The Real Reason Women Aren’t Funny

The question of whether or not women are funny has plagued the comedy community for as long as there have been female comedians.  In recent years Jerry Lewis, Adam Carolla, and David Letterman’s stand up comedian booker, Eddie Brill, have all commented that women aren’t funny.  The most recent spokesman for comedic sexism came from Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson who implied it is difficult to find a funny Black woman.  As a female comedian these arguments naturally feel invalidating to the difficult chore of comedy. I have often wondered what is behind such comments.  Just blaming it on good old fashion misogyny or men who have mommy issues isn’t satisfactory.  There must be a deeper meaning to why it is perceived that women aren’t funny and why some men feel that it is ok to express this perspective.

I propose that the comment “women aren’t funny” is really a euphemism for “women aren’t smart.”  There are few contexts in today’s world where it is acceptable for anyone to make the over generalization that a particular group is not smart, but criticisms of a group’s sense of humor seems to be more acceptable.  What is the basic, core element to being funny—intelligence.  If women, on the whole, are not funny then it must reflect that we don’t have the core characteristic to make us funny.

All comedians must possess some level of intelligence in order to convey the irony and absurdity of the situations from which humor stems or to make digestible the discrimination one feels (a la Wanda Sykes).  Even female comedians whose shtick is one of being less intelligent or incompetent like Gracie Allen or Lucille Ball,  show a cloak of intelligence is needed to pull off her comedic perspective.  Perhaps our society is better able to digest comedy from a woman if she is “raunchy,” “dumb,” or “childlike.”  Even going back to the Vaudeville days, Fannie Brice played Baby Snooks, an infantilized adult child.  Marilyn Monroe who was considered intelligent in her personal life played the “dumb blonde” in her comedic portrayals.  It is acceptable to say that women aren’t funny instead of women are not smart enough to contribute to the social fabric of American entertainment as comedians.

There seems to be a lack of female comedians who are political.  It seems as if this is a frontier that many women have not flourished in.  Sure, we have Whoopi Goldberg, Janeane Garofalo and Wanda Sykes but few have been marketed as “political comedians” in the same way Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert have (where are their solo-led news shows?).  I was talking to a friend about the lack of female political comedians.  He reflected back, “women just got the ability to vote and now you think they will be allowed into the comedic political realm?”  He’s right!  The job of politicians is to maintain the socio-political status quo while making incremental changes, which is why political change seems to happen at such a snail’s pace.  The job of a good comedian as I see it, is to challenge the status quo and hold a mirror up for society.  It is difficult for women, as well as other disempowered groups, to enter the realm of a political comedian because these positions of calling out the status quo are not traditionally etched out for us.

 

In our politically correct world we are often restricted from saying what we want to say in a direct way.  Perhaps for a mysoginistic culture, we know that saying “women aren’t smart and should remain in a powerless role” is unacceptable, but to say that they are “not funny” is allowed.  I don’t think that people who say this necessarily hate women but instead have been socialized to perceive women as less intelligent and/or are intimidated by women who are funny, smart, powerful, etc..  It is the same place I have been socialized so I know it well.  It is the same message that middle school girls get when they go from straight As to Bs and Cs because it is not considered cool or attractive to be smart.  Women and girls are funny, thus, women and girls are smart, and sometimes even create societal change from their art form.

 

About the author: Nina G is America’s only female stuttering stand up comedian (or at least until she finds another). She is also a disability activist, storyteller, children’s book author and educator.  Her book, Once Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities, helps children to better understand their disability and how to advocate for access.  She brings her humor to help people confront and understand social justice issues such as disability and equity.

 Picture of Janeane Garofalo, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.

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Becoming Disabled

Most children with a disability are not raised by parents or extended family who have a disability.  It can be really hard to learn how to be Disabled.  When I use the word Disabled here, I mean it in a cultural sense.  Yuh, Disability is a culture!  No matter what your disability, there is a way of being and identity that transcends what a disability is.  That is not to say that someone who uses a wheelchair has the same experience in the world as someone like me who appears to be abled bodied and benefits from able bodied privilege, but there are still some themes, values and ways of being that tie people with disabilities.

If Disability is a culture then it must be transmitted somehow, right?  For most ethnic groups it is transmitted through family, community, music, stories, spirituality, etc…  When you are born to a family that does not hold the same culture as you, you have to find it elsewhere.  The Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered (GLBT) community is a good example of this.  If you are part of the community you usually learn about your community by finding it.  For people with Disabilities (I am going to capitalize in some spots and not in others), there is no neighborhood.  Last I checked we didn’t have a Lady Gaga or Tupac who reflected our experiences in their popular music (because God forbid they finance that album).  Sometimes I even wonder about the general cohesion of our community!  I have seen my wheelchair using friends get dissed or dis other wheelchair users on the street!  WTF!  These ramps aren’t big enough for the two of you?!  (well, ya.  They actually might not be)

Then to add on top of all of that, we have the disability hierarchy.  I know other communities and cultures also have their hierarchies as well and that this is not just a disability thing.  As a person with a Learning Disability, I have not always felt fully welcomed by hardcore intellectual Crips who become frustrated with my dysnomia and even mock it.  So, yes!  We have a long way to go in creating a Disability culture where everyone in disability community feels they are a member.

 

Unlike the common experience of a person with a disability, I learned how to be disabled and integrate that identity from my family.  I was born to parents who both brought Disability experiences into the equation.  This is my story of how I became Disabled.

 

My mom’s mother had polio as a child and lived with the after effects of it throughout her entire adult life.  Ma, as we called my grandmother, had “polio in her back” as it was explained to me.  She used a body caste periodically throughout her life.  She would tell me stories about how the boys in high school would knock on her brace and say “anyone home?” and how awful this was for her.  My grandmother, also experienced chronic pain because of her “bad back.”  To go along with all of this was my grandmother’s extreme anxiety and what I assume was obsessive-compulsive disorder which manifested in checking oven knobs and doors nightly and taking 15 minutes to bless herself after saying the rosary (making it a ritual to the second power).

 

Granted, my grandmother had a lot she had to deal with, but she could be such a pain in the ass.  I think from a very early age my grandmother learned the secondary gains of having a disability (the polio, of course!  The anxiety disorders were totally not something that she talked about or had a name for).    My grandmother was born to an Italian American family of four children.  My oldest great aunt, Teresa, was really Ma’s half sister.  Her father died when Teresa was practically a baby.  My great grandmother quickly married and had three additional children.  Next came my grandmother, her brother and then a younger sister.  I am sure that my Aunt Teresa had relatives who overcompensated for the death of her father.  I am sure that my youngest great aunt Angie received the attention that a baby often gets in the family.  And then there was the boy!  In many Italian families there is a special place for the boy.  In fact, I have heard little girls be called “popalinas” and little boys referred to as “pishalingdos” (keep in mind my family immigrated at a time when Italy was still very divided linguistically and regionally and I am sure that these terms reflect the very worst in Garibaldi’s proper Italian-ontop of my dyslexic phonetic translation).  Translated, popalina, according to my Auntie Norma, means“she with the underdeveloped breasts.”  Pishalingdo , according to my Auntie Sunie is translated to “golden penis.”  Girls, in case you don’t know where you stand, this might give you a good indication!  My grandmother, with the underdeveloped breasts and being a middle child, had to stand out somehow.  I believe that she did this by calling attention to her disability.

 

Throughout my life and the even my mother’s, you could not ask Ma how she was, without her running through a list of ailments.  Some related to post-polio back issues and later in life her hearing loss, heart problems  and the list goes on.  If you said you had butt issues she would tell you that “it feels like a red hot syringe is going into her colon” (a direct quote)  Charming for lunch time conversation with the waitress at the Coffee Shop!  The attention that my grandmother received was not the only secondary gain.  Even better in her eyes were the prescription pills that she popped like tic tacs.  During middle childhood, I once counted and I am pretty sure that my grandmother popped eight Valium or Percodan in one day.  She went from somewhat coherent to mush mouthed within the half hour of People’s Court that she forced me and my brother to watch on our visits.

 

The image of disability I learned from my grandmother was negative.  People use disability to get stuff and if I wore my disability on my sleeve as she did, then I risk a rabbit hole of Disability narcissism.  Did I need this accommodation because I really needed it?  Or am I asking for it for some secondary gain?  Society already makes it difficult to ask for what you need, then you add a malingering grandmother to the equation, it can mess you up a little bit.

Luckily, my father was a very different image of disability.  On my dad’s side of the family, I can say that I am four generations Disabled.  My dad is hard of hearing most likely due to something called Alport Syndrome.  My grandfather and his mother were also hard of hearing.  Perhaps it goes back even further, but I can confidently say that on my dad’s dad’s side, we have been Disabled for as long as we have been Americans (4 generations off the boat from Italy).  In school my dad would sit in the back of class with a box that amplified what the teacher was saying.  Good idea 1950s public schools!  Put the kid with the hearing disability in the back of the class where he can’t lip or speech read—that’s effective teaching!  Doctors at the time thought that radiating kids would be a good idea, so he received a series of radiation treatments to help cure his hearing.  Did it work?  Ask him when he has his hearing aids off and you will get the answer.  Who knows what impact that had on the kids with disabilities that they did that too! When my dad went to see his high school counselor, she directed him to a vocational track instead of a college one, a common experience of many kids with disabilities.  My father was also driven to Walnut Creek from Alameda by my grandfather who felt that he could get the best assistance from a clinic out there (approximately 45 minute drive).  This was the same drive that my dad would take me on to see my favorite speech therapist Elaine when I was in middle school. For good and for bad, my father’s own experience of disability impacted on his parenting and transmitted to me.

 

My father’s family laid a foundation for parenting a child with a disability.  My mother married and accepted someone with a disability.  So when I didn’t talk like most kids at age two and a half, my parents knew to get me help for my articulation issues-especially after I refused to speak after I caught on that my mom was fake understanding me when I talked.  These speech difficulties were early signs of my language based Learning Disability (also known as a Central Auditory Processing Disorder).

 

One story about my father stands out the most.  It was when he was coaching my girl’s softball team in the sixth grade.  My dad was giving the girls a “coach’s speech” on the first day of practice.  He was loudly lecturing to the girls about the expectations of being on the team.  For some reason, my dad was shouting like we were the Duke Basketball team and he was Coach K.  He told us, “I AM DEAF! SO YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO SPEAK UP AND LOOK AT ME WHEN YOU TALK TO ME.”  I remember being mortified by the statement.  Why would you openly talk about your disability like that?!  I looked around to see who was laughing at him and the girls on the team didn’t seem to care (assuming they were listening to him).

What I learned that day was about self-disclosure, also known as advertising (as they call it in the stuttering world).  My dad told the girls that he had a disability and how to react to him.  How fucking simple is that!  Now whenever I do public speaking or go on job interviews I do the same thing, I just don’t yell it.  I will say something like, “I stutter so you will just have to wait with patient anticipation for all my good ideas.”  I learned this directly from my father.

I suppose I learned from my father how to be the Disabled person I want to be and from my grandmother I learned the Disabled person that I don’t want to be.  It is a line that we walk sometimes of calling attention to ourselves from a narcissistic place to calling attention to ourselves because we need an accommodation or help.  I was fortunate to be brought up in a family where these issues were at the family table with my self-centered grandmother droning on and on about her many illness (real and feigned) and my father who had the ability to turn off his hearing aid and tune it all out.  I was able to take different aspects of their experiences and make it my own.

Picture: My father in the background coaching my grammar school CYO team.  Note my horrible basketball stance.

Picture: My grandmother holding my brother with neck brace on. Oh, how she loved medical apparatuses!  I sometimes wonder if she had a medicalized fetish.

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My First Accommodation

I often say that third grade was the worst year of my life.  I basically left it with incredibly low self-esteem and even suicidal thoughts.  Can you imagine a little miniature version of myself at nine having suicidal thoughts?!  Most of the credit for all of this goes to my third grade teacher Ms. D. (I would love to use her real name but you know—it feels weird and maybe she has redeemed herself in the years that have passed).  Ms. D. did only one good thing that year.  She took at workshop on Learning Disabilities at Raskob Learning Institution.  Raskob was a school (full time and offered educational therapy) for children with Learning and Attentional Disabilities.  Super awesome place in the Oakland hills.  If you meet anyone my age or old in the Bay Area who were diagnosed with LD in childhood—the magic happened there.  After the workshop Ms. D. talked to my parents about the possibility of me having a Learning Disability.  I was tested and to Ms D.’s disappointment I stayed at the school and she had to accommodate me.  You see I went to a Catholic school in the 1980s.  Throughout my 7 and a half years in Catholic school, my parents were told, “we just can’t serve children who need extra help.”  Because that is frickin’ Christ like!  Now when I train Catholic school teachers, on the topic of accommodating children, I tell them “WWJD: what could Jesus do—and I am pretty sure he would accommodate!”

Getting diagnosed with my language based Learning Disability in the third grade makes perfect sense and is common to many people’s experience, especially those raised in the 1980’s.  Third grade is the year where academics is refocused.  In first and second grade children are learning how to read and the academic curriculum is less dependent on children reading independent and learning from what they read.  These are also the years when read is not automatic.  For everyone it is more work because the neurons that will eventually do this function don’t have the grease that they will eventually get.  Around third grade most children start to read automatically.  The changes for these behaviors is reflected in the brain.  The steps that the brain takes to read are minimized because it is not an automatic experience.  According to researchers like Sally Shaywitz, this process is not the same for children and adults with dyslexia.  Because there is a brain impairment in the area of the brain where we understand the words that are perceived our brain reads in more laborious ways.  It actually takes more brain power for us to read.  This does not change for us dyslexics as we get older.

In third grade the demands on me were more significant.  I remember, the first night of third grade we had three hours of homework!  That was absurd!  It was complete drill and kill kind of work, dittos (OMG! dittos smelled so good!), practicing the same thing over and over, etc…   I remember a group of parents talking about the amount of homework.  One of my friend’s Nancyjane’s dad spoke to Ms. D. about the amount of work.  Ms. D. told him that “I want the children in my class to be ready for the Alamo.”  He replied, “I just want them to be ready for fourth grade.”  I didn’t know what the Alamo was, but it sounded pretty shitty.  Even now all I really know about the Alamo is that it doesn’t have a basement, but what I learned from Pee Wee Herman has no relevance to this story.

After I was assessed at Raskob my parents met with Ms. D..  They shared the report with her and the accommodations and other recommendations from the assessment.  This would be the first of dozens of meetings my parents would have with teachers about the special needs I required and about my problems learning.

Initially, Ms. D. agreed to give me accommodations.  I remember my first accommodation like it was yesterday.  It was on a Geography test.  We had to identify where different things were on a blank map of California.  Previously, I would know the answers but would be marked down (to like a D or F) because I did not spell the different elements of the map correctly (like not even close).

At the beginning of the test Ms. D. called me up to her desk.  She had a blank map and asked me to point out the different places we had learned about.  I indicated where Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other state landmarks were.  She wrote them down as if I was giving dictation.  I was not graded on spelling since this was geography and spelling.  I completed the test.  I was actually the first one done.  This was the first time that this ever happened.  I ended up getting an A on that test and it was one of the highest grades in the class.  I vaguely remember other kids, upon seeing the maps hanging up on the bulletin board, coming up to me saying “wow, you got the highest grade.”  I thought to myself, “Dang!  This accommodation thing might just work!”  There was a glimmer of an intelligent person in my mind.  I knew that I could be successful but needed to go about it in a different way.  If this is any indication of what I could do, then I might be successful.

Then the bottom dropped from under me.  I am not sure why, but Ms. D. stopped the accommodations.  It felt like having a buffet, like a good one from a high class hotel on the Las Vegas Strip and then being fed saltines and vegetable broth (which I had the other day as a soup and it was horrible!).  I am not sure why she stopped giving me the accommodations.  Was it because it was too much work for her?  I don’t think so because it didn’t take her anytime at all.  Was it because she resented having me in the class because I challenged to her work harder to accommodate a learning style that she saw as inferior?  Or was it because she just hated me?  I am not exactly sure but I sensed a bit of each of these.  Receiving that first accommodation was very bitter sweet.  I got to see what it was like to have accommodations.  I was never a kid who was ashamed of my accommodations.  I suppose I appreciated the opportunity to show what I knew.

My initial goal of writing my experiences was that I would tell a story and then offer a moral of some sort.  This-shitty-thing-happened-but- now-I-am-a-better-person-for-it kind of message.  Luckily with the ADA I don’t need this kind of message.  We have civil rights in this country because people don’t necessarily get them automatically.  Of course, this does not mean that the ADA or Rehabilitation Act isn’t violated everyday!  Experiences like these is the reason why parents, guardians and kids with disabilities learn advocacy skills to get their accommodations.  I eventually learned these skills but being a bit more happier in third grade would have been preferred.

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My first post–The blog of a Stuttering-Learning Disability having-Comedian-Activist

 

I am reluctantly blogging! I actually hate writing! Despise it! Use entirely too many exclamation points! I am a stand up comedian who stutters and has a Learning Disability. In spite of the stuttering I love talking. Not the case for writing. It sucks! I hate the process because I feel that I have to go through drafts and drafts because of structure, grammar, spelling and all those things that I got red on my paper for while in school. My fantasy was to write my memoirs but that has been three years in the fantasizing. So I decided to open myself up and write it here. In my stand up, I stutter openly. I say I stutter and I just stutter—f-f-fuck it, right?! Well why not on a blog? Not the stuttering part but the Learning Disability-dyslexia part. I am choosing to let the little green and red lines dictate my editing. I am not having someone look at this before I publish it. I am just going to write. I am smart, most likely smarter than most good spellers and grammerers (ya, that’s a neologism–live with it). Obviously I am defensive because this is a difficult process for me and I want the reader to beware of any disjointed-ness and PLEASE don’t correct my spelling or grammar–just like you shouldn’t complete my sentences.

With that warm welcome of self-disclosures, I welcome you to my blog. I hope to share my experiences as a woman with multiple disabilities who sees herself as an activist using humor as a way to express my perspective and hopefully move along the conversation of whatever I am talking about.

Thank you for checking out my blog. You can become a fan of me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ninagcomedian and find my videos on Youtube at NinaGcomic. I look forward to comments ranging from “women aren’t funnny,” to “you are such an inspiration (which I only allow if you actually have a disability and I reflect on your experiences)                                               dick jokes