I think it was Oscar Wilde who said the 19th century was Balzac’s invention. I could look it up but I won’t. Balzac, part flaneur, part philosopher, always the story teller. Of course Wilde meant something more: in the Human Comedy Louis Lambert becomes unhinged trying to understand modern existence. Who better than Wilde to understand we laugh at our own peril?
I’ll propose that laughing at one’s own peril is laughter itself and if the first rule of comedy is to find amusement in the pain of others it was modernity taught us otherwise. It’s you, stupid, you’re the one. So in the twentieth century Balzac became Beckett: “You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.”
I wrote a terrible limerick last night. It was disgusting. Needless to say it can’t be shared. It didn’t have race or women or disabilities in it; just a man with his nether parts. The point is, when you’re disabled you need humor to get by. Yes Lou Reed was right, you need a bus load of faith; but a snarky joke, even when unshared does wonders.
Mel Brooks said something like “tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die.” That’s how my private cripple comedy works. The shop owner who refuses to admit me and my guide dog falls into a man hole but in my version he doesn’t die—he lives for all eternity with Richard Nixon who wears Bermuda shorts and black phlebitis compression socks and pushes a beach comber’s metal detector muttering, “Jesus, Spiro, I know it’s here somewhere, we’ve got to find it before Ted Kennedy shows up!”
I’m not talking about disability standup or performativity. This is the inner life; the engine room. Disabled we face micro aggressions; macro; put downs; eye rolling; outright contempt from the abled. Or worse, we get their treacle: the “you’re so inspirational” pity party shit. And if that’s not bad enough, we get the disabled themselves who make a big deal out of running the marathon because after all they’re super cripples. The media buys it every time. Meantime the ordinary disabled are unemployed. Behind every story about the long distance runner with his guide dog are 100 blind people without work.
Down in the stifling engine room of self survivorship it’s always like those submarine movies where pipes are bursting because a depth charge has gone off and gritty sailors are smacking everything in sight with wrenches. This is one of the reasons I love submarine flicks: they’re about the inner lives of the disabled. We get it together under pressure. The other reason I love those movies is because the sailors almost always get revenge.
Years ago I worked at a famous guide dog school. I discovered that one of the most influential members of the board of trustees, a blind man, actually hated the blind and he was loud about it. He called them “mooches and leeches” meaning the clients who received guide dogs free of charge (a necessity since 80 per cent of the blind remain unemployed even today) were just “takers” and therefore were unworthy of respect. The man is dead now. He was briefly famous. He became a federal judge. He absolutely hated the disabled. My engine room was flooded every time he opened his mouth. One day I imagined him tied to a stake in the Roman Coliseum, lions circling. This helped some. But when I pictured him as the emperor Augustus things were funnier. Augustus spoke disparagingly to common men who were dressed in cloaks and ruled that only toga clad men could enter the forum. He said, pointing to the elect: “Behold them, conquerors of the world, the toga-clad race of Romans!” So I pictured old “mooches and leeches” in hell sporting a toga, waving a white cane and shouting at winged rats.
The cripple comedy engine room is a tough place. The disabled experience a lot of put downs. When they come from another disabled person—one who’s done well in life—it’s just intolerable. Alas there are bullies everywhere.
I tend to consign people to imaginary hells. It’s the oldest literary trick in the book. Every year I reread a little Dante. You can’t read a lot of Dante because then you’re stuck down there.
When you laugh at oppression you’re no longer the court jester, the funny cripple who pleases the king. You’re tough, shrewd, and you know how to employ your wrench. Another word for this is comfort, as in self acceptance. I’ll close with a quote from comedian Josh Blue who has cerebral palsy: “The thing about my comedy is that I’m so comfortable with my disability that you don’t have a right to be uncomfortable, if I say something that’s hard in my life but put it in a way that maybe you have not thought of, and I’m laughing at it, it gives you the ability to laugh at the same thing within yourself. I feel like every person has a disability in some way. Whether you’re dyslexic or Republican or whatever.”