Can you educate with comedy? Jokes from The Comedians With Disabilities Act

May 19, 2015


It’s Thursday night and Nina G is about to get on stage for a comedy set.

“I'm a little too overwhelmed to be anxious,” she tells me before taking the stage.

Normally she performs in clubs and bars, but tonight she’s at SOMArts - a cultural center in San Francisco. The gallery is crowded with people and with art. A sign language interpreter is on stage signing her whole performance. Nina G introduces herself.

“I am America's only female stuttering stand up comedian.”

And then, she gets right into it.

“People come up to me all the time, because I also have dy-dyslexia, that stuttering and dyslexia those aren't real disabilities and I shouldn't be in the Comedians With Disabilities Act. And I explain to them if you look at the definition of what a disability is, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's a physical or mental impairment that substantially results with having to deal with assholes.”

Comedy As Social Commentary

Tonight is the opening of a gallery show that features artists with disabilities and the Comedians With Disabilities Act are the live entertainment. Their name says it all. And Nina G’s first joke about people not thinking she’s disabled enough brings up a common problem for the members of her comedy troupe.

“Michael - who uses a wheelchair - people tell him that he doesn't really need the chair, they tell Steve he's not really a little person, and Eric that he's not really blind. I can only s-speculate but I think part of it might be is that they may see us as peers and if we're peers then how can we have a disability.”

She sees herself as part of a line of comedians who use comedy as social commentary. Think of Chris Rock’s comedy:

“Have you ever been face to face with a police officer and wondered ‘Is he about to kick my ass’ If you follow these easy tips, you’ll be fine.”

Nina G explains her connection to him.

“I’ve learned so much from him about being Black in America. How do you talk about these really difficult things, but in a funny way?”

It’s a balance between being funny, being edgy, and educating people.

“How many disabled people does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

The audience responds: “How many?”

“One to screw it in and 5 able bodied people to say ‘You are such an inspiration!’” Nina G says.

Back at the show, Nina G finishes up and Eric Mee - a comedian who’s blind, begins his set as he takes the stage.

“Alright - hey I found it! That’s my whole set goodnight.”

Wheelchair Comedian

This performance featured most of the comedians in The Comedians With Disabilities Act. The group performs together around Northern California about every two months, the rest of the time, they are solo acts. Michael O’Connell founded the group back in 2010.

“We're kind of like the Avengers in a way. They have their own individual movies, but every few years we get together for the big, world saving stuff.”

O’Connell refers to himself as a wheelchair comedian, as he explains on stage.

“Because frankly I’ve just gotten tired of people snickering when I tell them I’m a ‘stand-up comedian.' Some people out there really like to push wheelchairs. The problem is when complete strangers decide they want to try it out. I want you to think of the handles on the back of a wheelchair as breasts - if you don’t know the person they’re attached to, probably shouldn’t be touching them in the first place.”

He feels his identity and his jokes are wrapped up with one another.

“I will get angry if someone puts me as a comedian - I'm like no, no, no...‘wheelchair comedian.’ That's my thing. I want people to know that. In comedy you can't go up there and not address what is different about you.”

Laughing and Not Laughing

And sometimes the audience reacts to this specific difference by not laughing. O’Connell explains.

“People - you know god bless em - they've been raised to think that laughing at disabled people is not nice. And that kind of screws things for us in the comedy field.”

At this show at SOMArts, people were laughing, but every performance is a bit different. Afterwards Nina G explains that when an audience tries to be politically correct it can be awkward.

“No, you not laughing at us shows that you still have remnants of discrimination and and and bias, because you're not treating us like everybody else. At an open mic once there was a woman who was in the audience and she was covering up her eyes and she wouldn't look at me and so I got the mic and I got right in her face and I did eh-eh-eh and I stuttered and then it broke the ice it was good."

It worked that time. But does their act work other times? Can one night of comedy change a person’s behavior? Michael O’Connell says that after a show in New York someone came up to group member Steve Danner.

“And admitted, 'I used to be scared of little people!' You would think that's offensive, no not for us. Steve was like, ‘how do you feel now?’ and she's like, ‘great!’ and gave a big hug and everything.”

That’s what O’Connell and the rest of the group hopes to see.

“That's what we do as human beings, that which we don't know is what we fear. And that's what's so beautiful about this show that we do is that a lot of people have never met someone in a wheelchair, or a blind person, or someone who stutters, it's fearful it's unusual. And once we finish our show they feel like they actually do know somebody who's blind or in a wheelchair.”

A few jokes can be a good way to talk about things that maybe aren’t getting enough attention, while having a fun evening at same time.

Learn more about the Comedians With Disabilities Act here.