Shannon DeVido is a funny woman.
The Bucks County native gets her laughs as a stand-up comedian, improvisational sketch artist, and host of her 2-year-old YouTube show, Stare at Shannon. If you haven't seen DeVido's regular gigs with Figment Theater on Vine Street, or her appearances at Helium Comedy Club and Philly Improv Theater, perhaps you caught her on Larry Wilmore's Comedy Central panel program, The Nightly Show, in February.
"I've done theater since I was 7 and knew I wanted to be a serious actor," says DeVido the morning after filming a role for the Amy Poehler-produced Hulu comedy Difficult People. The 32-year-old has dramatic credits on television (Law & Order: SVU) and Off-Broadway (Sam Hunter's Still More Parts). "But, in 2008, when I auditioned for an improvisational team, it was as if comedy found me. Suddenly, being funny was my whole world."
DeVido also happens to have spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive disease that has made her a wheelchair-user since she was 4. It's easy to mention that as an aside because it turns out, in DeVido's life, it's very much on the side.
"I am a person with a disability, but it's not who I am," she says. "It affects and shapes the way I view comedy, but I definitely don't allow it to influence the entirety of my existence.
"As a woman, sometimes I honestly just worry about having a bad-hair day."
More often than not, DeVido turns the tables with social commentary on those who view the disabled with prejudice. During Stare at Shannon, which has garnered 100,000 views in its 20 episodes so far, she lampoons the reactions of "normals" to things the disabled can accomplish: She hires a "service hot guy" (rather than a dog), does the Italian Market Rocky run, and learns exotic dancing, among other experiments.
For Matt Nelson, artistic director at Figment, where DeVido is a member of its Wussy Riot improv team, her disability may require some extra logistics (getting her onto the second floor, for example), but, otherwise, it's a nonissue.
"The only time I see her chair is to the benefit of physicality: toying with tempo and proximity to clarify what she's feeling," Nelson says. "Because she's rolling rather than stepping, there's undistracted smoothness, a focus that heightens those moves. But it's definitely another tool at her disposal rather than anything that limits or defines her characters."
Nelson talks up the troupe's March 19 performance of SorkinCorp - improvised Aaron Sorkin exercises (West Wing, The Newsroom) mimicking the writer's pontificating, halting rhythms, and long scenes of fast strides.
"His style includes different walk and talks, but I'd never say Shannon can't do it because she can't walk," Nelson says. "She conveys everything needed."
If anything, says Nelson, "I worry more about issues that face all artists: Are they being challenged?"
Philly comedian and writer Chip Chantry does take notice of her disability, but that's because he considers every comic's perspective. "But she's a great storyteller who'll take you down any road, then flip the script. She has a tone that's so likable and warm, but with a sick, dark wit and sarcasm."
Growing up in Holland with her brother, Christopher, and high school principal father and artist mother, DeVido was like any teen: uncomfortable in her skin, unaccepting of her body. She wanted to play sports, be a dancer, act - anything besides be in a wheelchair. "I hated it so much and hated myself as I went through it," she says.
She acted during her days at Council Rock High School and later at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., as a music-business major, but her "job" - once she discovered comedy - became getting producers and directors to see beyond the disability, to make potential roles inclusive of a wheelchair.
"It's about changing minds. I can dye my hair not to be a brunette. I can't stop being disabled."
DeVido points out that people with disabilities are not even getting to play people with disabilities (e.g. Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking). Too few disabled people are portrayed in the media overall, she says.
That's why DeVido is over the moon about her role on Difficult People, which stars Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner (both of Funny or Die), best friends living in New York City whose antisocial behavior lands them in awkward situations - think Seinfeld meets Friends. DeVido plays Andrea Mumford, a tale-telling hipster - who isn't disabled and wasn't intended to be.
"I'm proud of the industry on this," says DeVido, who auditioned in New York for the show, which will debut this year. "The risk is they gave me a chance to play someone who has nothing to do with a wheelchair. They just saw the funny."
Such advances are crucial to the disabled community, said Charles W. Horton Jr., executive director of the Mayor's Commission on People with Disabilities. He's watched her YouTube show, caught her stand-up ("I even remember her on Law & Order") and acknowledges that DeVido's comedy goes way beyond her disabilities.
"It's groundbreaking to see people with disabilities in a different light. Often, we see people with disabilities as the brunt of the joke. Here, she's telling the jokes, making the agenda, and telling stories about her life with frankness and humor," says Horton. "She can inspire others with similar problems to do likewise."
DeVido doesn't aim to be political. She just hopes that by her action - making weird videos, getting acting gigs - she'll make a difference.
Horton agrees. "What she does and who she is brings people into her world who might not know about disabilities. Everybody doesn't have to hold up a picket sign. Her microphone is her picket sign."
Says DeVido: "I can't hold up a picket sign anyway."