Disability as a Tool for Entertainment: Disability and Stand-Up Comedy

Laughter and humor are almost never attributed to people with disabilities. There is a misguided notion that people with disabilities are unable/refuse to use humor, because of their condition. However, with the outbreak of stand-up comedy, this view has gradually shifted, especially due to a number of disabled stand-up comedians (take Maysoon Zayid, for example), who have reflected on the benefits of humor for the person’s body and mind, and the ways disability can be used as a tool for performance. In particular, through the example of Zayid, an American-Palestinian stand-up comedian, it is clear that she depicts and transforms her physical disability (cerebral palsy), and her ethnic and religious identity into something that should not necessarily be ridiculed, but looked upon as a means to create the sense of community between the viewer and the viewed, for instead of laughing AT her, the audience laughs WITH her. Maysoon Zayid proves that disability does not have to be crippling, as most members of able-bodied community would think. On the contrary, Zayid’s case is a proof that people with disabilities also have all the silly requests and big dreams as non-disabled people, and that they also know how to enjoy life. Stand-up comedy performed by disabled comedians breaks the stereotypes about disabled people as helpless, frustrated, depressed and mad-at-the-world individuals. Guess what: Disabled people know how to laugh, and they are not afraid of humor—they laugh even about their own disabilities! If you would like to find out more about Zayid’s life, here is an article about her published in the RollingStone magazine. I find it particularly interesting that Maysoon Zayid calls herself a disabled chic, which could work as a supplement to a supercrip. In one of the interviews, Zayid herself elaborated upon her look as a “disabled chic” stating: “I’m trying not to be the disabled kid with sweatpants tucked inside her socks!”

Some of the questions that seem to be inevitable when analyzing disability thorugh the lens of humor and stand-up comeday are:

  1. As Simi Linton notes in “Reassigning Meaning”: “The question of who qualifies as disabled is as answerable or as confounding as questions about any identity status. One simple response might be that you are disabled if you say you are… The degree and significance of an individual’s impairment is often less of an issue than the degree to which someone identifies as disabled” (12). This is exactly what Maysoon Zayid does! In each of her acts, she emphasizes the fact that she is disabled (because of her medical condition, and because the doctor who delivered her was supposedly drunk), but she also defines her disability through her ethnic and religious identity. This makes me wonder whether disability is defined through language, rather than biological or social determiners? Does language have enough capacity to assign impairment and/or disability without relying on purely medical and social norms? Would we laugh at these jokes if they were told by an able-bodied person who is not a Muslim or Palestinian? What would happen if Zayid didn’t tell the audience about her disability?
  2. Is it still a disability when we laugh at it? Does stand-up comedy performed by disabled comedians move us closer or farther apart from people with disabilities?
  3. Why are special education settings generally lacking in humor?

How can we study disability from the perspective of performance? Stand-up comedy is one type of performance! 1. Stand-up comedy performed by disabled comedians functions as freak show in a way: the disabled comedian is on display, all attention is directed at them, just like in the theatre, but at the same time, the audience is integrated into the overall experience, laughing about their own prejudices and stereotypes, together with the comedian. In addition, the disabled stand-up comedian can be viewed as “exotic”, i.e. an unknown or mysterious body, or the wonder-crip who invokes “the extraordinariness of the disabled body in order to secure the ordinariness of the viewer” (Garland-Thomson 341).

  1. Stand-up comedy engages the audience in a clinical experience (what Foucault talks about in Seeing and Knowing), by placing them in a mutual sensible experience in which the disability or illness of the viewed object is reduced or erased. Clinical experience is a moment between speech and spectacle.
  2. Stand-up comedy performed by people with disabilities draws a distinction between severe and less severe types of disability, and the classification of disabilities (which is what Susan Wendell speaks of). In one of her performances, Maysoon Zayid recounts her experience with a police officer who pulled her over for speeding, and she pretended that she has Down’s syndrome to receive more empathy and a smaller fine, or no fine at all. How do we distinguish between less severe and more severe forms of disability? Do more severe forms of disability incite more empathy; do they fall more in line with the sentimental and the realistic? How does performance distinguish between more severe and less severe types of disability?
  3. Stand-up comedy subverts the eugenic gaze and the issue of “feeble-mindedness”, by depicting a comedian as a normal-functioning and intellectually competent individual who shares similar life experiences as the majority of people in society. The same happens in the theatre, where a disabled actor functions normally in a rearranged setting.
  4. In most, if not all performances that involve people with disabilities, we have the “hegemonic mode of representation, i.e. a combination of the exotic and wondrous” (McRuer, Crip Eye for the Normate Guy, 192), or as Garland-Thomson states: “something that satiates the humans’ need for ‘extravagant and idisputable otherness of the freak’” (Garland-Thomson 65). Just like in the case of Bob Flanagan, disabled actors or stand-up comedians may be using their disability as a means of surviving by being sick and abnormal, overcoming disability, or simply escaping it.