Can I Laugh at Cripples? - Able-bodied audiences are still afraid to
laugh at people with disabilities. By Robert Butler
In the early 1970's, break-through TV shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY and SANFORD AND SON exposed audiences to previously taboo issues like prejudice, injustice, and racism. At first, audiences were hesitant to laugh. Are bigots funny? Is racism something to make fun of? Of course, the overwhelming response was yes. TV used comedy to shine a light on touchy issues and thereby exposed them for everyone to explore. Before long, such issues were openly discussed, were no longer taboo.
One of the few social taboos left, especially in this time of ass-clenching political correctness, is the subject of people with disabilities. Especially joking about disabilities. The general public usually view people with disabilities as people to be pitied, or people who are inspiring. So, the thought of laughing at someone blind or in a wheelchair is somehow irreverent.
The limits were stretched in the 90's when IN LIVING COLOR presented Handi-man, a disabled super-hero, but for the most part, audiences still fidget in their seats when confronted with disability humor.
Sure, there are a few disabled comics; Kathy Buckley, Jeri Jewell, and others, and when they joke about their disabilities, audiences are more accepting, because they're joking about themselves. Able-bodied people making the same jokes don't, as yet, go over quite as well.
However, that may be changing. Breaking new ground in the disabled comedy arena is a Los Angeles based improv troupe called The Moving Targets. They are the first improv group in history to realize the value of social satire coming from the mouth of someone disabled. Jim Troesh, a quadriplegic since a fall in high school, is a founding member of the troupe, and only member with a disability. (Jim is best known for playing the quadriplegic attorney on the TV series HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN starring the late Michael Landon.)
The hour and twenty minute show contains about 15 bits (sketches, improv games, and song parodies), which lampoon the day's headlines. Jim is generally in 8 to 10 of the bits. "In the first few bits I'm in," said Jim, "we don't refer to my disability at all. I play both disabled and able-bodied characters, based on audience suggestions." He says he can feel the audience's discomfort. "I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show! You expect us to laugh at a quadriplegic?"
"Then, about a third of the way through the show, I go alone on stage and do a 'rant' where I bring up all the old cripple jokes and go to the audience for the punchline. For example, 'There's a guy with no arms and legs out floating in the middle of a lake. What's his name?' I hold until one brave person in the audience yells out, 'Bob!'"
Jim tells more guy-with-no-arms-and-legs jokes and the audiences chime in with the appropriate punch lines; Matt, Russell, Stu!.. "They're right with me," said Jim. "Sometimes, they even get ahead of me." From then on, he says that discomfort feeling goes away. "Often, audience members will come backstage after the show and tell me more cripple jokes. I love it!"
He said that occasionally though, someone from the audience will take one of the able-bodied players aside and say, "Laughing at a guy in a wheelchair? I don't feel comfortable with that." "That's when I know I've gotten through to them," said Jim.
The disability humor doesn't all come from Jim though. Often the laughs come from the nature of Jim's disability. For example, in a take-off on TO TELL THE TRUTH, Jim is one of three men claiming to be the always entertaining Iraqi Information Minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf. After creating unbelievable obvious lies, the real Iraqi Information Minister is asked to stand up. While sitting in his chair, Jim shouts, "I am standing up!"
On a deeper level, it isn't about jokes, making fun of people with disabilities, or cashing in on a unique idea. It's about letting the audience see people with disabilities in a different light- a more "normal" light. In their own way, The Moving Targets are shining a light on disabled people who have too long been banished to the shadows. Just as shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY helped bring taboo issues into the public forum through comedy, The Moving Targets are trying to change perceptions.
"But don't think our show is just about changing perceptions," said Jim. "It's about making people laugh their asses off!"
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