BY GREGORY BOSSLER
In September, comedian Drew Lynch was named first runner-up on season ten of America’s Got Talent, just four years after a life-altering accident that nearly crushed his dream of performing. Lynch, an alum of Thespian Troupe 5273 at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, will reflect on his journey during his keynote speech at the 2016 EdTA National Conference this fall.
At an early age, Lynch knew he wanted to act. “I wasn’t very good at sports. I would always poke fun at how bad I was, which my teammates found entertaining. I learned that if I could quote lines from movies or commercials the same way the actors did, people might laugh and forget how bad I was at everything else.”
By the time he was in high school, he was attracting attention. “He seems to have an intuitive understanding of the role, and you can’t help but wonder how a boy so young can know so much about human behavior,” critic Anthony Del Valle wrote in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about Lynch’s performance as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man. “He will more than likely become the top-notch professional actor he has the ability to be.”
At age 19, Lynch decided to ride the momentum and bypass college, moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. However, an unexpected softball accident less than a year later left him with a severe stutter. In 2011, he had a callback for the TV show How I Met Your Mother. The day before the audition, Lynch was at Olive Rec Center in Burbank, playing shortstop with a softball team from Flappers, the comedy club where he was a ticket taker. The batter hit a ground ball that bounced and hit him in the throat. He went home and tried to sleep it off.
He woke up talking much slower. In the following days, his condition worsened. When he called his agents to tell them what had happened, they dropped him. His doctors assured him that he would recover. “I waited for that, thinking it was going to be better,” Lynch told the Indianapolis Star. However, the nerves in his vocal chords had been irreparably damaged.
“You think you’re headed Harry Styles and then it goes all Gwen Stefani on you,” Lynch wrote in his blog. “I was devastated. No one was going to hire an actor with a stutter.” He saw two choices: regret or acceptance. “After my injury, I felt helpless. It was easier to feel sorry for myself than to get up and try again. Then one day I decided that I can’t just sit around blaming circumstances beyond my control for why I’m feeling so angry.”
After seeing comedian Samuel J. Comroe, who has Tourette Syndrome, Lynch decided to give comedy a try. “I needed to feel like I could get back on the horse, despite the hand I was now dealt,” he said. “Standup comedy made me feel like I could talk about my problems and actually be heard. It was a safe place for broken people. I have learned that every person has their own ‘disability,’ whether it’s physical, emotional, or financial. No person should go their whole life without experiencing some level of difficulty or struggle. Feeling helpless makes you human. It teaches you empathy.”
Lynch recalled, “I had jotted down some thoughts on a hospital napkin about this injury. I had pent-up frustrations about people treating me differently. Hurt and anger masked with jokes about how utterly broken I am, and how the course of my A plan was swept out from under me. This felt like plan F, or G, because that’s how far down the alphabet I would have to get to even consider an art form where you expose your vulnerability to a room of strangers for a laugh-at-my-pain entertainment.”
During his first standup routine, “all of a sudden it felt good to be human,” Lynch said. “I found something to invest my soul into again. It felt great to be an artist again after having this epiphany. I needed to be grateful and work for what I still have, not what I’ve lost.” After four years of gigs in coffee shops, libraries, cafeterias, theaters, grocery stores, Lynch decided to audition for America’s Got Talent.
He told himself, “If America doesn’t like what I have to say, that’s okay. It won’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened. All I can do is open myself to the same level of vulnerability that night of the first competition I ever did.” He explained, “An artist doesn’t do it for other people, they do it to fulfill themselves. That’s who I’m doing it for. And if haters have stuff to say, I know they’re dealing with their own softball soreness.”
During his America’s Got Talent audition, judge Howie Mandel used his Golden Buzzer to send Lynch straight to the quarterfinals. “Comedy usually comes from a dark place,” Mandel told Lynch. “What you did is you looked for the light at the end of the darkness. That light is your comedy, and I’m telling you I haven’t been moved by an act like this up until this moment.”
As Lynch progressed through the quarterfinal, semifinal, and final episodes, he repeatedly received standing ovations from Mandel and judge Heidi Klum. “I definitely underestimated how many people’s lives would be affected by what I do,” Lynch said. “When I first went on AGT, I just wanted people to think I was a funny comedian. But I guess people saw so much more in me than I saw in myself. They appreciated that I didn’t let anything stop me, despite how unusual it might sound to attempt standup with a stutter.”
In the end, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin was voted the winner, but Lynch is happy to have finished with second place in the competition. “AGT changed my life, because they told my story while letting me showcase my abilities,” Lynch said. “I really felt like they let people get to know me during the show and understand what I’ve been through. It was almost like a mini-movie about overcoming your fears and going after your dreams, against all odds.”
He now headlines comedy clubs across the country. “Comedy now fuels my reason for getting out of bed. Plan F moved up to plan A,” Lynch said. “I always hang out after the shows and thank everyone for coming. I want people to see that I’m thankful and that I’m the same person onstage as I am offstage.”
He reminds himself, though, “You’re never going to make everyone happy. What one person finds hilarious, another finds offensive. I’ve found that if I just joke about my experiences honestly, it’s a little harder to get offended at, because it’s my experience.” He continued, “Audiences are honest about what they didn’t like, and that’s what makes standup so hard, but the positive comments almost always outweigh the negative. I try to focus on those.”
His struggle today is balancing his new passion with the rest of his life. “There are days where I still wonder why this happened to me and how it’s changed my life,” Lynch said, “but the less I time I spend questioning the past, the more time I have to focus on the future.”
He explained, “My expectations for myself are always changing. Immediately after my injury, I just wanted to be fixed. Then when it never healed, I just wanted to cope. Standup was how I could cope. And then I wanted to do standup full-time and help others cope with their sadness. And then I wanted to be on TV. And then I wanted to go back to acting, to prove I could still succeed at that. It will never end.”
Lynch added, “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m going to continue to work hard and stay humble and hope for the best.”
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