Holy Family University Magazine

Local comedian is a real stand-up guy

By Elizabeth Stieber - Times Staff Writer

For Tim Grill, laughter really is the best medicine. Growing up with spina bifida and a father who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Grill could have wallowed in his physical and emotional pain. Instead, he cracked one-liners that cheered up his mom. "It’s how you get by. If you don’t laugh, you go crazy," said Grill, a stand-up comic who lives in Winchester Park.

Grill will emcee this weekend at the new Helium Comedy Club in Center City. "The emcee is important to the show because he has to get the crowd warmed up for the acts," Grill said. He will talk to the audience, introduce the performers and throw in a few jokes from his own act.

"All my life, I’ve just been able to make people laugh," said Grill, 35. As a baby, he was diagnosed with spina bifida, a defect that occurs in the first month of pregnancy when the spinal column doesn’t close completely, according to the Spina Bifida Association. Doctors said he would never walk. Grill conquered walking, however, but at a price — he had 13 surgeries on his spine and legs by his 10th birthday. He often wore casts on both legs and used a wheelchair. Grill had three more surgeries in 1997. To this day, he still walks with a limp and has some pain, but otherwise he stays fit and active. He spent a good portion of his childhood at Shriners Hospital for Children, formerly based in the Northeast, and he attended the Widener Memorial School for Children with Disabilities in Olney. Grill transferred to St. Jerome School in the fourth grade because his parents decided he should go to school with regular kids. He graduated from Father Judge High School in 1988.

Living with spina bifida as a kid, Grill said he was physically slower than the other youngsters, who sometimes teased him. Grill believes the teasing has given him a thick skin to deal with hecklers who might act up while he’s performing. Laughter also helped his family endure tragedy. When Grill was 11, his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He lived for another 10 years, but the disease took its toll on the family. A young Grill always tried to make his mother laugh by cracking jokes, relying on humor to get through the pain. At the hospital. he even made a few of his dad’s doctors grin, he recalled, "and they’re some of the most impossible people to make laugh," Grill said.

He carried that sense of humor into adulthood. Friends suggested he consider stand-up comedy. Grill started to give that suggestion some serious thought. He took a comedy class at Bonkers Comedy Cafe in Media, Delaware County, and began performing 1998. The fledgling comic filled in between opening acts and headliners at the Comedy Cabaret in the Far Northeast and at other local venues. He quit after two years to go back to school, but returned to performing in September 2003.

These days, he still performs at the Comedy Cabaret and at Chuckles Comedy Club in the Poconos, where his 35-minute routine includes jokes and original songs that Grill plays on guitar. Songs are new to his performance, he added, and the routine has been well-received. "Music adds a whole new element to the show," he said. Grill does not model himself after one specific comedic style, and his influences run the gamut of funnymen — from Bob Hope and Johnny Carson to Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. "I like all kinds of genres of comedy," he said.

While his disability doesn’t dominate his routine, Grill talks about it so that people aren’t distracted by it. Besides, he added, he wants to "show that people with a disability can be funny. It’s not taboo." He has no plans to make stand-up comedy his full-time career. Grill enjoys the Philadelphia comedy scene, and he’s happy to see how far he can progress. "I just try to make people forget about their problems," he said.

During the day, Grill works for Ahead, a statewide organization that helps people with disabilities find jobs. He also is a motivational speaker at physical-therapy conventions, where he talks about how humor can overcome obstacles.

Grill has his parents to thank for learning that important life lesson.
"My parents were instrumental in helping me grow up as a normal kid and letting me keep my sense of humor," he said. ••
  
For more information or tickets to the Helium Comedy Club, at 2031 Sansom St., call 215-496-9001 or visit www.heliumcomedy.com
 
Reporter Elizabeth Stieber can be reached at 215-354-3036 or estieber@phillynews.com