Tales From The Crip: Laughing At The Disabled
There are a lot of hilarious comedians with disabilities out there—comics who are not only breaking barriers and dismantling stereotypes, but doing so while cracking us up. This to me is one of the cleverest strategies in changing negative, ableist attitudes about people with disabilities into positive ones, i.e. disarm them with laughter and then brainwash them into coming over to “our side.” No one enjoys being lectured and ablebodied defensiveness remains deeply entrenched in our culture. When ableism is rightfully challenged, even with humor, it's often met with disbelief, indignation or vitriol.
Bitch contributor s.e. smith wrote an amusing, spot-on article on XOJane called “Disabled People Are Not Your Inspiration,” and the readers went ballistic, writing some of the most stomach-churning comments I’ve seen in quite some time. Clearly, many nondisabled people aren’t ready to confront their privilege or potentially prejudicial attitudes. Defying nondisabled people's outdated notions of what disability is like is difficult enough; making people laugh while doing so is a feat of its own. Thankfully, there are some badasses taking that immense challenge head on and succeeding. And for whatever reason, many are British.
Liz Carr is an irreverent “sit down stand-up,” actress, crip activist and co-host of my favorite podcast, Ouch! on the BBC. She’s also a member of the all-but-one-is-disabled comedy troupe with the best name ever: Abnormally Funny People. In a TV interview she explains, “Maybe I’m deluded, but I do think that what I do on stage opens people up and frees them and makes them feel less uncomfortable. I think that afterwards they do see disability, I would think, in a different way... because it blows a zillion stereotypes out the window." She’s far from deluded- she’s ridiculously funny and to use her parlance ‘cause it’s my only chance to imitate a Brit without sounding like a total jag, “bloody brill.”
Fellow limey Warwick Davis, best known for his roles in Willow, the Harry Potter films, and the embarrassingly terrible Leprechaun movies (excluding number 4 where the Leprechaun visits space—an incredible achievement in cinematic absurdity), teamed up with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant for the hysterical comedy series Life’s Too Short. Davis, a "showbiz dwarf," played a fictionalized, egotistical version of himself, routinely making shockingly bad choices and executing them with as much awkwardness as possible. It is painful to watch, and typical of the way that Gervais/Merchant productions love to torment the viewer with humiliating, cringe-worthy scenarios that are impossible not to laugh at. Davis essentially comes off as the dwarf version of The Office's David Brent, with the show taking a refreshingly unsentimental approach to disability. It doesn’t shy away from addressing typically unfunny issues such as internalized ableism and dating horrors, yet does so in a way that is witty and entertaining. This isn’t too surprising as Gervais and Merchant have also written extremely amusing disability storylines in both The Office and Extras. Disabled comic and actress Francesca Martinez, a self-proclaimed “wobbly,” was terrific on the latter, with her character highlighting nondisabled paternalism and strange assumptions made about people with disabilities. Again, the scenes are delightfully uncomfortable, hitting a comedic nerve due to the realistic portrayals of nondisabled awkwardness that so often accompanies disability.
Here on our side of the pond, we have the awesome all-disabled comedy troupe, the Comedians With Disabilities Act. Hailing from the Bay area, the four comics include little person Steve Danner, Eric Mee who is blind, wheelchair user Michael O'Connell, and Nina G. - “the world’s only female stuttering stand-up.” Each of the comedians is talented and hysterical, and it’s hard not to love Nina after watching her “Shit Fluent People Say To People Who Stutter” video.
This is just a small sample of hilarious disabled people rocking a mic or a sound stage while obliterating stereotypes. It’s exciting to see visibility expanding within our community and the numbers of disabled performers can only increase. Also, they are way fun to laugh at.
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