Comedy and Disability: A Proverbial Tightrope

I came across and article today, regarding an unfavorable response Steve Harvey received from a fan and a mother of an autistic child, regarding a comedy routine he had on his morning radio show. Just as a caveat, I am wont to make fun of my own disability sometimes, not for the sake of being self-depreciating, but to rather use humor to accept an otherwise unfavorable situation. And I routinely joke about my disability around friends to show them how comfortable I am with my disability. It adds a bit of levity to the situation, for me at least, and it makes me comfortable as well as those I daily interact with. For I’ve noticed in some of my interactions with people, especially when questions are asked regarding my disability, is their tendency to preface their questions “I don’t mean to be insensitive, but…” I usually reassure them that their question is not out of line and answer their questions quite enthusiastically. By being humorous about my disease, I am actually offering an invitation for folks to accept me as I am. It is my way of saying, yes, I am disabled, but I refuse to let it trouble me.

 

As young men—disabled and able-bodied—we want to exhibit a certain sense of toughness within our male peer groups. And for me, I find it easy to gain acceptance within these male peer groups by exhibiting toughness in an unorthodox way. Using humor to make fun of my disability is my unique method of showing people that I have tough skin. I can roll with the proverbial punches of being a young man. I can talk trash with the best of them and take it from the best of them. For me, that represents of sense of victory. In being able to openly make fun of myself while making fun of my peers and friends I have essentially become one of the guys. I have been accepted by demonstrating a remarkable sense of optimism regarding a damaging physical disease.

 

Now with regards to the situation at hand, I am sort of at an impasse. On one end of the spectrum, I am a fan of Steve Harvey and have been for quite sometime. This mainly stems from my admiration of Steve as a successful Black comedian and entrepreneur and someone who essentially had to work for everything he has. His story is clearly an inspiring pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps type of situation. I enjoy his comedy and respect him, as a young Black male who sees Steve as a positive role model. But as someone living with a disability, I can at least understand a sense of outrage, especially from parents of children with both physical and developmental disabilities regarding the comedy routines.

 

That being said, do I think an apology is in order? Certainly. I think Steve at least attempted to make amends for comments he made that offended someone. As to whether the apology is genuine, that is a topic one could debate for hours. But I am the kind of person who is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Should Steve have made himself more aware of how his comedy might have offended some people? Absolutely. However, I do think that people say things that are offensive, in some instances, not because they have no sense of decency, but rather because they were ignorant to the pain we were causing. As someone with a physical disability, I have learned that I have to speak up if I want someone to recognize that I need help or if I am comfortable. We cannot expect people to read our minds and must likewise recognize that help will only come to us only if we ask. The same can be said regarding commentary we might deem insensitive. I am a firm believer that such situations can easily be resolved if a dialogue is initiated. In other words, if you do not voice your outrage, do not expect people to understand where you are coming from. With that in mind I commend the mother who addressed her grievances to Steven Harvey. She at least started a dialogue. As such, I really do believe Steve took her comments to heart and that his apology was in fact genuine. And to add to that, he probably learned a valuable lesson regarding his comedy.

 

Comedy is an interesting sort of creature, in the sense that the basic intent of most comedy routines is to make fun of something or someone. That basic premise must be acknowledged. And often times, the best comedians are able to take some very unfortunate situations and turn the tables by making fun of them. Now perhaps there might be a divide that exists in the disabled community. The experience of developmentally disabled people is vastly different from those of us who are just physically disabled. While those of us belonging to the physically disabled crowd might endure an unfortunate situation, we at least have control over our mental faculties.

 

However, those with developmental disabilities are often unable to speak for themselves. It feels especially troubling when they are being made fun of. I was made fun of for my disability by others and it hurt. Yet, I cannot fathom how difficult it is for the parents of disabled children, especially those who are developmentally disabled, not merely due to the insensitivity of such comments, but also because the parents are the only ones who can speak for the child. That being said, I recognize that comedy can be a raunchy area. Even so, I think comedians have a responsibility to recognize that some things do not belong in the area of comedy and one of those is the subject of developmental disability. And while I personally do not mind jokes about using wheelchairs and such, I feel that jokes about physically disabled folks should be made to make people feel inclusive as opposed to being ostracized. To put it simply, it’s the age-old differentiation between “laughing at you” and “laughing with you”.

 

Take Richard Pryor for instance, a man who had a prostitute for a mother and a pimp for a father. He was a man who grew up and in crime ridden and drug infested neighborhood of Peoria, Illinois. Pryor experienced a number of horrific situations, situations that would probably break people of a weaker heart. And for all his character flaws, he made light of his situation by using comedy. Comedy was his means of escape. However it was also his means of coming to terms with his life. His comedy was in fact an act of defiance, an announcement that his situation was not going to define him as a man. He was a man who was unafraid to make fun of his self because he recognized what he had accomplished. Pryor was a survivor, a man who survived a situation that many of his peers did not.

 

I see parts of my life similarly. Even though my socio-economic circumstances and daily walk is quite different from that experienced by Richard Pryor, I can at least identify with the premise of using humor to give a proverbial one-finger-salute to the unfavorable moments in my life. I am shouting at the top of my lungs that Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy has not beaten me and that regardless of how miserable it makes me feel, I’m still alive and kicking. By making fun of myself, I have not only accepted my unique situation in life, but have also defeated the demons and baggage that goes along with living with a disability. Instead of moping around all day, crying out woe is me, I laugh in the face of it all, defiantly chuckling that the enemy has not won the day.

 

In closing, I was flipping through the channels the other day when I suddenly came across a program about Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans talking about comedy. However, what immediately struck me about these warriors was the fact that they had suffered grievous wounds. Severed limbs, PTSD, burned faces, and all sorts of terrible injuries. Yet, what I found even more remarkable was the fact that these bravest of Americans were smiling and even managing to laugh. I was floored when I learned that these veterans were budding comedians, using humor to make fun of their situations. How inspiring, I thought, to see men who have been through so much, speak with such levity. For me, that was the ultimate gesture of defiance. If these men can make light of their situations, then I have absolutely no excuse to spend my days wallowing in sorrow. Life is too precious. Don’t waste it on self-imposed misery.

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