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Opinion: Jokes about disability aren’t taboo. But here’s who shouldn’t be telling them

Opinion by s.e. smith

(CNN) — Last weekend, Shane Gillis took a gamble that didn’t pay off on the stage of “Saturday Night Live,” when he dunked on the LGBTQ and disability communities to a frosty reception — including from one of the members of the SNL band, who seemed visibly unimpressed.

Gillis is not the first or the last performer to turn to “punching down” for comedic effect, as illustrated by Dave Chappelle’s “The Dreamer,” the latest in an apparently endless line of Netflix specials in which he makes much of his own notoriety.

“There’s probably a handicap in the back right now ’cause that’s where they make them sit,” Chappelle said in the comedy special that debuted on New Year’s Eve.

It was a line the audience was apparently supposed to find funny, relying on an outdated and offensive term for disability and a crack about where many people think disabled people belong: Out of sight and out of mind. Yet, outrage about this kind of comedy is stuck in amber, rather than expanding to a bigger conversation about who gets to perform on those stages in the first place.

Debates over supposedly edgy comedy in the current political moment tend to focus on the growing backlash to social progress, as conservatives grow increasingly uncomfortable and infuriated by life in an era when marginalized communities are fighting back and staking a claim to equity.

From the birth of the “politically incorrect” movement in the early 1990s to today, there’s been a long-running tendency to respond to social change with vicious personal attacks, with the goal of cutting people down to size. That’s what’s on display in performances such as those from Gillis and Chappelle.

A better and more interesting conversation about comedy and the disabled is not whether people should be allowed to crack disability jokes (they are) or if disability can even be funny (it absolutely can be).

The real question is who should be telling these jokes and how the lived experience of disability — punching up, rather than down — can make for radical, truly edgy comedy.

While stale performers such as Chappelle are the recipients of endless open doors, numerous disabled comedians are struggling to gain traction in a climate where systemic disablism holds them back, and they lack the star power of established nondisabled comedians. That’s not because they’re not as good, but because fame is contingent on access to social capital, which Chappelle of all people should know after clawing his way up in the ranks as a Black comedian.

Want to crack jokes about Down syndrome? Why not take a look at the Improvaneers or Drag Syndrome, an all-disabled British drag troupe that puts on outstandingly hilarious and provocative performances? Comedians such as these and other performers with Down syndrome force a conversation about the capacity of members of the intellectual disability community that many are not ready to have.

Far from being the butt of the joke, they’re the ones telling it, at times directly pushing back on the lukewarm humor of nondisabled people trying to use disability in their sets — including those like Gillis, who made cutting jokes about his own family members.

For a double threat, consider Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian American comedian with cerebral palsy who has been cracking wise for decades in both stand up and sit down specials exploring her identity as a disabled Muslim woman. Her sets are incisive and extremely funny and she is not coy about calling out disablism and Islamophobia in her work, noting that both of these have consistently held her back far more than her disability itself ever has.

Comedians such as Pat Loller, Harold Foxx, Josh Blue, Steve Lee, Danielle Perez and Nina G integrate their disability into their sets, in true comedic tradition. Telling jokes about yourself, rather than dunking on others, is a true art form, and disability comedy threads that needle in a way that sometimes makes audiences uncomfortable, pushing at their understanding of disability in society and culture. Loller’s work, for example, engages not only with their autism but their experiences as a medic in Afghanistan, including with an IED that caused permanent brain damage.

Yet few disabled comedians or those experiencing disabling life events are getting the kinds of accolades and attention they deserve, even though we know audiences love their work. Bo Burnham’s “Inside” special on Netflix was a striking exception, as the comedian engaged with mental health issues in a very popular if sometimes dark performance, showing that people are hungry for comedy that engages with disability issues as a personal experience, rather than simply something to make fun of.

Performances such as Gillis’ are a disappointment not simply because they are not funny, or because they directly hurt members of the communities being targeted. They’re also an eternal frustration because every single massive deal with an entertainment giant like Netflix or NBC represents a missed opportunity for a disabled comedian, entrenching the inequalities that lead to entrenched prejudice or discrimination against disabled people in our larger society.

Disabled people doing stand-up (and sit-down) may spark discomfort in nondisabled audiences frightened of disability, but it’s the best part of comedy discomfort — the kind that encourages inward reflection and humanization. One reason disability is so terrifying is the unknown factor, since many nondisabled people think they don’t know anyone disabled or that disability itself is a taboo topic, when in fact making disability funny can be accessible and disarming.

Some 20% of the US population is disabled, and disability is one of the few marginalized identities that you can take on at any moment. A world in which openly disabled comedians are flourishing would be one in which stigma might not be as pervasive, and acquiring a disability might be viewed less like a tragedy and more like a fact of life — and one that in truth can be, at times, quite funny.

​​It’s okay to laugh with us when we’re laughing at ourselves. It’s another thing to keep investing in comedy that clearly assumes there are no disabled people in the room, and that our entire community is here as a source of entertainment rather than an equal participant in society.

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