By Michael Rock
Everybody likes to laugh. However, people should be aware that their jokes don’t come at the expense of other groups.
Too often and for too long, people with disabilities have been objectified as a source of amusement. Since ancient times, they have frequently appeared in such fields of entertainment as circuses. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, little people were highly coveted as court jesters.
From the time the film industry began, numerous tropes of characters with disabilities have emerged, such as the scam artist faking their disability, the “comic misadventurer” whose impairment causes chaos wherever they go, or the “sweet innocent.”
Despite the presence of these tropes, actual comedians with disabilities face inequities compared to their peers without disabilities. Stigma, marked by stereotypes and misunderstanding about people with disabilities is still deeply engrained in virtually every aspect of society. As a result, comedians with disabilities often find themselves passed over in favor of other comics when they compete for gigs.
These discrepancies are often demonstrated by depictions of disability in comedic media that may or may not be sensitive to the issues people with disabilities face. A good example of this tendency is the Netflix sitcom Arrested Development, which has frequently incorporated the issue as a source of its comedy. From Tobias’ fictional diagnosis of “never-nudism” on the series’ second episode to Charlize Theron’s more recent guest appearance as an intellectually disabled love interest later on, the show’s depiction of disability, while problematic, often can go beyond the usual tropes and present any characters with disabilities in a more unique and three-dimensional light.
Still, the disability community has offered more than its fair share of comedy pertaining to the struggles of its members, such as the web comic series The Disabled Life. Created by Jessica and Lianna Oddi, who both have spinal muscular atrophy, the series depicts the challenges of having mobility-related impairments through a comic lens.
Some comics with disabilities, such as North Bergen, New Jersey’s Chris Crespo, have expressed reservations about using their disability as a source of comedic material. Crespo, who has complicated syndactyly, initially felt uncomfortable about discussing his birth defect, marked by shortened arms, clublike hands, and a few deformed fingers, for comedy when he began studying the art of stand-up at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club. Still, his teachers gave him the confidence to discuss it, and he considers it one of his best sources of material.
Another comedian from the Garden State is the Palestinian-American Maysoon Zayid. Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, delivered the most-watched TED Talk of 2014 and she is now under consideration to star on a sitcom called Can-Can.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Josh Blue also has cerebral palsy. He has appeared on various late night talk shows as well as headlining a number of comedy special, in addition to winning a season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. His style of comedy is very self-deprecating, but he demonstrates a great deal of comfort with himself. As a result, his audiences are unable to feel uncomfortable due to his unique perspective on the topics he jokes about.
Regardless, some comedians with disabilities are weary of too much self-deprecation, seeing it as erasing the social inequalities they face. Instead, they may prefer forms of satire to better joke about their struggles.
Although a great deal of debate exists over how best to include comedians with disabilities in the industry, it is clear that they have a lot of unique and quality material on the subject that can better shed light on disability for their audiences than the traditional stereotypes and tropes.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.