Laughter the best medicine

Peter Williams
John Callahan was an American who drew cartoons. Some people loved his work and others hated it because they thought it insulted people with a disability. Many of these people did not know Callahan had a disability. He wanted to break down the barriers between people through humour. Callahan was also a writer and musician. He created the television show Quads about a group of friends who each have a disability. The friends live together in a mansion they call Maimed Manor. Many people with a disability love his work. Callahan didn't mean to upset people. He just thought laughter could help us when life is sometimes hard.
Posted by: 
Peter Williams on 18/05/2012
A front-end perspective of a wheelchair.

Does using a wheelchair allow you to joke about disability?

Does using a wheelchair give you a licence to joke about disability? John Callahan the renowned cartoonist and writer thought so. Able-bodied people were often offended by his wicked sense of humour. But many people with a disability loved his work.

Callahan began life as an orphan in the U.S state of Oregon. As a young man he started drinking to mask the pain of his childhood. While bar hopping, an intoxicated friend crashed Callahan's V.W. car into a billboard. The crash left Callahan a quadriplegic at the age of 21. For six years he continued to abuse alcohol. But at 27 he had an epiphany and quit drinking for good.


Animation was a form of therapy for Callahan. Because he had limited use of his arms, he clasped the pen in both hands to draw. Callahan's cartoons were roughly drawn and chaotic, which added to their appeal. Through his cartoons Callahan explored the funny side of subjects such as sex, religion and disability. His work has been published worldwide in newspapers and magazines.

Callahan scoffed at political correctness. He felt it drove a wedge between different groups of people. He thought political correctness strangled honest and meaningful conversation between people with and without disabilities. Callahan used his art to plough through the barriers that separate us. He wanted to show we are all the same.

His work sometimes crossed a boundary that saw reader's label him outrageously offensive. But he was unconcerned. His golden rule was to make people laugh. Callahan thought it was a cartoonist's job to tackle difficult subjects with honesty and without fear of causing offence. One of my favourite cartoons depicts a blind graffiti artist spray painting a wall with brail.

Writing and music

Callahan was a prolific writer. His best known books are Don't worry he won't get far on foot and Will the real John Callahan please stand up. The latter is a loosely-based autobiography. It includes some hate mail Callahan received because he says he respected the writer's honesty.

Music was another passion in Callahan's life. Purple winos in the rain a CD he recorded was released in 2006. He wrote and sang all the songs. Critics have described the album as dark but beautiful. His music is sombre but optimistic even when it touches on serious subjects like suicide.


Callahan also created and produced television programs. His animated TV series Quads tells the story of Reilly O'Reilly a boozing jester. Reilly becomes a quadriplegic after being run over by a millionaire. He is given a mansion by the guilt-ridden driver and invites his friends with disabilities to move in with him.

Among Reilly O'Reilly's friends is Blazer, a disembodied head on a trolley. There's Franny, Reilly's hippie girlfriend who attends a whale massage workshop. There's also Sister Butch a nun who organises tours of hell for children at Christmas time.

Reilly sees his disability in his own terms. During group therapy Reilly is encouraged to accept he is differently-able. But he explodes, I'm not differently abled, I'm freakin' paralysed! This isn't a special challenge, it's, it's a goddamn tragedy! I can't walk! Like Callahan, Reilly feels patronised by the politically correct view of his disability.

It wasn't Callahan's aim to offend people. He wanted to portray people with a disability as everyday human beings not objects of pity. Callahan believed laughter could ease the pain of life's tragedies. He thought if we can laugh at what hurts us we take away its power to harm.

Callahan passed away in July 2010 from complications due to his quadriplegia and respiratory problems. He was 59 years old. Callahan is missed by his many fans.

Readers comments (1)

Great story Peter. A sense of humour and being able to laugh at one's self is one of life's greatest blessings.

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