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A Stuttering-Dyslexic Brain Walks Into A Comedy Club: On writing and performing new comedy

NOTE TO READER:  In case you haven’t read my WordPress blog before, this is the raw deal.  I write in my full dyslexic glory without feedback from my regular editor.  It is likely that this will be a draft for another article or possibly one day a book, so please comment.  I would love to hear your differences in how your process speech or what science might say to explain my process.

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It had been awhile since I went hard on comedy.  I started working a full time job and a lot of my energy went into adjusting to my new duties and environment.  Luckily my job was with a college so in my winter break, and with an entering US president who offers so much richness to a Disabled comedian that I decided I needed to hit the open mics.  As my winter break ends I am reminded of the artistic process of doing comedy.  Developing material from the premises to bits, adding tags and experimenting with the intonation and timing of the delivered punchlines.  I am also reminded of how my dyslexia and stuttering interact with this process.  

 

As I stood in front of a small humble audience in Silicon Valley, that would eventually pay $8 for my gas money to drive 40 miles, I could see the juxtaposition of new and old material and how it interacted with my stuttering blocks and repetitions.  Old but trusted material was relatively fluent.  It reminds me of when I was religious affairs student government officer at Saint Joseph Elementary school.  The majority of my role was to saying morning prayer.  When I originally decided to run for the office I knew that the criteria of saying prayers would not be a problem because memorized and automatic scripts can eventually become fluent for me (this is not always the case for all).  I am sure when I was required to memorize certain prayers for my First Communion I may not have been fluent, but over time automaticity of speech takes over and bypasses the stuttering part of the brain.  Apparently my jokes about sexism in comedy and disability discrimination function similarly.  With enough memorization they become automatic and although I might stutter on some of it, I seem quiet fluent.  So fluent in fact that some audience members look confused about my stuttering material, as they did in the Silicon Valley bar for the first 3 minutes of my set.  Then we ventured into my new material and they quickly found out that I did actually stutter.

 

Most things having to do with language are processed on the left side of the brain.  Rhythmic prose seem to be processed from the right side of the brain.  Creating something that is language based and then speaking it tax the left side of the brain.  As a comedian with dyslexia and who stutters, my left brain is on double duty when I write and perform new material.  Knowing what topic pisses me off enough to talk about in front of an audience, figuring out the funny aspects in that topic, writing the setups, developing the punchlines, trying out tags (the extra little something after the punchline), trying out the material, often putting the word that I might stutter on at the end of the punchline, practicing the timing in the car, and finally manifesting this all in speech in front of the audience.  And then, as the shampoo bottle directs, RINSE AND REPEAT.  I do it again and again until I have each step down and it becomes so automatic that it is like saying the Our Father or Hail Mary.  Of course these jokes are far from the holy, but my guess is that they eventually get stored in the same place in my brain.  

 

I wanted to share this for a few reasons.  First of all we either talk about stuttering or dyslexia but there are so many of us that have both of these. It is like we have to chose one of these things as a community.  We rarely talk about their interaction.  I have observed that the more my dyslexia is highlighted in the function I am doing, the more likely I am to stutter.  I don’t know the neurology of how these two things work in tandem, but my guess is that the more my left brain needs to function, then the more my speech areas are exacerbated and the more I stutter.  Again I don’t know if a speech and language pathologist would say the same thing, but I know that this is my own experience of stuttering and how it feels.  

 

Secondly, I wanted to acknowledge the sometimes difficult experience of stuttering.  I almost always write about the discrimination or the social-emotional aspects of our experience.  I see these issues as the crux of the Disability experience.  Why should we be discriminated against because of how we, as dyslexics, process language, or we as people who stutter, express ourselves.  There is no known remedy of either of these aspects of myself, nor do I care about ridding myself of them.  I would love it if people not be assholes, so please work toward that.  Although I am not usually the merry sunshine type, I do like to talk about the positive experiences stuttering and dyslexia can bring like community and self-acceptance.  I usually do not focus on the function of language, in part because I think that is what people expect.  The media often focuses on how difficult it is for us to speak and not how attitudes need to be changed in how others accept our speech as part of neurodiversity.  Additionally, the nuances of speaking from dyslexia and stuttering is often ignored.  It just seems to complicated for the regular inspirational porn we tend to see on either stuttering or dyslexia.    

 

Nonetheless, sometimes after a long day presenting at an all day workshop my jaw hurts (stuttering) and I could forget my husbands name (dyslexia).  It also takes me a really long time to figure out comedy.  I use to get double time for taking tests in college.  For every hour that you took the test, I would have two hours.  I needed time to process what I was being asked and then what I would respond back with.  It feels the same for me in comedy.  In addition to the writing aspects, there is remembering what I want to say.  I also attempt to say it the same way every time, which can be difficult to pinpoint what I feel works and what does not.  I even have someone transcribe some of my better sets so that I can see exactly what language was used.  I then have to see what words I will almost always stutter on and how that might affect my timing.  I then might have to structure my jokes so that timing is more efficient in delivering my message.  I then go and practice the jokes in front of others, because as any person who stutters will tell you, we usually don’t stutter when we are alone.  When I do stutter when I am alone, then I know this stutter will likely be even more exaggerated when I am in front of a crowd.  

 

Are you exhausted yet?  Just thinking about it makes my left brain hemisphere hurt!  

 

The other night at an open mic I started feeling the frustration of my speech which I usually have an incredibly high tolerance for.  I am like a stuttering Zen Master.  I know that repetitions and blocks are going to come and go.  I know that when my stutter is a bit more at times, that it will eventually become less.  I have found that there isn’t anything exactly that I can do for it, I just know it will fluctuate.  My recent surge of energy has brought some frustration though.  Working on my new 8 minutes and word smithing for comedy timing along with stuttering timing, all while having dyslexia finally got the best of me.  How does a stuttering-dyslexic comedian express their frustration?  I ranted and somehow threw Marilyn Monroe under the bus (please forgive me Saint Marilyn!).  

 

To introduce my newest joke I used a feigned exaggerated speech pattern hoping to be more fluent on the word “married.”  Frustrated that I even had to do this, I shouted about the brain and how using a phony voice would help to ensure that the word “married” would come out quicker. I mentioned that Marilyn Monroe used this technique. Of course her double M name took me longer to get out than “married” ever would.  And that’s when I pondered out loud what I had been thinking since I first learned that Monroe stuttered, “why would a person who stuttered give herself a double M name?”  Of course it was not said in that classy kind of way. There may have been a stuttering F-word somewhere in there instead.  You can check out the video below (warning, explicit language and Trump critique at the end).

 

My stuttering got to me this week.  It wasn’t because someone asked me if there was an intrusive brain implant that could cure my speech or say that they could cure me by something they could do to me sexually (yes, I have had both said to me on multiple occasions).  But I also discovered something about stuttering and comedy.  As a comedian I create music.  I know this because the more that my material transfers over to the right side of the brain (which is the hemisphere we sing from), I stutter less.  The lyrics, the rhythm, the timing, the automaticity of the words are what make up comedy and utilized when I am on stage.  Stuttering has helped me understand not only how difficult the chore of comedy can be but also the preciseness of speech.  Wordsmithing punchlines and tags while figuring out why timing works this way but not that way is part of all comedy, stuttering or not.  Many artists look down on comedy as a lesser art form.  I think I just proved that a prolific and talented comedian is creating a symphony, they may be using the 7 dirty words, and working independently might I add, but the result is no less great.  I don’t know if there are functional MRIs that show the different parts of the brain in creating comedy and delivering it, but my guess the whole brain is lighting up.  I am just lucky enough to be the one who shows people at a late night comedy show how it all functions.  

Watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks1tea2JXF4

 

Changing the image of Disability through comedy

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Big news!  The Comedians with Disabilities Act and Friends album is out.  Disabled Comedy Only is the first ever compilation of Disabled comedians on a single album.  Monumental! The recording was done independently and without any Jumpstarts or GoFundMes.  As artists with disabilities we retained complete control over our material, our image and our brand.  No abled bodied people dictated what we should or shouldn’t say.  Please support independent comedy fighting for visibility, equity, and disability justice through comedy.

Please support the album by purchasing it at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/comedianswithdisabilitie

and sharing our videos!

Thank you for the support!

Recovering from Special Ed Depression.

When someone is being traumatized they have a few options: flee, fight or disassociate. I’m not saying that the trauma I endured in grade school from my teachers compares to that of people who have experienced sexual or physical trauma. I have what my therapist called “little ‘t’ trauma,” consistent, traumatic experiences from persons in authority who were supposed to instill self-esteem. These experiences had a significant impact on me, my adult life and relationships.

 

Years ago I experienced what I later named my “special ed depression.” This depression carried into my adulthood, and often manifested when I was still, not working and sat with the feelings from my childhood. As a kid, I had internalized the messages from my teachers, extended family and the media that I was less than. When I became an adult I felt that anything that was subpar in my life (whether it was material goods, friends or lovers) was deserved because I was a product of a childhood significantly impacted by disability.  What I realize now is that it wasn’t “special ed depression” because my special ed experience, once I got to public school was the best thing that happened to me academically.  I was with teachers who understood me and had my back.  I think a better name for my special ed depression would have been “dealing with asshole teacher depression” but that isn’t as catchy, thus the title of the essay.

 

Growing up with a Learning Disability, I suffered numerous emotional infractions at the hands of teachers, which I then internalized. Because I was “little ‘t’ traumatized” by my teachers regularly, I had to find my own way of getting through the school day. My favorite coping mechanism in 8th grade was avoiding class, and I found preposterous ways to escape the classroom. My escape plans ranged from collecting “mission money” to fund evangelizing people in developing countries to spending the better part of December and January hanging out in the school’s storage closet.

Like many Catholic girls and women, I had a hang-up about the Virgin Mary. I suppose this came from third grade when I was selected to bring the offering (communion and the money collected during church) for the All Saints mass. For the non-Catholics, let me explain. This particular mass is one of the funner masses that you have in Catholic school. All Saints Day is celebrated the day after Halloween, so there’s an opportunity to wear costumes.

I was selected to bring the offering because I told my third grade teacher my costume was “spiritual.” My plan was to get a bed sheet, cut multiple holes in it and be Charlie Brown’s ghost. My mother thought this was unacceptable and instead made me dress as the Virgin Mary: long, white gown, blue satin headdress, and China Flats with embroidered flowers (total old-school Lowrider style). Since donning this costume I suppose I overidentified with her, so later, when the part of Mary in the 8th grade Christmas play went to Lori (a Protestant with short hair!), I was pissed. I wasn’t going to play a frickin’ angel! Instead, I volunteered to “do costumes,” meaning I organized the decades-old costumes that were stored in a chaotic, musty closet. Inside it were remnants from the 1950s so it was obvious that no one had touched the space in years. I saw an opportunity in the dank clutter, and somehow parlayed the duties of “costume coordinator” into overhauling the entire storage room. I had become the 13 year old, stuttering, Italian Martha Stewart. Reorganizing took weeks, which meant some days I wouldn’t even attend class. It was a relief to be out of the classroom and spend a day going through tinsel and old pictures.  Anything to save me from diagramming sentences, reading out loud, or being shamed for giving the wrong answer was better, so I welcomed the isolation.

 

Why did my teachers allow a student to basically cut class? My guess is that I was easier to deal with away from the classroom. Every year in Catholic School my parents were told “if your daughter requires accommodations, then she does not belong here.” I never understood this because I’m pretty sure that Jesus would have made an accommodation. Compared to spending time with my ableist teachers, being alone in the Christmas storage closet was a sanctuary.

 

When I wasn’t busy cleaning closets or collecting mission money for the heathens of the world, I could usually be found in the girls’ bathroom. These excursions of elimination took at least 20 minutes and usually occurred when taking turns reading out loud in class. Teachers, if you want to get rid of a kid who stutters and has dyslexia, tell them you’re going to have the class take turns reading. They will either send themselves to the nurse with a stomach ache or head to the bathroom to avoid the “little ‘t’ trauma” of reading in front of an audience of unforgiving peers.

 

As if 8th grade isn’t difficult enough for your average thirteen-year-old girl, for the first time in my Catholic school experience I had two teachers, not just one. Unfortunately, both teachers were assholes which meant I was never asshole-free that year. They made my life hell. They were inconsistent with the accommodations I needed, embarrassed me in front of my peers for things related to my Learning Disability, and just generally bitchy. Once, one of the teachers literally but indirectly called me a “twat!” Who does that?

 

Each day was peppered with little verbal and emotional aggregate assaults on my self-esteem. The teachers complained that my 1980’s Espirit leggings and big sweatshirts were signs I was immature, yet I was dressing like everyone else if not better. As an adolescent- especially one who watched entirely too many comedians- I started to respond in ways that bordered on the inappropriate. But let me first tell you what they did, so when I tell you about showing the boys and teachers used maxipads, it doesn’t seem so bad. (Yes!  My first period joke—a passage into womanhood for all female comedians).

 

The times where ableism would flow most freely were parent-teacher conferences. At a typically tense conference my mom yelled at my teachers when they acted like I wasn’t going to do much with my life. My dad had to kick her underneath the table to get her off her “my kid isn’t just going to work at McDonalds her entire life” soapbox. That didn’t make me very popular with the teachers, but at least I knew my parents believed I was an intelligent, capable person because they were advocating for me.

 

In another conference, my parents talked about appropriate accommodations for my learning disability. Everyone agreed I would only do half of the inordinate amount of daily Math and English problems. The homework was all drill and kill, practice without learning anything new. It was busy work. After the end of the semester I received my grade: an F. I approached my teachers about it.

 

“Why is my grade an F?”

“Well, you only did half of the work. So I could only give you half of a grade.”

I explained, “Well, my accommodation was to only do half of the work and then you base my grade on that.”

“Well, you only did half of the work so you get an F.”

 

Now I could have done none of the work and still have gotten an F, but it was a total abuse of my teacher’s power, and it remained on my report card despite my objections. Another “little t trauma” strikes again!

 

Once I had to give an oral presentation with one of my friends. I worked very hard at it, felt like I did a really good job, and I did. I got an A-. My friend got an A. The only reason I got an A- was, and I quote from my teacher, I “didn’t speak clear enough.” Really Ms. Nolan? Really? You’re going to give a stuttering kid with a learning disability a lower grade because their speech isn’t as “clear”? I knew at that time she was bullshit, and it really upset me. This was the moment I started to fight back against ableism in the 8th grade. And when I say fight back, it wasn’t in terms of advocacy or activism. I didn’t have an identity as a person with a disability at that point and didn’t know that there were people fighting for our rights. Instead, I made fun of the teachers.

 

During recess, my teachers always used the childrens’ bathroom. Like most bathrooms, there was space between the floor and the door so you could see their feet. Because these women hadn’t gone through menopause yet, when they pulled their panties all the way down to their ankles, it often revealed a bloody maxi pad. Now for someone who despised these teachers this was a goldmine. I spent most of my recess and lunchtime hanging out in the bathroom just to catch a glimpse so I could laugh at the teachers and mock them. Once I opened up the bathroom door to expose the boys to the teachers’ panties and their maxi pads. The boys cringed and the teachers had no idea. I was never caught! On the last day of school I got a picture of my teacher’s feet in the bathroom stall. Unfortunately she wasn’t on her period that day.

 

I’m sure from the perspective of an outsider my behavior must have seemed obnoxious. In fact, many of the teachers and kids in my class saw me that way. In the 8th grade I learned that the stranger I acted, the less my stuttering or Learning Disability mattered because they were overshadowed by my weirdness. I would have been much better off socially if I had started to wear all black and paint my face like Robert Smith of The Cure, but that wasn’t my style. Having been exposed to comedy at an early age and idolizing people like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and my favorite comic at the time, Emo Philips, absurdity was my genre to identify with. It was a defense that I would embody for years to come.

 

Naturally, I continued to stutter throughout school and my Learning Disability never let up, even with the Fs on my report card. The treatment from the teachers added to my already growing sense of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is the idea that if you try and you fail, and try yet again and fail, then soon enough you stop trying. This is intensified for some people who feel that no matter what they do, they will fail because they have little control over things. If they’re successful, it’s because of luck and not something that was within their power. If you have a Learning Disability or you work with people who have them, then you can recognize this. If there is a success, it’s because of a reason outside of their control (the test was easy and that’s why they received an A). Even successes are met with this mindset, so it can be difficult to change. Luckily for me there were people in my life (my parents) and others who would soon come into it, who would help to modify how I thought about myself.

 

Unfortunately, activism wasn’t yet on my radar. I didn’t know how to protest in the traditional sense of the word. Instead my protest was one that you see in many “mild-moderate” special education rooms across America: protest through silly acting out. I later learned there are better ways to advocate for yourself and to act out with purpose. My need to act out in more absurd ways was repressed until I was able to go back to my comedy roots and use standup as a means for activism and self-expression.

*This is a slightly modified version of my essay that was published in Critiques which can be purchased at: http://www.amazon.com/Criptiques-Caitlin-Wood/dp/0991573404.

Picture of the legs of my 8th grade teacher.

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THE “COMEDIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT” TOUR ROLLS INTO NAPA Thursday Feb. 27 at Bui Bistro’s Comedy Night @ Bui Bistro

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Tim Wolcott
Tel. 707-337-8582
Email: timwolcott79@gmail.com

THE “COMEDIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT” TOUR ROLLS INTO NAPA Thursday Feb. 27 at Bui Bistro’s Comedy Night @ Bui Bistro.

A blind man. A stuttering woman. A wheelchair user. A little person. While this may sound like a description of a support group, it is, in fact, the lineup for the “Comedians with Disabilities Act”, a comedy tour that the San Francisco Examiner called “The most unconventional comics to pop up in 2011”. Made up entirely of performers with different disabilities, the troupe is bringing their “special” brand of humor to Comedy Night @ Bui Bistro, hosted by local comedian Tim Wolcott, on Thursday, Feb. 27 at 7pm.

The foursome, all of them working northern California comedians, met each other through the comedy club circuit and decided to band together to treat audiences to a unique and unforgettable experience.

“Lots of able-bodied comedians out there tell blind or wheelchair jokes and get the audience to laugh AT people with disabilities,” said Michael O’Connell, the group’s wheelchair representative and founder of the troupe. “But wouldn’t it be more fun for the crowd, we thought, to be invited to laugh WITH people with disabilities instead? That’s guilt-free fun right there.”

Since their first sold-out show in Sacramento, the group has been in growing demand, getting booked at such lauded venues as the Laugh Factory in Hollywood and San Francisco’s Punch Line comedy club. Their comedy comes from the lifetime of experiences each has had due to their individual challenges. They see the tour as not only a chance to entertain, but to educate people on disability issues.

“We’re all comedians first,” said Napa native Steve Danner who identifies as a Little Person, “and it’s a comedy show. But who says you can’t make people laugh and send them home with something to think about too?”

Danner’s comedy career began as an audience member at a club. The comedian on stage that night decided to have some fun at his expense, and Danner’s skills in heckling back at him led the comic to approach Danner after the show and suggest he give comedy a try. He did so, and soon began a career as a prolific comedian and producer, delighting crowds at clubs and comedy rooms all over the west coast with hysterical tales centered heavily on his dwarfism. His comic journey keeps him on the road much of the time, but as Danner is fond of saying, “Shrimpin’ ain’t easy!”.

Michael O’Connell was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy at two years old and began using a wheelchair in 1995. But it wasn’t until years later that a friend dared him to try doing comedy at an open mic night at a Sacramento club, and after ending up winning the competition that first night on stage, he never looked back. He’s played comedy clubs from Seattle to L.A. (including the Hollywood Improv and the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club), been featured in newspapers and on radio and television, and counts several Hollywood celebrities among his fans. His business card reads “100% Comedy, 0% Stand-Up”.  Michael is unable to attend this show but you can check out his comedy at http://www.michaeloconnell.com/michaelocomedy.

Sacramento’s Eric Mee was only eighteen years old when, while protecting a young child, he was stabbed in the chest. Complications resulting from his injury led to the loss of his eyesight. Choosing not to let this drastic life change get him down, he began joking about his condition and giving speeches to groups that were always filled with humor. After many suggestions, he turned his talents to stand-up comedy, and now brings his manic energy and outrageous tales to the stage, both at clubs and college campuses.

Touting herself as “the America’s only female comedian who stutters”, Nina G. hails from the Bay Area and has spent a lifetime dealing with both speech and learning disability issues. A key note speaker and disability advocate, Nina turned her talents to the stand-up stage to help raise disability awareness through comedy, and performs her award-winning work at some of the industry’s hottest clubs (the Hollywood Improv and the San Francisco Punchline) and has shared the stage with some of its biggest names (Dave Chappelle).

The Comedians with Disabilities Act will be joined by special guests Steve Lee and Queenie TT.   Steve Lee, a Hong Kong native, originally came to the US as an exchange student.  His comedy integrates his experiences as a first generation Asian American with a disability.  Queenie is a motivational speaker and a body esteem educator with lymphedema.  Combining comedy with motivational speech, Queenie empowers women to make healthier choices for their lives by embracing the power of self-love.

The show will be hosted and produced by local standup comic, Tim Wolcott. Tim started his standup career in 2003 while attending Pacific Union College, where he also helped form the improv/sketch comedy group, Desperate 4 Attention. After a few years of the journeyman comic life, living in Los Angeles and Tampa, Tim returned to St. Helena’s restaurant scene and the San Francisco/Bay Area comedy scene in 2009. He has since performed at venues all over the bay area, including at San Francisco’s historic Purple Onion.  Tim began producing his own shows in June of 2013, at La Condesa in St. Helena.  This will be the second show he’s produced at Bui Bistro, a French/Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Napa.  The show begins at 7pm and has no cover.

If you’d like more information on this event, or to schedule interviews with any of the comedians please contact Nina G at NinaGbooking@gmail.com or Tim Wolcott at timwolcott79@gmail.com.