Damienne Merlina, a comedian in the Los Angeles area responded to Ari Shaffer’s set from Passive Aggressive on the Comedy Central Network. He named her first and last name and went on to make fun of her weight, having one arm, and being “annoying”. Merlina responded with a video, which I linked to here.
I felt compelled as a Disabled (stuttering and dyslexia), female comedian to look at this issue more closely. Although I want to #standwithDamienne as the hashtag reads, I also don’t think she needs me to fight her battle. As a female comedian, I know that she is well equipped to deal with someone mocking her and any potential fall out from internet trolls. I do feel that it is important to explore why #IstandwithDamienne is important on a personal and societal level as a woman with a disability. I also feel that as a Disabled female comedian, I can bring some insights into the issue at hand.
I must admit, I was not surprised that Shaffer mocked Marlina, especially because I once followed Shaffer on a showcase at a comedy club. About two minutes before his set was over and my set was about to begin, he talked about trying out for a part in a movie or TV show where he would have to play a person with cerebral palsy. He went on to say “I don’t know if you know what cerebral palsy is, but basically they are the king of the retards.” Forgive me if I get the obnoxious joke wrong, but I am pretty sure that it was something to this effect. I then went up and did one of the angriest sets I have ever done, which doesn’t really work for an unknown stuttering female comedian. I didn’t expect more from Shaffer because this is what he does. He does comedy that is racist and sexist so I don’t think that Disabled people should expect to get a pass. So no shocker that people with disabilities would be the butt of his jokes. I did expect more from the audience. They laughed! In my head, I was like “fuck you audience for supporting the status quo and attitudes that already fuck over people in my community” (I told you I was angry). For years I have challenged San Francisco based comedians about using the R-word. Challenged may not be the most appropriate word to use here. Let me correct that. For years I have annoyed San Francisco comedians into not using the R-word.
I was not shocked that Shaffer mocked a woman with a disability. I was surprised that he named her by first and last name. Let me break this down. As a person with a disability I was offended by his joke and as a comedian I was offended that the joke sucked. I’m not against making jokes about people with disabilities. For example, I love Joan Rivers’ joke about the King’s Speech. She implies she has no empathy for King George who stutters because he own England in addition to land across the world, she says, adding that she’d cut out her own tongue for Rhode Island. Hilarious to me, although I must ask, where is my modest California bungalow for stuttering? Shaffer’s joke about Marlina was neither as clever, funny or kind hearted as Rivers’. He attacked a comedian who he was neither friends with nor had her approval to talk about.
Making fun of a fellow comedian is an intimate experience which is why this joke feels like a violation. My good friend in life and comedy is a San Francisco based comedian, Mean Dave. We have done shows, he’s the illustrator of my book and has slept on my couch. When he introduces me, he says “what could I say about this next comedian that wouldn’t take her longer to say.” Mean Dave has past the threshold for making fun of me. He knows me. I’ve been to his parents house and he’s been to mine. We have achieved a level of intimacy as comedians and friends. Once we have that, you can totally make fun of me, as I can make fun of you. If we aren’t cool then you don’t deserve that privilege. Shaffer and Marlina apparently did not share this kind of friendship or intimacy. That is the personal part of what I see as one of the issues surrounding this. I think there is a deeper and more distressing side.
The problem with comedians who tell racist, sexists, ableist jokes isn’t necessarily the comedian. Before we point the finger at him, we must point the finger up the chain of TV producers and executives. Why did Shaffer get air time on Comedy Central while Marlina or other comedians representing multiple minority groups do not. The voices that get heard represent the status quo and that is what Shaffer represents. Guess what? He’s a product of a racist, ableist, sexist, fat shaming society. Comedy expresses what’s true in our society. Comedians express what we don’t always talk about. This can be used to change a society like Lenny Burce, Dick Gregory, or Chris Rock, but comedy can also be used to recycle the shitty attitudes of our culture. Comedy material that is mysoginistic, ableist or racist isn’t cutting edge or original. It is what has been done for centuries, comedians are just reflecting these attitudes. There is a reason why Shaffer has an audience and is making a living in comedy and why other comedians who question the status quo are not getting network TV spots or headlining comedy clubs. My guess is network executives hold these attitudes but can’t come out and say it, so they hide behind comedians who are puppets for propagating prejudice. Apparently there is an audience who feeds into this.
It appears that you can have only one minority status at a time in mainstream media. It’s like if you represent multiple communities as a single individual, media executives think audiences heads will explode. They underestimate audiences thinking you can only be a white man with a disability but not a Palestinian Muslim woman with a disability, like Maysoon Zayid (check out her Youtube) or a fat woman with an amputation like Marlina.
Unfortunately, attitudes around Disability won’t be changed until the masses are exposed to people like Marlina, Zayid or the comedy troupe The Comedians with Disabilities Act (sorry that was a personal plug). Until people like us get into the mainstream, we are at risk for our voices to be buried beneath the voices that propagate hate and prejudice. What can you do about this? Buy our stuff! Hire us to do shows at colleges and independent events where having an agent isn’t necessary. Watch and share our videos to celebrate our humor in times where we aren’t attacked. If you are a TV or movie executive, include us in shows that go beyond images of inspiration or “special episodes.” Make us part of your everyday comedy viewing and did I mention, pay us.