Forest Thomer just won a $25,000 free speech suit with the city of Cincinnati for a case in which he was cited with disorderly conduct for inviting people in a public park to “laugh at the crippled girl.” If you’re cringing at the thought of a comedian being so crude, relax: It was part of a promotion for colleague Ally Bruener’s show. If unwary members of the public said “yes,” Ally wheeled over to tell them a joke and promote her next performance.
The fact that the stunt pushed so many peoples’ buttons a testimony to our social discomfort with dark, morbid, ingroup humor. Bruener, like an ever-growing community of disabled comedians, is extremely funny, and she’s also bold about talking about disability. She’s reclaiming “crippled” for herself and pushing back at people who feel uncomfortable around the subject. Her comedy explores the interactions between disabled and nondisabled people and breaks disability issues down in an environment where people feel comfortable because they’re laughing.
Writing about the incident, Bruener asked: “Is society really that frightened of my self-respect that they must dictate how I express it? Would it be better if I paraded around spouting the warm and fuzzy euphemistic terms that make it easier for everyone else to feel like they’re being accepting?”
Unfortunately, the answer to both these questions is usually “yes,” but if you start paying attention to disabled comedians, you might begin to think differently. Luckily, on YouTube, they’re only a click away.
1) They’re funny
It’s kind of written on the box, but, seriously, they’re funny. Their routines run the gamut from sharp skewerings of current events to commentaries on the horrors of dating to, yes, confrontational and envelope-pushing disability humor. If they aren’t making you laugh, they’re doing something wrong, just like every other pro in the comedy business.
Take I’m Spazticus on the BBC, a 30-minute sketch show in which disabled people prank the public—you can watch the first few minutes to get an idea of their deliciously droll British humor, but be warned, you may be sucked in:
Or Josh Blue, bringing down the house at Living Well With a Disability with a wide-ranging and rapid-fire comedy routine—that includes making fun of the sign language interpreter, closed captioning, and the fact that disabled comedy is “like having really well-timed Tourette’s.”
At 14, Jack Carroll hit the stage of Britain’s Got Talent with his walker and a string of cerebral palsy jokes. He was a bit nervous, accustomed to audiences who are uncomfortable around disability, or planning to laugh at him, rather than with him. Instead, his dry, wry humor brought down the house, after the audience got over its momentary shock at seeing a disabled 14-year-old cruise on stage like he owned it.
Some disabled people have a dark, occasionally morbid streak, especially when it comes to discrimination and social attitudes, like other social groups who face oppression and discrimination. These comedians choose to express their feelings in their work, but many disability advocacy groups use dark humor in their campaigns to great effect; a few laughs for disabled and nondisabled alike, but also a campaign that goes viral because it’s funny, and forces the viewer to think about the world she lives in.
Here’s a hilarious PSA from the Norwegian Association of the Blind about service dogs. “It Could Have Been Worse” imagines a world in which, well, service animals animals could be a lot worse.
Meanwhile, “Talk” puts nondisabled viewers into a world where they’re the pitied minority, discriminated against and treated as a marginal community. The result is strikingly funny, but it comes with a bitter edge, as this is what the world is like for many disabled people, from job discrimination to being patronized while riding elevators.
Another video points out the everyday frustrations of living in an inaccessible world.
3) They’ll make you uncomfortable, but in a good way
Shannon DeVido of “Stare at Shannon” is one of many disabled comedians who’s on a mission to make nondisabled people feel very, very uncomfortable. And that’s the point. She takes a film crew out into the wild to record herself doing ridiculous and entertaining things, discomfiting people in the real world and garnering a lot of laughs online with humor that punches up—at discriminatory attitudes—rather than down; the goal isn’t to mock disabled people.
Nina G, meanwhile, is “America’s only stuttering female comedian.” She hits to stage to expose the full flower of disability culture and make fun of herself, getting a lot of uncomfortable laughs from nondisabled audiences who aren’t used to being invited to laugh at someone who stutters.
Her routines are a sharp mixture of lulling audiences into a false sense of security with humor, and then dumping a bucket of ice water on them with disability commentary.
4) It’s not just about disability
Disabled comedian Maysoon Zayid may joke about her disability, but she’s also a Palestinian Muslim from New Jersey—and that’s a huge part of her comedy routine. She mocks Muslim stereotypes, targets social attitudes about Middle Eastern women, and leaves audiences snorting.
Here she is talking about being a virgin by choice—“and by that, I mean my father’s choice.”
The late great Stella J. Young was a screamingly funny Australian comedian and advocate for disability rights. In a famous TED talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” she mocked the common social attitude that disabled people are “inspiring” for doing perfectly ordinary things.
Young was an extraordinary comedian—but it wasn’t because she happened to use a wheelchair for mobility.
5) If they’re this good on YouTube, imagine them live
Disabled comedians have tons of charisma and fantastic delivery that makes the room turn electric, a required trait of good comedians—if you love stand-up, you’ll probably enjoy sit-down, too.
Unfortunately, many bars, comedy clubs, and other venues in the U.S. are inaccessible, with issues like “just one step” doorways and toilets that don’t accommodate wheelchairs—so you’d better hope you live in a city where disabled comedians can actually get on stage.
The best comedy routines generate months of inside jokes, snorted recollections at the dinner table, and frequent consultations of the comedian’s website to see when she’ll be back in town. Disabled comedy is the same, but it comes with a twist, as it also provides an opportunity to talk about disability in a less threatening way; a joke is often better than a lecture. Seeing disabled people play with their identities and invite audiences to do the same can be discomfiting, but it also incites interest in the subject.Satire, and comedy in general, can be highly effective tools for increasing engagement.
The Pew Charitable Trusts noted this in 2008, after they reviewed programming on The Daily Show for the entirety of 2007. Researchers looked at the journalistic aspects of the show and found that while it was satirical, something interesting was happening: Viewers were getting more engaged with politics as a result of watching it. The show plays for laughs, but it also plays for something else. An additional study at Indiana University looked at the effects of the show on political engagement and found similar results.
Disabled comedians don’t set out to provide special learning experiences or instructive lessons to their audiences, but their charged, pointed commentary forces people to think about the role of disability in their lives.
7) You’ll be able to say “I knew them when”
The Internet era is a great time for comedy, with a low barrier for entry thanks to the fact that anyone with a camera and the time to learn how to use it can get a YouTube channel started. Disabled comedians are everywhere on the site, if you take the time to search for them—and it’s worth the effort, because their profile is rising thanks to changing social attitudes about disability. Get in on the ground floor (and the YouTube comments) so you can be smug when your friends gush over a comedian they just “discovered.”
Disabled comedians provide a time and a place to laugh at disability—because sometimes, disability is actually pretty funny.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.