Local Comedian Sensation & America’s Got Talent Finalist Ryan Niemiller Loves to Entertain
Being born with short arms, one might expect that Ryan Niemiller would be self-conscious about his disability and do his best to blend into the background. However, ever since he was young, he has gravitated toward the spotlight — all the way to America’s Got Talent.
“I watched a ton of stand-up comedy in high school and always wanted to try it,” Niemiller says. “But I mistakenly thought that you could only do it in L.A. or New York. I didn’t know you could start here in the Midwest.”
His dream simmered on the back-burner as he studied theatre at Indiana State.
“I love theatre, but I was getting tired of telling other people’s stories,” Niemiller says. “I was ready to tell my own.”
So after graduating in 2006, he packed up his car and drove to L.A. When he arrived out west, he did an internet search on “how to get started in stand-up comedy” and went from there. At just 24 years old, he claims the “ignorance of youth” helped him push past his fear of failure.
“I think I’m wired backward to the way most people are,” Niemiller says. “I just had this feeling that it would all work out.”
He enrolled in an eight-week comedy class, which provided the basic foundation for stand-up. Mining material for his sets has always come easy.
“When you have a disability, a lot of stuff happens for you,” he says. He does what he calls “observational comedy” in which he observes how people treat him or others and works it into his set. He notes that stand-up comedy is one of the few art forms in which the only way you know you’re good is by performing in front of other people.
“If you want to learn guitar, you could spend 10,000 hours in your bedroom and know you sound pretty good before you ever let another set of ears hear it,” Niemiller says. “With stand-up, however, you may think your material is hilarious, but you don’t actually know until you do it for others.”
The first official show Niemiller performed was on October 2, 2006, at an empty coffee shop.
“I’d gone to an open mic to get a feel how it worked and found out that my teacher had signed me up to do a set,” Niemiller says. “I was totally put on the spot. I don’t know if it was performer’s pride or stubborn male pride, but I didn’t want to back down from a challenge.
He performed in front of four other comics and a barista and scored a few chuckles.
“I’m lucky that I got a couple of laughs because if not, that could have affected my confidence and changed the trajectory of my career,” he says.
Niemiller lived in L.A. until 2009, at which time he bopped around from Terre Haute to Indianapolis to Pensacola, Fla., taking various “real jobs” to begin saving money to buy a house. He found, however, that as much as he liked having health insurance, he couldn’t stomach a desk job.
“My brain just couldn’t do it,” he says.
There’s a joke amongst comedians that it typically takes 15 years to become an overnight sensation.
“I beat that trend. It only took me 13,” he says with a snicker. His big break came in the summer of 2019 when Niemiller competed on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” (AGT), performing in front of judges Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Julianne Hough, and Gabrielle Union, along with 3,400 spectators at the Dolby Theatre. The experience didn’t faze him.
“That felt at home,” Niemiller says. “Now, if you told me afterward to go ask the girl out who was sitting in the fifth row, that would be mortifying to me. Large crowds have always been easier than one-on-one interaction.”
Though he didn’t get teased much as a child, he suspects that’s because he learned, early on, that if he made the jokes first, people left him alone.
“It became my default,” he says. “Whether it’s fair or not, it’s kind of on me to make other people comfortable with me.”
It didn’t hurt that he had a natural affinity for easing tension through humor. Though he calls himself the “cripple threat of comedy,” refers to his fan club as “club nub” and regularly incorporates his disability into his sets, he admits that having a disability is difficult.
“As much as I’ve come to terms with it and made the best of it, it’s not what I would have chosen,” Niemiller says. “Yes, I use it in my comedy, but it’s not a crutch. It’s me talking about my life.”
Niemiller, who recently turned 38, notes that one of the toughest parts of this career is the way it affects the timeline of his life.
“Being a touring stand-up comic puts strain on a lot of things,” he says. “When you’re 25, not married, no kids, on the road all the time with no health insurance, that’s easier to power through than when you’re 35 in that same position.”
For now, he’s riding the success of America’s Got Talent after placing third in the show and returning for AGT’s The Champion’s show in January 2020.
“If you make the finals on America’s Got Talent as a stand-up comedian, your career gets a huge bump,” says Niemiller, noting that his social media following grew throughout the season but doubled between the semi-finals and finals. When he made finals, the number of bookings he got quadrupled.
Growing up poor in a trailer park and not owning a bed until he was in college, Niemiller found comedy to be his ticket to travel. And travel he has, week after week. Take last November, for instance. He performed 25 out of 30 days that month. Calling himself a “road dog,” he says he has a reputation for doing 14-hour drives to get to the next gig.
Prior to the pandemic, his day-to-day was driving to shows, hotels, airports and more shows. But he made the best of it, exploring new places whenever his schedule allowed.
“I like to try local restaurants — find at least one place that’s unique to that location,” Niemiller says.
In the future, he hopes to return to acting, perhaps doing television, movies and podcasts.
“As much of a life-changing experience as AGT was, if I’m still the dude from AGT years down the road, I’ve screwed up somewhere,” Niemiller says. “I want there to be more.”
Niemiller, who currently lives on the southside of Indy, played several sold-out shows at Avon’s Red Curb Improv Comedy Club earlier this year. He also appeared on WZPL’s Smiley Morning Show and the Pat McAfee Show. He loves performing locally as he says Hoosiers always have his back.
“A lot of people have been surprised that I still live here,” Niemiller adds. “They are trained to think that if America’s Got Talent says I’m from Indiana, that must have been years ago. Then they see me at Kroger and are like, ‘Oh, you’re actually here!’”
And he’s happy to be here, as he adores Indy’s small town and big city feel.
“There’s theatre, pro sports and great restaurants, but you don’t feel like you’re in this huge metropolis where you have to struggle to get around,” he says. “If there’s traffic in Indy, it adds 10 minutes to your trip whereas in L.A. it can legitimately add four hours.”