In-Group Laughs, Punching Up, and Disability Humour on TV

When television dares to deal with disability, it often takes on an extremely hesitant, worried approach — disability is there to provide a very special lesson, or to offer inspiration to other characters on the show, not to offer a character a chance to exist and be a part of the drama in her own right. Or it’s played for crass, crude, disgusting humour that punches down at disabled people, creating a reminder of our place in society and the way we’re viewed in social interactions. Either we’re tragic, or we’re worthy of mockery, or we’re inspirational, but we aren’t fully realised human beings with our own lives and experiences.

What happens, though, when that narrative and approach to disability changes? When, for example, disability humour becomes a matter of in-group jokes or punching up? Often, it makes nondisabled viewers uncomfortable, as does other minority humour rooted in the experience of the joker, or, sometimes, even the subject of the joke. When disabled people flip the narratives and take control of their own depictions, this disrupts nondisabled assumptions about disability, the disabled experience, and who should be in charge of telling the story.

On the shortlived Michael J. Fox Show, it was clear that Fox played a key role in writing many of the jokes and realising his own character, not just because he was at the helm, but because of the way the humour manifested. He poked fun at Parkinson’s and his experience of this neurological condition in a way that didn’t punch down, but rather slyly celebrated in-group experience. He dared to admit that while living with Parkinson’s can be frustrating and terrifying, it can also be funny — and that, sometimes, by joking around about it, he can make life more fun for himself while poking fun at the people around him, who are clearly frozen in awkwardness about what to do.

There’s a scene where he tosses a roll at another character and says ‘whoops! Parkinsons!’ that’s a fascinating example of this kind of in-group humour — everyone in the scene, including Fox, knows that he threw the roll deliberately, and he’s poking fun at his victim. At the same time, though, he’s also making a mockery of the idea of ‘playing the disability card’ or using a disability to escape responsibility for an action. There’s a common social belief that disabled people are both dependent on society and unwilling to take charge of their own lives and actions, and this kind of humour challenges that.

Shows, including reality shows, comedies, drama, and many other genres, where disabled people play disabled characters and play a role in their realisation as well, often feature this particular brand of disability humour. Disability as funny for the person experiencing it, disability jokes as a way of navigating life with a disability — ‘I read lips, and I can’t see a word you’re saying.’ It’s a quiet celebration of disability pride and common shared space, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it makes nondisabled people uncomfortable, just as this same humour makes people uneasy in real life.

How can people joke about using wheelchairs, or having mental illnesses, or living with cognitive disabilities, or any number of other things? Nondisabled people find this deeply perplexing because of the way they conceptualise disability — as something tragic, life-ending, and all-consuming. The idea that disabled people might experience their disabilities as only one small part of their overall identity and life experience seems troubling to nondisabled people — and disability humour directly confronts the notion that being disabled means one lives in an eternal state of misery and frustration.

Such humour can also directly punch up, taking on oppressive social structures and challenging them, and this, too, causes unease. Ableism and the institutional structures that create barriers between disabled and nondisabled people are based in part on a sense not just of separation and difference, but also superiority — I can walk and you can’t, my brain works better than yours, I see better than you. When humour punches up and challenges the social power and superiority of those who consider themselves in charge, it shifts the dynamic: When Bonnie turns to Mimi in Jericho and tells her that she can read the difference between ‘bleach’ and ‘bitch’ on her lips, it’s a sharp reminder that Mimi’s perceived sense of power and superiority is an illusion, that Bonnie is a confident, powerful, self-sufficient young woman…who also happens to be Deaf (notably, as always, many Deaf people do not identify as disabled, so I don’t necessarily assign that label to Bonnie, who’s never explicit about whether she claims a disability identity, but the scene is clearly played as though Deafness is a disability).

Scenes like this one are played to be funny, and they are, but they also carry an edge, and it’s hard to miss. This one was a sharp rebuke to people who assume that d/Deaf and hard of hearing people aren’t fully capable of participating in society, and to those who believe it’s acceptable to talk about d/Deaf and hard of hearing people right in front of them, as though they can’t understand what’s happening and won’t assert themselves. It was a scene that reminded the viewer that Bonnie as an individual has the same social, political, and cultural value as Mimi, though one woman is Deaf and the other is hearing.

For nondisabled people who feel challenged and uncomfortable when disabled people joke around about disability and disability issues, for those who get uneasy when a disability joke on television punches up or makes an in-group reference, well, you should feel uncomfortable, because in part, that’s the whole point of the humour. It’s not necessarily to other or make people feel isolated and forced out of the conversation, but it is to confront social attitudes about disability — and sometimes, that means people need to be made uncomfortable.

Image: wheelchair access, LEOL30, Flickr.