Jonah Bascle, the 28-year-old local comedian who ran for mayor as a platform to bring attention to New Orleans' lack of accessibility for the disabled, died Dec. 2 of complications relating to muscular dystrophy. Friends and supporters vow to ensure his love of good humor and his activism to improve the city live on.
Bascle was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, which causes a progressive deterioration of the muscles, when he was a young teen. Yvonne Landry, owner of La Nuit Comedy Theater on Freret Street, said she first met Bascle when he signed up for improvisational comedy classes she taught when he was 19, shortly after he was confined to a wheelchair. After getting to know the young comic, Landry said she promised he would always have an invitation to perform on her stage. In fact, the club kept a special ramp handy so Bascle could maneuver his wheelchair to the microphone. It became a sort of home base for him that was close to his house and always accessible, Landry said.
"He was a bad-ass," she said. "He just knew no limitations. He was always writing, he was always funny, his wheels were always turning — meaning the wheels in his head."
Getting around New Orleans isn't easy for anyone, but it can be very challenging for people in wheelchairs. Businesses can be difficult to enter in a wheelchair, and public and for-hire transportation can be inaccessible.
In 2010, Bascle elevated those concerns into a run for mayor, drawing attention with a protest that halted streetcar service for a few minutes one day shortly before the election. After the election, which he lost, Bascle continued to work toward what he saw as a simple solution — adding a handful of trips by the red, wheelchair-accessible Canal streetcars to the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, in addition to the older green models in use, which can't accommodate wheelchairs. He also launched a campaign to build handicapped ramps for businesses he had difficulty entering, providing a dozen or more to establishments around the city.
"One of the big things that he's done is brought light to something most people take for granted: their own mobility and ability to get around the city," said Byron Raila, a close friend and the campaign manager for Bascle's 2010 mayoral run. Bascle's efforts benefited not only those in wheelchairs, but also the elderly, Raila added. "For the large majority of the population, this isn't something they consider unless they have a loved one who is mobility impaired."
Meanwhile, Bascle continued his comedy career, performing regularly at La Nuit, competing in a national ComedySportz championship and studying in Los Angeles for several months with national comics and performers. Bascle's performances combined his own determination and humor with self-deprecating references to his life in a wheelchair that pushed listeners' boundaries and opened their minds.
"The jester can always tell the truth, as long as he makes the king laugh," Raila said, recalling how Bascle's routine sometimes surprised his audiences. "People were too polite. They didn't want to laugh at the absurdity."
Bascle also befriended Hannah Engelson, a documentary filmmaker who went from helping produce some of his comedy videos to deciding he was a strong subject for a documentary, which she tentatively titled Jonah Stands Up. She raised nearly $10,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, and in September began filming Bascle five days a week.
"One of the big things that he's done is brought light to something most people take for granted: their own mobility and ability to get around the city."
— Byron Raila
"Jonah was full of life," Engelson said. "He was always doing things. Every time I talked to him, he would have this new idea, this new creative thing he wanted to do. He always wanted to make things or create things or do something funny or silly. ... That's the stuff I was filming."
Bascle was performing as recently as October, but his health took a sudden downward turn during the past six weeks and he was in and out of the hospital with complications relating to cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that frequently accompanies muscular dystrophy. Raila said Bascle showed strength and humor until the end.
"He didn't like people being sad," said Raila, who returned to New Orleans over Thanksgiving from his new home in Chicago to be with Bascle. "Honestly, he was joking even while we were in the hospital, which is unbelievable to me. He was literally still making jokes."
While in the hospital, Bascle was visited by District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who he briefly had considered opposing in the 2014 City Council election. By his bedside, Guidry read a proclamation from the City Council commending Bascle's efforts on behalf of the city. He received similar commendations from Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond.
Guidry vowed to continue Bascle's fight, and friends said Bascle would have wanted all his supporters to spotlight the need for more accessibility in public transportation.
"We're having to carry on that fight," Raila said. "He died, and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is still not wheelchair accessible."
Engelson said her work on the documentary also will continue. She had planned to spend the rest of the year filming Bascle, but will devote the time instead to completing an animated sequence she and Bascle had planned to depict his hospital stay when he was first diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at age 19. She already is editing the other footage, she said.
"It's still going to be made," Engelson said. "The footage I captured is differ-ent than what I initially expected, but it doesn't change the fact that he was still full of life. We knew [his death] was a possibility, but you don't expect these things to happen until they're happening."
Friends and supporters are planning a second line and memorial service. Details are still being worked out, but one suggestion Bascle made before his death was a comedic "roast" — an event that ordinarily involves good-natured mockery of the subject.
Landry said the roast would not be her first choice for a commemoration, but if that's what Bascle's family decides on, her comedy club will oblige.
"The last thing I want to do is make fun of my friend, who died too young," Landry said. "But if that's what he wanted, that's what we're going to do. I know Jonah, and I'm sure he wanted people having joy over him."