen the show. I think reality television is one of the lowest forms of entertainment out there and I would not feel comfortable allowing a director to determine how I am portrayed before a national audience. That said, if there were a compelling reason to do the show, I would consider it. A compelling reason, for instance, would be if the show offered me a billion dollars and promised that the Packers would win the Super Bowl every year from now on no matter what. Jay Cutler sucks.
Where in the world would you like to go and why?
Las Vegas every weekend forever. And maybe Ireland.
How is travel difficult for you?
When I look at a piece of art or a famous building, I can only see about 5% of it. For that reason, I have never been enamored with sight-seeing.
Finally, what advice do you have for me as I deal with this condition?
Learn as much as you can now. Develop skills and work as hard as you can now so that if and when the disability really does cause problems, you will have built a strong foundation of life skills that you will be able to use to overcome any future disadvantages.
To see Johnny Walsh in action, click here to see his routines YouTube!