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‘Difficult People’ has a new take on disability

A wheelchair symbol on an accessible parking space

Photo via D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Expect some solid disability comedy on Amy Poehler’s new Hulu show, ‘Difficult People.’

Hulu has picked up Difficult People, a half-hour comedy initially developed for USA featuring two bitter, jaded comedians who can’t stand anyone around them—except each other. With leads Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner anchoring the show, the comedy promises to be totally amazing, but there’s another star on the show who’s worthy of note: Shannon DeVido, a disabled actress who’s been cracking audiences up and challenging norms about disability on stage, screen, and YouTube, where she maintains the popular “Stare at Shannon” webseries.

What makes this role remarkable, however, is precisely what’s unremarkable about it. The role wasn’t written or designed for a disabled character, and DeVido was cast on her own merits as an actor. In a world where disabled talent is often pigeonholed into a limited number of roles, this marks a significant accomplishment and shift in the way Hollywood thinks about how it wants to address disability.

Which is good news not just for Hollywood, but also for audiences. Fans of Difficult People—and there will be many—are going to be seeing a comedian going about her business and being hilarious. It just so happens that she’ll be using a wheelchair for mobility, but that won’t be the most important part of her character, as she noted in an interview with Bustle when she talked about the role. For audiences uncomfortable with disability and unaccustomed to seeing disabled people on screen, she’ll be an eye-opening exposure to the fact that disability isn’t frightening, nor is it the defining characteristic of people’s personalities.

The show, produced by Amy Poehler and Dave Becky, revolves around a pair of classically struggling comedians on the fringes of New York’s comedy scene, looking for their big break. In the “us against the world” plot, they’re constantly frustrated as their peers work their way up the ranks, they talk trash about their fellow comedians, and they bond over their exclusion from the circles of the famous and fortunate. They’re constantly up to hijinks and general irreverence, which occasionally lands them on the wrong side of social situations—but at least they have each other to gripe with.

It’s one among a growing list of Web-only original series that’s changing the face of film and television in the U.S. With shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, Hulu is wading into the fray in an attempt to compete. Difficult People is one of a number of new productions the website is hoping to use to woo away some market share—and an Amy Poehler-produced half-hour comedy promises to be screamingly funny, so it’s a smart move.

DeVido will appear in an episode as a comedian who rolls on stage and starts telling wacky stories, in a role originally envisioned for a character who wears glasses and has a funky, off-beat storytelling style, with no mention of ability status. Two circumstances conspired to put Shannon in the role: Her agent submitted her even though the role wasn’t specifically written for a disabled character, and the casting director was open to all comedians who fit the part.

Representing disabled talent can be challenging, as agents have to pick and choose carefully when it comes to auditions. Roles specifically written for disabled characters can be a frustrating exercise in stereotypes and brief inspirational moments on screen—but if a role isn’t specifically written for someone with a disability, casting directors may write a disabled actor off as soon as she shows up to audition. As if that isn’t bad enough, not all studios and sets are accessible, so wheelchair users like DeVido sometimes literally can’t get in the door.

That wasn’t the case with Difficult People, where the producers wanted funny people, period. And that’s why they hired DeVido, whose offbeat humor can be seen to great effect in “Stare at Shannon,” where she performs silly improv stunts in public. They’re all designed to be funny on their own, but it helps that she loves poking fun at herself; she’s inviting people to stare at her, and to realize that her sense of humor has nothing to do with her spinal muscular atrophy. Seeing a disabled woman zooming around in a wheelchair cracking jokes might be discomfiting, which is part of the point: While she’s out to entertain audiences, she also wants them to think about how they relate to disability.

And that’s precisely what will happen on Difficult People, when Eichner starts mocking her on stage and the point of the scene isn’t that he’s making fun of a disabled comedian, but that he’s belittling a fellow member of the comedy scene. We’re supposed to view him in a negative light not because he’s insensitive, but because he’s a jerk to everyone across the board, regardless of who they are.

DeVido noted that people often feel uncomfortable around her when she’s filming for “Stare at Shannon.” People have thought she’s soliciting for money, they’ve patted her on the head, and they’ve called her “inspirational” simply for doing what she loves and what she’s good at. Sometimes these interactions are captured on film and reflected back in the face of the viewer, challenging the idea that disabled people are here to inspire the nondisabled community or that they’re doing something courageous by leaving the house, doing improv routines, or heading to a casting call just like any other comedian.

Difficult People will be worth tuning in for because it’s already attracted a huge swath of comedic talent. This is just one of several series on Poehler’s plate, but that won’t make it any less funny. And hey, if one of the comedians on the show happens to be disabled, so much the better—because sometimes disability is funny, and seeing a disabled actor is a reminder of all the great talent we’re missing out on.

Photo via D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

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.