Ben Mattlin, our guest blogger, has given us a sneak preview of his new book. It’s a section about comic relief, and how people with disabilities have found ways to create and use humor — just like everybody else. The book is scheduled to be released in 2022, and is an investigation of what the disability community has been up to since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) nearly 30 years ago.
A funny thing is happening around the country. As more people get Covid vaccines, they start getting ideas. Some plan trips or parties. Others look forward to going out to restaurants and theaters. I have another suggestion: Consider a comedy club. Especially one of the few that hosts comedians with disabilities.
For the book I’m working on, I’ve been researching this merry band of disabled jokesters, and here are a few of my discoveries. (Note: They all have clips on YouTube if you don’t feel like venturing out.)
If you’re on the West Coast, check out Danielle Perez. She’s a Los Angeles native who identifies as a Latina of color; nearly 20 years ago, she had both legs amputated below the knee after being run over by a streetcar. She uses a wheelchair, and frequently
draws on her personal experiences for raw material. “My jokes are about me and my body and my life and what I’m going through, and it’s all from my perspective,” she told the Disability Visibility Project. Everyone has emotional baggage, which gives her routines a kind of relatability. “It’s more than just telling jokes, you know? You’re actually touching people.”
She’s experienced a lot of discrimination, and she isn’t afraid to talk about it. For her, brutal honesty—and laughing about it—is a kind of power. “When was the last time you saw a woman that looked like me have the floor and be able to say whatever she wants and own a room and make people laugh?” she explained.
If you’re in the Denver area, look up Josh Blue, a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy (CP) and a brash attitude who burst on the scene back in August 2006, when he won NBC’s Last Comic Standing. He specializes in what one of his friends termed “reverse teasing,” he told me—a subtle technique for steering people to recognize their own shortsightedness and prejudices. For instance, he addressed one crowd by saying, “People ask me if I get nervous before coming up on stage. I say, ‘Heck no. I get this many people staring at me all day!'” The audience roared with laughter, and after a while he said, “I’d like to inform you that you’re all going to hell for laughing at me.”
Blue is exuberantly disabled. He told me that spending time as a kid in West Africa, where his father taught American literature, gave him a certain perspective. “Who gives a shit about cerebral palsy when other people are so much less fortunate?” he said. “They have use of their bodies, but they don’t have clean water!”
Will Marfori, Charles Walden, and Christopher Crespo
Another approach comes from Will Marfori, an Orlando, Florida-based stand-up comedian with CP, too, who has been on TV’s Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson and on Sirius/XM Satellite radio. He jests just as much about his Irish-Filipino heritage as about his CP, which isn’t all that visible. But his hands appear somewhat twisted and clumsy, which leads him to quip that cerebral palsy means “I really suck at building model airplanes.” But it’s not so bad, he adds; friends never ask him to help them move.
Long-time Philadelphia-based comic Charles Walden has an impressive résumé to go with his cheeky attitude. It includes appearances on BET’s Comic View, Apollo Comedy Hour, Russell Simmon’s Def Comedy Jam All-Stars, and Martin Lawrence’s First Amendment, as well as in the 2017 movie Holy Hustle (as “Man with Tumor”). He’s another guy with CP, but his subjects are far-reaching, touching on race and movies and current events. “I don’t drink,” he told one crowd, “because I’m afraid if I started drinking I might start walking straight. And I know if I start walking straight, I’ll lose my benefits.”
The North Bergen, NJ-based stand-up comic Christopher Crespo takes a slightly different tack. Born with complicated syndactyly—his arms end at about his elbows and his fingers are somewhat fused together—he wasn’t always sure about using his disability in his act. He wanted to prove he had merit for his wit and timing, not garner attention out of pity. “I always feared that I’d be booked on a show to fulfill some diversity bull,” he told a reporter.
A teacher at a comedy class told him he’d better address his disability because it was noticeable and people would wonder about it. He later realized that his disability was an endless source of comedic invention.
In one routine, he starts by removing the microphone from its stand—squeezing it between a partial hand and elbow—and then, with his other deformed arm, slowly picking up the mic stand and placing it behind him. This takes a while, typically to dead silence. Once done, he says, “Don’t worry, I’m just like you guys. … I put my pants on one hour at a time.”
Finally, a frequent guest star in the New York area is Maysoon Zayid, the Palestinian-American actor, writer, and comedian. In her top-rated 2014 TED Talk, she explains her CP this way: “I shake all the time. Look, it’s exhausting. I’m like Shakira! … It’s not a birth defect. You can’t catch it. No one put a curse on my mother’s uterus, and I didn’t get it because my parents are first cousins, which they are.”
In a way, Zayid is as dynamic as Shakira. Her delivery is rapid-fire and no-holds-barred. In 2003, she co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. In 2008, she appeared in the Adam Sandler comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. More recently she’s been on the ABC soap opera General Hospital. Yet despite her success, she told me that the entertainment business is maddeningly discriminatory. “Comedy clubs remain inaccessible, which means breaking in is a huge challenge,” she said. (She doesn’t usually use a wheelchair, though she does in airports and other large venues.) “Intersectionality also plays a huge role. It is easier to get stage time if you are a man than a woman and if you are White rather than a minority.”
She firmly believes in being loud and proud about being disabled. Even if it sometimes means being serious.
Ben Mattlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, author and frequent blogger for FacingDisability.com. He was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a congenital muscle weakness that causes paralysis and related health issues.
Ben is the author of MIRACLE BOY GROWS UP: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity, and IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance . He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times and Financial Advisor magazine. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and has been broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition.