WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Ryan O'Connell

May 21, 2021

In April 2020 Netflix released the first season of Special. Ryan O'Connell is creator, writer and star of the series, based on his 2015 memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. The book and series pull directly from O'Connell's life of hiding his cerebral palsy behind injuries sustained from a car accident.

"I moved to New York and people were like, 'Oh my God, your limp, it's all from your accident,' and I was like, 'Twist! It is!'" O'Connell told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg that, at the time, he thought it was easier to go with a false explanation that everyone could immediately understand. "Now, obviously lying who you are ends up being kinda bad for yourself," he said.

O'Connell kept his CP a secret from his friends and co-workers for four years. During that time he began his writing career in his early 20s for the website Thought Catalog, where he wrote popular humor pieces like, "How to be a 20 Something" and "How to Appear Cooler on Facebook than You Really Are."

His writing got the attention of a book publisher, and at age 25 he was offered a book deal. "Miraculously, I realized I was going to use this opportunity to write about my cerebral palsy. I went to Simon & Schuster for a kickoff meeting and was like, 'actually I don't want to write the book I initially pitched to you - so sorry about that. But I want to write about my cerebral palsy.' And they were really supportive."

O'Connell said that writing truthfully about his life, for the first time, was a challenge. "I hadn't processed any of my stuff, at all. I didn't have the language to describe internalized ableism or what it meant to be disabled in this culture. I was unpacking it in real time for a book. Which I would not recommend. It was too soon. I was too young. I had no business writing it. I mean, I'm glad - because I think the show [Special] is a more evolved version."

The new season of Special features some new details from his life, like his love of swing sets. "In season 2, my character goes on the swings and he ignores children that want to go on the swings. And that's really ripped from the headlines. Like, kids are always tapping their feet impatiently waiting for me to get off - but I just look away and pretend I don't see them because I deserve to be there too."

For his Ask Me Another challenge, O'Connell played a game that combines his love of the Olsen twins and the reality series The Real Housewives with geography.

Interview Highlights

On using "LOL" in everyday speech

Here's the deal... Talking is so boring. You have to do it all the time, so to me, I have to mix it up otherwise I will fall asleep.

On his love of the Olsen twins

I grew with them and I have loved their evolution from sort of basic tween stars and then their pivot into NYU fashionista, boho chic, to being CFDA nominee award winning whatever fashion designers. I love where they have landed though because they are so kooky, so chic, so fragile, so insane and I could look at paparazzi photos of them forever.

Heard on: Ryan O'Connell: The Real Housewives And The Olsen Twins

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. Our next guest is the creator, writer and star of the show "Special." The final season was just released on Netflix. Ryan O'Connell, hello.

RYAN O'CONNELL: Hello. Good to be here.

EISENBERG: Well, you have a show on Netflix, and it's called "Special." It's produced by "Big Bang Theory" actor Jim Parsons. And it's based on a memoir you wrote called "I'm Special And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves." And in the series, you play a man who has cerebral palsy and was hit by a car and then used the accident as a way of hiding his disability from his friends and co-workers. So it is...

O'CONNELL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Based on your real life.

O'CONNELL: Sort of. The inciting incident is definitely something that happened. I got hit by a car - not to brag. But then - and then I moved to New York, and people were like, oh, my God, your limp - it's all from your accident. And I was like, twist, it is.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: But, like, people understand. There's a reference point for that, whereas cerebral palsy, people are very TBD. It looks different on everybody. You can dress it up. You can dress it down. It goes from mild to wild. So to me, it was just a much more palatable way to move through the world. Now, obviously, lying about who you are ends up being kind of bad...

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Right. It's a lot.

O'CONNELL: ...For yourself.

EISENBERG: It's a lot to remember...

O'CONNELL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...All the time.

O'CONNELL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah. You know, I - just a total tangent for a second. So I'm watching your series with my husband, and at one point your character says, instead of L-O-L, loll (ph), right?

O'CONNELL: Loll, yeah, of course. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And my husband turns to me and he goes, what does that mean?

COULTON: Oh, no (laughter).

EISENBERG: And I was like, oh, I guess I know where we are right now in our lives.

O'CONNELL: Yeah. I mean, you're married to a fossil. OK. I get it.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: True.

O'CONNELL: Here's the deal. Talking is so boring - you have to do it all the time - that, to me, I just have to, like, mix it up to keep myself amused. Otherwise I, like, fall asleep. Do you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah, as many different ways, as many different ways. So just going back, your memoir - you know, you got the attention of a publisher when you were 25 and were offered this book deal from Simon and Schuster. Can you just talk about what you initially pitched them as to what you wanted to write versus what you end up writing, which is your memoir, "I'm Special And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves"?

O'CONNELL: Yeah. So, I mean, being 25, my brain was a jar of rat poison, so I - no one had any business offering me a book deal. But I was, like, a true scammer, and I just, like, knew how to - like, you know, I was, like - I was really seizing the moment. But then when I got the book deal, miraculously, I realized I really - like, I was going to use this opportunity to write about my cerebral palsy because I hadn't. I hadn't - like, I had been closeted for four years.

I went to Simon and Schuster for a kick-off meeting. I was like, actually, I don't want to write the book that I sold you, so sorry about that. But I want to write about my cerebral palsy. And they were really supportive, and they loved it. But it made the book process really, really challenging because I hadn't processed any of my stuff at all. Like, I was, like, really, like, talking about memories that I had repressed. And so - and I didn't have, like, the language to describe, like, internalized ableism or, like, what it meant to be disabled in this culture. Like, I was unpacking it in real time for a book, which, like, I wouldn't recommend.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: Usually you need distance. So, yeah, it was a very - it was - it's embarrassing to say, but that book took me, like, two years to finish, and it's embarrassing to say because it's 40 pages. So I was averaging, like, two pages a year.

(LAUGHTER)

O'CONNELL: But it was too soon.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: It really was too soon. I was too young. I had no business writing it. I mean, I'm glad because I think the show is a more evolved version, and that's great. But the book itself is a little cringe to me, TBH. But still buy it because I would love to make royalties.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah. Ryan, I hear - you know, I know a lot of people get their great ideas or their creative ideas in the shower. I am prone to enjoying a walk.

O'CONNELL: Yes.

EISENBERG: You get your best creative ideas on a swing set.

O'CONNELL: Yes, I love the swings (laughter).

EISENBERG: It's pretty - you know, it's pretty good. I could - as soon as I thought about that, I was like, I get it. There's, like, this sort of meditative...

O'CONNELL: The rhythm.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: Yeah. Well, I'm a swing head. I've always been a swing head. I used - the hardest part of the pandemic or one of the hardest parts was not being able to go to the swing sets for a full year. That was devastating.

EISENBERG: Right.

O'CONNELL: And my park, Plummer Park - which, you know, I did some research in LA. Like, she sampled the parks all around the city.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: And to me, it really needs to check a lot of boxes. Do you know what I mean? Like, there's a lot of swings, for example, that have, like, the hard floors. And you just, like - so when you hit - when your heels hit, it's like, OK, crash back down to Earth. You know what I mean?

EISENBERG: Right.

O'CONNELL: Like, harsh. You know what I mean? And then, like, you have some that don't really move the way they should. They're kind of rigid. They haven't been broken in. So, yeah, I'm at Plummer Park a lot like a psycho. I'm sure the parents are, like, very TBD on my existence, but, like, God bless. They can deal with it. Like, in Season 2, my character goes on the swings, and he ignores children that, like, want to go on the swing. And that's really ripped from the headlines. Like, kids are always, like, tapping their feet impatiently for me to get off, and I just look away and pretend that I don't see them because I deserve to be there, too.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: OK, but wait a sec. Wait a sec. Why not buy a swing set?

O'CONNELL: I do. I have a porch swing. I have, like, another, like, seating area that swings. And then I have a swing from a tree...

COULTON: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: ...In my backyard. Now, here's the deal. Here's the deal. You need, like, an industrial moment, like, because the ones that are attached to a tree - they can't go as high as you want.

COULTON: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: And you're kind of limited...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: ...By the tree, you know? Unless - we shot Season 2 in this mansion in Tarzana, and they had this amazing tree and this swingset. And I - between shots, I would just go for, like, an hour and, like, go nonstop. And that was the first tree swing that I felt not restricted by. But the one I got - the one that I got - I'm telling you, it doesn't do quite the job of the one in Plummer Park. I'm telling you...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: ...It just doesn't.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: You know?

EISENBERG: OK, so you want...

O'CONNELL: This is very relatable content. This is...

EISENBERG: This is...

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: I'm sure...

COULTON: ...What you're talking about.

O'CONNELL: I'm sure the listeners are, like, scribbling down Plummer Park, you know?

COULTON: (Laughter) Yeah.

O'CONNELL: I'm sure they understand completely.

EISENBERG: Listen.

O'CONNELL: They're like, I get it, tree swings restricted.

EISENBERG: But you know what? I'll tell you what our listeners do relate to 100% - the specificity that they like of something to work for them.

O'CONNELL: Yes.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That is what...

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...I can tell you about our listeners. They are people...

O'CONNELL: That's great.

EISENBERG: ...Who are specific about what...

O'CONNELL: I love that.

EISENBERG: ...They like (laughter).

O'CONNELL: I'm very specific as well, so I understand.

EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.

O'CONNELL: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: All right, Ryan, we've cooked up a pretty great game for you. So are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

O'CONNELL: I'm very ready.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: Ask me...

EISENBERG: Great. OK.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: ...Dot, dot, dot, another.

EISENBERG: Ryan, before the show, you told us that there are two subjects in particular that you know a lot about, and those are the Olsen twins and...

O'CONNELL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Bravo's "Real Housewives."

O'CONNELL: It's quite an intersection. Yeah.

EISENBERG: So Olsen twins - why?

O'CONNELL: Well, even though it doesn't look like it, they are the same age as me, and I grew up with them. And I have loved their evolution from sort of basic, you know, tween stars, you know, in a series of flopped sitcoms - you know, "So Little Time," "Two Of A Kind." This is post-"Full House," of course. And then there were straight-to-video releases. And then their pivot into NYU fashionistas, boho chic, to being CFDA nominee, award-winning, whatever, fashion designers.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's right.

O'CONNELL: I'm here for every iteration. I love where they've landed, though, because they are so kooky, so chic, so fragile, so insane. And I could look at paparazzi photos of them forever.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: Now, would I ever like to talk to them? No.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: No. It's perfect. OK, so then "Real Housewives" - hearing this, I'm like, "Real Housewives," minus the following someone through their life, has a lot of the same things going on with it.

O'CONNELL: Well, "The Real Housewives," which is, like, a fascinating study on, like, a socioeconomic level, on a geography level - I mean, I dig deep. I love, like, going deep on things that are insanely shallow. I remember I was - I got money to pitch Bravo reality shows to the network. And I just went in - I met with, like, the head of whatever.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: And, like, I just went in deep, like, a Sarah Lawrence deep dive. And she was like, so gen (ph) confused. She was like, I've never thought of it that way...

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: ...Dot, dot, dot. And I was just like, oh, maybe, like, the way I take this information in is different than other people.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: Who's to say?

EISENBERG: Perfect. Perfect.

O'CONNELL: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: I mean, basically - so this - you're going to just waltz through this game way too easily. So the Olsen twins starred in more than a dozen movies, ranging from theatrical films to TV movies to direct-to-video releases, set in a variety of American cities and international locations. Side note, and - I think we can agree that they also contain some problematic content that does not hold up to today.

O'CONNELL: I'm sure. They - honey, they held up - they were held up by Silly String when they came out, so I can only...

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Totally.

O'CONNELL: I can only imagine how they've aged.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: And of course, "The Real Housewives Of Orange County" debuted in 2006 and spawned more than a dozen other versions set in places like Atlanta, Miami, Dallas. And other countries have their own versions as well, set in cities like Athens, Johannesburg and exotic Toronto.

EISENBERG: So we have combined these two things in a game called The Real Olsens Of Somewhere. Jonathan and I...

O'CONNELL: Love it.

EISENBERG: ...Will tell you about an Olsen twins movie and a "Real Housewives" series that both took place in or around the same location. And you just tell us where both things are set.

O'CONNELL: Gorgeous. I love it.

EISENBERG: OK. Here we go. In the 1998 movie "Billboard Dad," the twins want to help their single dad get back into the dating scene, so they slap his face and his home address on a billboard for all to see.

COULTON: And this "Housewives" series has an infamous fight, during which actor Lisa Rinna smashes a wine glass on the table.

O'CONNELL: Oh, that's - yeah, that's Beverly Hills.

COULTON: That is correct.

O'CONNELL: Well, that's - yeah, that's Lisa Rinna and Kim Richards. That's when, like - you know, when Kim Richards was intuiting that Harry Hamlin was having an affair that Lisa Rinna didn't want concealed...

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: ...Or didn't want revealed. Yeah. So then she freaked out. And then "Billboard Dad" - I feel like they lived in Venice for that movie. Is that true or false? Venice Beach.

EISENBERG: "Billboard Dad" is technically set in Santa Monica.

O'CONNELL: Oh, my God. Amazing.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: So Venice, Santa Monica. Great.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Yeah. That's right.

O'CONNELL: Great.

EISENBERG: I like - "Billboard Dad" - I will admit, I've not seen "Billboard Dad." But I feel like it's - this is a feel-good movie about doxxing your dad. Is that what this is about (laughter)?

O'CONNELL: I mean, honestly, more dads should be doxxed.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: I feel like...

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: ...The Olsen twins were trendsetters, honestly.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: OK. Anyways, you - yes, correct, is what we're saying. Here's your next one.

O'CONNELL: Fantastic. OK.

EISENBERG: In this 2014 movie, twin sisters Roxy and Jane go to the big city so Jane can deliver a speech at Columbia University and try to get a fellowship at Oxford University.

COULTON: In this "Housewives" series, Aviva Drescher yells, the only thing that is artificial or fake about me is this, and slams her prosthetic leg on the table.

O'CONNELL: So we're talking about, for the Olsen twins, "New York Minute," obviously, right?

COULTON: That is correct, yeah.

EISENBERG: Yes.

O'CONNELL: God, I love all their, like academics - like, truly, L-O-L.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: I'm like, honey, they're going to DeVry.

(LAUGHTER)

O'CONNELL: They're going to ITT Tech, OK? That's, like, an online diploma. And for "Real Housewives," that was "The Real Housewives Of New York." And I think that scene - if I'm not wrong - takes place at the restaurant Le Cirque, maybe? I think? Yeah.

COULTON: That could be. All we need is New York, and you got it, so yeah.

O'CONNELL: Oh (laughter). See? Look at me going deeper than I need to.

COULTON: I know, it's amazing. It's amazing.

O'CONNELL: So you're the Bravo exec twitching again in their seat. You're like, what? This person needs help.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: In the movie "Getting There," the Olsen twins attempt to drive a convertible to the 2002 Winter Olympics. And despite the film being called "Getting There," they do not get to the Olympics.

COULTON: (Laughter) And this "Housewives" cast includes Lisa Barlow, the self-proclaimed queen of Sundance, who's a Mormon and owns a Tequila brand.

O'CONNELL: Well, that's Salt Lake City, of course. That's iconic. Great first season. I have never seen a first season like that in a long time - probably not since Beverly Hills, quite frankly.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: That was a franchise that knew what it was, and that has to do with casting.

EISENBERG: So OK. How do you - do you know the international versions of "Housewives"?

O'CONNELL: I don't, but I could see - maybe.

EISENBERG: OK. All right.

O'CONNELL: I mean, honestly, I'm surprised by what lives in here.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: And, like, I'm surprised, like, what have (ph) to die in order for certain things to live...

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: It's true. It's true.

O'CONNELL: ...You know what I mean?

EISENBERG: The rest of these are about the international versions.

O'CONNELL: OK.

EISENBERG: So we're looking for the country in which both of these were set.

O'CONNELL: Gorgeous.

EISENBERG: So...

O'CONNELL: Got it.

EISENBERG: In 2000's "Our Lips Are Sealed," the Olsen twins are forced to move to a completely different continent after they testify in court against a man trying to steal the Neil Diamond (laughter).

COULTON: And in one of this country's "Real Housewives" series, a woman named Athena X wears an avant-garde cape made of ropes, and another housewife says it's ugly and throws the cape into Sydney Harbor. That's a big hint there.

O'CONNELL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: Honey, oh, my God.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: Like, think more of me, OK? I know that - I - that's - well, first of all, I knew what it was already because "Our Lips Are Sealed" is, I think, arguably, one of the better ones that they produced. But yeah, it's Australia. And it was more plot-y (ph) because, you know, there was the inciting incident. There was the - you know, them going into the witness protection program. Towards the end, it was just them having montages at resorts that I'm sure comped them for, like...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

COULTON: Totally. Yeah.

EISENBERG: I mean, I didn't - I have not seen "The Real Housewives Of Sydney," but I love that someone's wearing an avant-garde cape made of ropes. And then, I mean, that's just a great scene that someone throws a - whatever - a MoMA piece of clothing into the harbor. I love it.

O'CONNELL: I love it.

EISENBERG: I mean...

O'CONNELL: That person showed up for work that day.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, right? Exactly.

O'CONNELL: That person knew what they had to do.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: They were like, I got to get some screen time.

COULTON: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: Yup.

EISENBERG: All right. We got a couple more for you. OK. So we're looking for the country. This 2001 film begins with a model U.N. debate about internet censorship. During the international conference that follows the Olsens get to play polo, see the Globe Theatre and experience a simulated kidnapping.

COULTON: And in a recent episode of "The Real Housewives Of Cheshire," a cast member said she'd been intimate with a ghost twice, but the ghost dumped her.

O'CONNELL: OK.

COULTON: (Unintelligible).

O'CONNELL: First of all, why are people trying to make ghost sex happen? I mean, I think Kesha was the one that first put it in the zeitgeist by saying that she also, like, had a romance with a ghost. And I just want to do a moratorium on, like, ghost relationships.

EISENBERG: I know.

COULTON: Yeah.

O'CONNELL: It's weird. This is England, right?

COULTON: England is correct or U.K.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Yes, that's right.

EISENBERG: Spot on. All right.

O'CONNELL: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: The Olsen twins are in an international summer internship program. They are learning again. But immediately, they get fired because they are so incompetent.

COULTON: Oh, boy.

EISENBERG: While they mope at the Trevi Fountain, the company's owner finds them and rehires them.

COULTON: And this country's "Housewives" cast includes, quote, "the owner of the most important beauty center in Naples."

O'CONNELL: Oh, honey - again.

COULTON: I know.

O'CONNELL: Oh, my God.

COULTON: I know.

O'CONNELL: Italy. Italy.

COULTON: Italy is correct because...

EISENBERG: Yes.

COULTON: ...We named two places in Italy. (Laughter) And you knew it was Italy.

O'CONNELL: What movie for the Olsens was this? It doesn't come right to my mind.

EISENBERG: So - very original name - "When In Rome."

O'CONNELL: Oh, of course. Who could forget the seminal movie...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

O'CONNELL: ..."When In Rome."

COULTON: "When In Rome" - yeah.

O'CONNELL: Oh, my God. For sure. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Absolutely. And yeah, you totally won that game. You completely won that game in every way.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Talk about a win.

O'CONNELL: You guys are so supportive.

(LAUGHTER)

O'CONNELL: You guys are...

EISENBERG: Thank you.

O'CONNELL: You guys are lifting me up. You're lifting me up.

COULTON: Good.

O'CONNELL: I love it. Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: The second and final season of Ryan O'Connell's show "Special" is available on Netflix now. Ryan, thank you so much for joining us.

O'CONNELL: Oh, thank you for having me. This was a delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER'S house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Cara Weinberger and senior writers Camilla Franklin and Eric Feinstein. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Gianna Capadona, Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Sparber and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner, WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.