It took Ryan Niemiller 13 years to become an overnight sensation.
The nation finally got a strong dose of the comedian when he appeared on Season 14 of America’s Got Talent, ultimately finishing in third place.
Graduating from clubs to theaters as a result, Niemiller will stop by the Eagles Theatre in Wabash on Sept. 30.
Born with a congenital birth defect in both arms, Niemiller has dubbed himself the “Cripple Threat of Comedy” and often refers to himself as “unarmed and dangerous.”
He earned a spot on America’s Got Talent after five years of attempts and took full advantage of the opportunity, slaying audiences with his quick wit and self-deprecating comedy, acquiring millions of fans in the process.
“I think one of the biggest reasons I did really well on that show is that I was able to be a little more authentic than a lot of acts sometimes get to be,” Niemiller told Whatzup in an interview. “With those types of shows, people, especially people with disabilities, often get pigeonholed to be super inspirational and that’s kind of the entirety of what your personality is from what they show on air. I was able to just do my thing and connect on a real and genuine level.”
Performing on AGT was one of the most challenging things Niemiller has ever done as a comic because the show allows such a short time to connect with the audience.
Most acts get only 90 seconds to two minutes to perform, which is plenty of time if you are a dance troupe.
But it’s challenging for a comic who is used to doing an hour set each night.
In his normal act, Niemiller has time to feel out the audience and make adjustments according to how the night is developing, but on AGT he didn’t have that time.
“A lot of people seem to think that the hardest part [for a comic] is being clean. That’s not really that hard. It’s a family show, so you can’t be dropping f-bombs — that’s easy. What’s hard is that, from the word ‘Go,’ you have to get them. If one joke misses, you might be eliminated. So it’s super stressful.”
Playing Larger Venues
Niemiller followed his third-place finish with a semifinal appearance on AGT: The Champions (Season 2), which took place immediately following the conclusion of Season 14.
As he was prepared to ride a wave of momentum following that appearance, the pandemic hit shortly after the show concluded, sending performing artists like Niemiller home for an extended period of time.
Though he doesn’t think the time off the road slowed that momentum, Neimiller’s approach on the road had changed once he was able to perform again.
“I take a lot of precautions as I’m working with hundreds of people every week,” he said. “But the biggest adjustment has been that you can’t hard sell people to come to the show the same way you used to do because if people have disabilities, like a lot of my fanbase does, or are immunocompromised or taking care of someone who is immunocompromised. If they don’t feel comfortable coming, you can’t say, ‘Yeah, but you should still come.’ You kind of have to go, ‘Cool, we’ll see you next time.’”
Playing larger venues offers difficulties in making connections with the audience. Niemiller’s approach in his act has changed, too.
During his career, like most artists who are trying to get a footing in the business, he had experiences where as few as five people came to a comedy night where he was performing.
“In that type of setting, you can give those five people a very individualized show and really connect with them,” he said. “When you have four or five hundred people come, you can still have a great show, but I’m not going to ask 500 people what their names are.”
The simple fact that people know who he is now changes the approach, as well.
“The first 13 years of my career I was a happy bonus,” Niemiller said. “Nobody knew who I was when they came to the show, but they’d be happy they saw me once they got there. Now I’m on marquees, so people know what to expect and are excited. It’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s fun.”
Not Afraid of ‘cancel Culture’
In an age where it seems everyone is offended by everything, Niemiller doesn’t worry that someone might be put off by something he says in his act. He thinks that “cancel culture” is a really overblown concept, reserved for people who take unnecessary shots at other human beings, not for comedians trying to get laughs.
“Look at Netflix. On almost every one of those specials, people are working blue and talking controversially. What people don’t want now, and they’re more aware of, is that they don’t want you to punch down. People are finally standing up to that,” he said. “Almost every situation where someone gets canceled, it’s because they make some sort of joke that makes fun of someone that’s lesser in some way. That usually causes the problem. I’ve never written that way, so I’m not worried about it.”
Niemiller went on to say that, as a comedian, he knows he is going to ruffle feathers from time to time. He just doesn’t see why that would be a reason the joke shouldn’t happen.
“If I tell the joke this way, it might make x amount of people mad, but x amount of people might like it, too. You just kind of have to know your audience,” he said. “I learned pretty quickly as more eyes were on me that with every joke I tell, someone’s not going to like it and say that I shouldn’t do it. You just have to make good decisions and go, ‘Is this joke at least 51 percent funny?’ That’s all you need. If your jokes are more offensive than funny, it’s just offensive.”
Hoosier Born and Bred
A native of DeMotte, Ind., in Jasper County, Niemiller seems truly excited to head back to Indiana to perform.
“It’s cool to get to come there because I always feel — and I genuinely believe this — that I would rather perform in a place like Wabash than I would New York or L.A.,” he said. “I have fun in New York or L.A., but they don’t care that you’re there. They can see the most famous people in the world every night. In Wabash, people are genuinely excited that you’re there. That means a ton to me. I’d rather perform for people like that who are people like me.”