Tag Archives: social justice

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

 

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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