Editor’s Note: Forty-year-old Jay Cramer always wanted to be an entertainer. In 1997, he graduated from college with a degree in theater and drama performance from the University of Michigan. He planned to do stand-up comedy and spent 2 years studying at Second City. “However, I never was very successful with stand-up comedy until I broke my neck,” Cramer says. “When I broke my neck, I decided I was bullet proof and nothing else in life really could hurt me.” In 2007, Cramer won Los Angeles, California’s prestigious Top Newcomer Comedian. In 2009, he won the title of Los Angeles’s Funniest Comic. Today, Cramer has many different jobs, and his wife Katy has almost as many as he does.
The first best thing that ever happened to me was when I broke my neck in a rock climbing accident 10 years ago. I decided then that I was going to prove to people that laughing with a guy in a wheelchair was okay.
What’s really sad is when you roll out on the stage in a wheelchair, and nobody laughs. So, to break the ice, I take the microphone and put it up to my throat. I growl into the microphone, “Hello, my name is Jay Cramer,” to make people think I can’t really talk. But then, I bring the microphone up to my lips and say, “Hey, I’m just messing with you.” These words get a huge laugh, the tension is broken, and everybody is onboard for the comedy ride I’m giving them.
My accident happened right after I learned I was a semi-finalist on the TV show “Survivor,” and I’m still a huge fan of that TV show. I had submitted a 3-minute video, and the show invited me for a face-to-face interview. At the end of the interview, the people choosing the participants said, “Congratulations, you’re a semi-finalist.”
So, I went right home and called a few of my buddies who were into extreme sports and asked them, “Will you guys train me to get ready to be a contestant on the ‘Survivor’ TV show?” My friends said, “Sure. We’re all going bouldering this weekend. You can go with us.” I didn’t know what bouldering was, but I felt it was important that I go. We went to Malibu Creek State Park. We hiked in for about 1/2-hour to a place that was just water and big boulders. The only way you could cross the water was to hold on to the sides of the rocks.
As I tried to hold on to the rock and move along the rock face, I fell into the water twice. On my third attempt, my fingers and knuckles were tired. I looked up at my buddy and said, “I think I’m going to slip off again.” My buddy said, “That’s okay. Just let go.” However, instead of just letting go, I pushed away from the rock. I was going to do a jackknife flip off the rock. But, I hit my head on a rock down below and shattered my C5 vertebra.
I was in the water face down and couldn’t turn myself over. Luckily, I didn’t lose consciousness.
My friends who watched me fall waited about 10 seconds before they jumped in to rescue me, because they all knew I was a jokester. When they got me to the bank, they took my t-shirt off and put it under my head. One of my friends said, “I think we’re going to need an airlift.” He ran all the way back to the ranger station. Once there, he learned that they don’t send in an airlift, unless it’s absolutely necessary. So, instead they sent in the ground rescue team. When the crew got to me, they immediately called in a helicopter that took me to UCLA Medical Center.
I was in surgery for 9 hours. I realized my life just had changed dramatically in a blink of an eye. When I finally woke up at 2:00 am the next day, I learned that 14 of my friends had spent the night in the hospital, because they were so concerned about me. Once I opened my eyes and saw my friends, I knew I was going to be okay. To cheer me up, one of my friends bought me a SpongeBob SquarePants stuffed animal holding a football and put it right next to my face. Since I had tubes stuck in my mouth, I couldn’t speak. For the next 2 months, when any of my friends came to the hospital, they brought cards and stuffed animals of SpongeBob SquarePants. I had SpongeBob SquarePants hats, t-shirts, posters, greeting cards, coloring books and anything else they could find with SpongeBob SquarePants on it.
Once I finally got the tubes taken out of my mouth, my family and friends were there, and I announced, “I never did like SpongeBob SquarePants. Now I really hate him.” Later, I discovered that the only reason I got the first SpongeBob SquarePants stuffed animal was because that SpongeBob SquarePants was holding a football. I’m a big football fan, and that was the only item in the gift shop that was related to football. As soon as they took the tubes out of my mouth, I started laughing and so did my friends.
Jay’s Stage Career Blooms After His Injury
From the hospital, I was transferred to Rancho Los Amigos in Downey, California – one of the top 10 rehabilitation centers in the world. I really enjoyed the rehab center and all the people who worked there. Today I work there.
After I had graduated from college, I had considered myself an actor. Everyone knows that actors have to wait tables until they can get acting jobs. When I got to Rancho, I told the therapist and some of the patients my SpongeBob SquarePants story. They started laughing and said, “You’re really funny. You should try stand-up comedy.” I was a guy in a wheelchair, and they told me that I needed to do stand-up comedy. This struck me as being really funny. Because Rancho is such a wonderful place, they have a performing arts program. So, 4 months from the time I was injured, I tried stand-up comedy at Rancho Los Amigos, and I got some laughs.
When I got out of therapy, I took my comedy routine to the Hollywood Improv, the Laugh Factory in Hollywood and several other venues where I got more laughs. Before I knew it, I was a fellow in a wheelchair with a stand-up comedy act that people paid money to see. I started doing opening acts for Adam Sandler, Drew Carey, Kevin Nealon, Fred Willard, Jon Lovitz, Amy Schumer, Whitney Cummings and other great and famous comedians. I realized that ironically I got those breaks in show business because I’d broken my neck.
See Jay’s film reel below:
Today I work as a peer mentor at Rancho with 60 different peers to mentor. I explain to them that life is not over just because they’ve had a spinal cord or a brain injury, or they are a stroke survivor. I can say, “I’ve been where you are. Now, I’m a comedian, and you can be too.” However, after 7 years of doing stand-up comedy, I realized I couldn’t make a very good living doing that. I still do my routine, but now, I primarily do it for my peer group. For me, this is far more rewarding than when I was performing for other people.
However, from being a stand-up comic, I learned how to become a better actor. I was able to get acting jobs like “Housewives,” “NCIS Los Angeles,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and a bunch of TV commercials. I learned how to write jokes and how to look at the world in a new and different way than I had before my accident. Today I’ve written four full-length feature films, and I’ve written television pilots that I’m currently trying to sell. I’ve been doing all these different jobs at one time.
My Wife Katy Told Me I Had to Break My Neck Before I Noticed Her
Within less than a year of my injury, I’d been told by my physical therapist here at Rancho that I’d be able to drive. Before I learned to drive, I was sitting outside waiting on my ride, and this good-looking young lady came walking right by me. She was missing her legs from the knees down, and she got into a car and drove away. I said to myself, “If she’s okay and can drive, I’m going to be okay too.”
A week later I saw this same good-looking chick, and I was wearing my Chicago Bears t-shirt.
She saw my t-shirt and asked, “Are you from Chicago?” I said, “I sure am.” She said, “I lived in Chicago for a couple of years.” Then, I asked her, “What’s your name?” She said, “Katy.” I said, “That’s great. My name is Jay. I’m sorry, but I have to go to therapy right now.”
I turned around in my wheelchair and started to roll off, but Katy came after me and asked, “You’re not Jay Cramer are you?” I smiled and answered, “As a matter of fact, I am.” Then, Katy smiled and told me, “One of my roommates is Dave.” Immediately, I knew the Dave she meant. After I got out of college, Dave and I had waited tables together, when I was living in Burbank, California.
Then, I realized that this was the Katy I had heard so much about from several of my friends before I was injured. They had told me I needed to get to know her because our personalities were so much alike. Today, my wife Katy likes to say, “You had to break your neck before you would notice me.
The Amazing Katy
I learned that Katy was also an actress and had been on “My Name Is Earl,” “NCIS New Orleans” and “The Last Man Standing” – a great resume for any female actress. Katy was also an athlete and an Olympian.
Later, I found out that Katy was at Rancho Los Amigos, because she just had started running at the age of 25. She had hurt her back and needed a therapist to help her get her back strong again. The weekend after I met her, she went to the Paralympic Games in Oklahoma City and ran in her first track meet.
When she was at the track meet, I texted her a message that said, “Run, Forrest run”. If you saw the movie “Forrest Gump,” remember he was wearing leg braces when he first started running.
Today, Katy ranks sixth in the world in the 100 meter race. In the Paralympic Games, she set several world records, including the 200 meter. She held the 200 meter record, until that race was discontinued in the Paralympic Games. Katy is also a writer. She has written a show about a lady with a disability who is trying to become an actress – the show is called “Rags”. Even though we are so much alike, we’re also quite different. I had my legs for 30 years, and Katy was born without legs.
I Found What I Wished I’d Had after My Accident, Thanks to Hollister Incorporated
I became a Secure Start Ambassador for Hollister – a medical supply company that develops, manufactures and markets health care products and services worldwide. A representative from Hollister approached me while I was working at Rancho and told me, “We have this idea about having an ambassador for Hollister. This ambassador will give newly-injured patients information about our hotline, if they have any questions about their injuries or the supplies they need.”
I loved the concept. One thing I knew for certain was that whenever anyone had a major injury similar to what I had, the first thing they realized was that they had thousands and thousands of questions about how their lives would to be, how they would function, and what supplies they would need. Today, I direct patients at Rancho to the Hollister hotline where someone can answer questions about insurance, catheters, colostomies and other concerns. Because the people at Hollister have answered so many questions for people with disabilities, even if they don’t have the answers, they can tell you who to call to get the specific answers you need.
What are Hollister Secure Start Ambassadors?
Believe it or not, your life story is special and others may benefit by hearing it. A Secure Start Ambassador is a person living with a spinal cord injury who tells others his or her story. Ambassadors are either users of Hollister products or enrolled in the Secure Start services for intermittent catheter users. As you probably know, those who have experienced a spinal cord injury may be anxious and unsure about the future. Hearing an uplifting and inspirational story from a peer first-hand can really help.
Secure Start Ambassadors are people who have experienced a spinal cord injury (SCI) and in spite of the life altering effects of the injury, they have developed and achieved new goals in their life. They visit SCI support groups to present their encouraging story. Secure Start Ambassadors are a part of the variety of resources available through the Secure Start services and serve as a voice in the community – providing an inspirational account to their peers, as they transition to independence in decision making and in activity.
To learn more about Secure Start Ambassadors, take a look at the Hollister Secure Start website at www.securestartservices.com or call 1.888.740.8999.
Being an ambassador for Hollister is just one of my different jobs.
- I’m the peer mentor supervisor and the peer educator supervisor at Rancho;
I also have a job I haven’t even mentioned. I go into patients’ homes to see how we can help them with problems or needs they have at home;
I’m a Hollister ambassador;
* I’m a writer;
- I’m an actor;
I’m a stand-up comedian;
I’m a motivational speaker; and
I work with the housing department of Los Angeles as a secret shopper for different apartment complexes to make sure those apartments are accessible. I help the housing department to make sure that facilities are non-discriminatory.
Katy and I, like many people with disabilities, have get-out-of-jail-free cards. We could do nothing with our lives from now on, but we’re not do-nothing kind of people.
One of my motivational speeches is titled, “Stay Positive.” One of the talks Katy and I do together is titled “Perspectives.” We’ve gained perspectives on life, due to the many things we’ve gone through, so we can encourage people to see what they really want to get out of life. We try to take advantage of every single second we’re alive to be the most and do the most we can.
Katy and I have been able to help people deal with what seem to be terrible injuries. We want to take what we’ve learned globally, since many people in the world aren’t even aware of people who have disabilities. We’re often viewed as the unseen population. The community of handicapped and disabled is the largest minority in the United States and in the world. However, our minority is one group of people that anybody may join at any time.
We believe the two quickest ways for us to educate the most about people with disabilities is to have actors and actresses with disabilities in movies and on television. Instead of having actors who aren’t disabled play the roles of actors who are disabled, we believe the people playing the people in wheelchairs in movies and TV should be people in wheelchairs.
To learn more about Jay and Katy Cramer, visit http://www.jayandkaty.com/#!about-us/c9w9.
Additional Resources From Wheel:Life on Relationships
Within Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users, readers will hear from people who use wheelchairs as they share their perspective on friends, family and relationships including dating, marriage and parenting.
Author Lisa Wells shares real-life examples and success stories throughout the book based on her lengthy career that includes ongoing interactions with disability advocates, non-profit supporters and peer support group members.
Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users features interviews with:
- Graduate student & quadriplegic Ather Sharif about connecting on a college campus
- Amputee Thomas Morris on connecting through his unique appearance and personality
- NSCIA [Buffalo, NY chapter] President Natalie Barnhard who connects Wheels with Wings
- Paraplegic Todd Robinson who explains his family connection through the joy of adoption
- Quadriplegic Ashleigh Justice who connects on the quad rugby field and as a young mother
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.