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Finding healing through comedy

Danielle Perez lost her feet in a tragic accident. Despite her challenges, the comedian just wants to make people laugh.

Posted: Mar 25, 2018 10:20 PM
Updated: Mar 25, 2018 10:33 PM

Danielle Perez has been carried on stage, Cleopatra-style.

"Comedy happens in very cool places. And nowhere cool is accessible," said Perez, who uses a wheelchair.

Once she's up there, though, the 33-year-old comedian feels right at home.

"It feels so powerful to be on stage," she said. "Life is hard for everyone. To participate in something that makes people laugh -- there's nothing like it."

But life for Perez wasn't always funny. Growing up in Los Angeles, she struggled with depression and eating disorders. Then, Perez moved to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University, where a tragic accident changed her life.

Before that, she was living a glamorous urban lifestyle, "running around the hills of San Francisco in 3-inch-high heels and drinking cosmopolitans."

One day, Perez was crossing the street to catch a Muni streetcar. She suddenly found herself in the streetcar's path. It didn't stop.

"By the time it stopped, the wheels were above my legs," she said.

When two firefighters arrived, they started asking her questions.

" 'Can you feel your hands? Can you feel your shoulders?' Once they got to my feet, I started to freak out a little bit because I couldn't feel them," she said.

The impact also shattered her pelvis and ruptured her bladder. When she woke up in the hospital, her mother was sitting next to her.

"The first words she said to me were, 'Danielle, you don't have any feet.' "

Adjusting to life in a wheelchair

Perez was 20 years old. Her legs were amputated below the knee, and she spent the next month recovering in the hospital.

"I was in such denial about the reality. I just wanted to go and hang out with my friends. I just wanted to be normal," she recalled.

At first, that denial helped Perez move forward.

"It allowed me to get out of the house, learn how to drive," she said. "But it also delayed that healing process of knowing that people are gonna treat you differently. And some things are going to be harder."

Like wearing prosthetics. Perez had trouble using them after having skin grafts on her legs.

"I got very depressed after that, and I gained a lot of weight."

Making people laugh

But three years ago, she found healing in an unlikely place: a comedy club. Her best friend's roommate was a standup comedian. Perez and her friend started going to his shows.

"By the third one, I was like, 'I could do this,' " she said. "It's that insane hubris that every person who starts standup comedy has to have. Where you think, 'Oh, that's not hard.' "

Perez took a comedy class and started going to open mics.

"I went to my first open mic at this crappy little Hollywood coffee shop, and people laughed at my jokes. And I just fell in love with it."

Perez uses her experiences as material for her comedy routines.

"It's about my life, my family, my friends, dating," she said. "I talk about the accident. I talk about my depression. ... We are all complex people, so when people see that and relate to it, it's great."

When she performs her comedy routine, she doesn't care about what people think of her.

"When I go on stage, I'm just worried about 'are these jokes funny?' not 'what do they think about my disability?' " she said.

'The Price Is Right'

In 2015, Perez was thrust into the spotlight after she appeared on an episode of "The Price Is Right." Her prizes: a treadmill and a walk-in sauna.

"If you're having a crazy reaction to that, that's also the reaction the Internet had, because that video went viral," she said.

She was interviewed by news networks around the world and appeared as a guest on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

"People keep asking me what I'm gonna do with (the treadmill). And I said, 'I guess I'll just do what everyone else does and just use it as a piece of furniture,' " she told Kimmel.

That exposure helped Perez get her name out and build a fan base. "At shows, people are like, 'Oh, it's that girl from "The Price Is Right." ' "

Now, Perez performs in comedy clubs all over Los Angeles. She's come a long way since that accident 13 years ago.

"Standup comedy has helped me heal because it's really given me purpose," she said. "What I try to convey is that it's OK to be yourself."

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