WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – The internet is a product of Ryan O’Connell, just as he is a product of the internet.
“I’ve always looked at life through a LOL lens,” said the 32-year-old writer and creator of the new Netflix series “Special,” now streaming. He uses “LOL” (and other variations on the phrase) often, pronouncing it phonetically like the first syllable of “lollipop.”
This is, as the influencers say, on-brand for O’Connell, who spent several years cultivating his voice as part of a wave of bloggers writing highly confessional personal essays (“An Open Letter to My Only One-Night Stand”), humorous how-to guides (“How to Appear Cooler on Facebook Than You Really Are”) and listicles (“5 Valid Reasons to Get Drunk With Someone”) on the pop culture lifestyle site Thought Catalog.
His viral musings quickly landed him a book deal and now a TV show.
But what was initially meant to be a print version of his popular satirical content for millennials evolved into a memoir in which O’Connell wrote publicly for the first time about having cerebral palsy.
“It was kind of a cognitive dissonance because I wasn’t even really aware of [the irony] on a deeper level,” O’Connell said while sitting on the patio of a West Hollywood coffee shop. “Like, ‘LOL I’m literally baring every aspect of my soul except I’m fundamentally denying who I am.’ I mean, I was 24; that’s my excuse. I couldn’t even begin to unpack that.”
“I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” O’Connell’s detailed account of his experiences as a disabled gay 20-something, caught the attention of producer Todd Spiewak, who shared the book with his now-husband, “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons. The couple reached out to O’Connell about making the show, and signed on as executive producers; O’Connell began writing the scripts for “Special” during a break from his job as an executive story editor on the “Will & Grace” reboot.
“Special,” a short-form series (each episode runs around 15 minutes), has O’Connell (a first-time actor) playing a less outgoing version of himself in a dark comedy where the joke, he said, “is on people who aren’t disabled, and how they view disabled people.”
O’Connell spoke about using humor to his advantage, educating the general public about his disability and having mixed feelings about seeing himself on billboards. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Have you always been funny?
A: I think I realized instinctively at a really young age that I needed to disarm people and make them feel comfortable around me. At the same time, I feel resentful because as a gay man with cerebral palsy it’s like, “Yeah, I have cerebral palsy but don’t worry, babe — I’m wearing an Acne [Studios] T-shirt. I have APC jeans on and am going to make you laugh! Nothing to be scared of here!” I’ve spent so much of my existence trying to appear palatable to everybody else.
Q: The pilot establishes that you’re disabled and gay, but the gayness is immediately accepted by your mother and co-workers; it’s never even a question. Was that true for you in real life?
A: When I realized I was gay at age 12, I didn’t love that for me. It wasn’t the combo meal that I would order off the menu. But I was very fortunate to have supportive friends and family so that was never really my struggle, never my cross to bear.
It really was being disabled that I just felt so ashamed of from a really young age. Growing up, I would have tons of surgeries; I was in physical therapy constantly; I’d been fitted for leg braces. Of course because of the ableist society we’re born into, you just want to be like everybody else. That really has always been my struggle — embracing that part of myself and not trying to run from it at all times.
Q: Had you experienced a lot of discrimination in the past?
A: Being disabled, moving through this world, you’re going to have to eat a lot of troll sandwiches. You’re going to have to encounter a lot of people who are like, “Are you OK?” — who are going to infantilize you and not know how to treat you.
Just the other day, I was leaving the gym and a woman behind me was like, “Are your legs sore?” And I thought, “She can’t be talking about me.” Which is so funny because this happens to me all the time, but every time I’m like, “This can’t be happening, because no one would be this rude or out of touch.” And then sure enough, I go down the stairs and she’s like, “Are you OK?” and gives me a thumbs up as if I have true brain damage. I just accept it, even though that’s [messed] up and I should be like, “What’s wrong with you?”
But also in the moment, I can’t ever come up with a good response because you’re just kind of stunned and you want to get past it so quickly and you don’t want to lecture them. That’s another thing: As a disabled person, the onus falls on me to educate them. But then you also don’t want this person to keep going through life with ignorance so you want to be the one that changes this perception of disability. But it’s also just tiring and you’ve got [things] to do. You’ve got to pick up your laundry in 10 minutes, honey, you’ve got to go. You can’t give your TED Talk.
Q: Are you concerned that people will hear “gay and cerebral palsy” and expect a sad story? Or be offended it’s a comedy?
A: Everything can be mined for comedy. I think humor was a really, really important part of this for me because I think that the way people treat disabled people, it’s not out of malice. It’s not like they want to take us down. I think it’s just pure ignorance. I think it makes people uncomfortable like they don’t want to offend, and so in that process they kind of end up offending.
So I think giving them a show like “Special,” which is funny and I’m the one making the jokes and I’m the one writing them — I think it makes them feel at ease. They’re like, “Oh, OK, this isn’t some scary thing. Disabled people are just like me!” I don’t know why this is a revolutionary concept. I just think they don’t know what to do with us at all.
Q: What do you anticipate it’s going to be like to see yourself on a billboard?
A: Strange. … I wanted to be Nora Ephron, not Meg Ryan.
I’m excited for it and I loved acting, I really did, but it was just not what I’d planned. It’s just taking some recalibrating and getting used to, like, “OK, I’m going to be visible in this way.”
Growing up disabled you’re not thinking, “I want to be a movie star, Mom and Dad! Enroll me in acting classes!” You’re like, “Gee, I hope I get my leg braces off by the time I’m 16. I hope I can learn how to drive a car!” I hope to inspire other disabled people and also show [the rest of] society what we can do, which is — spoiler — a lot.