Have you heard the one about the guy in the wheel­chair?

Some­times a joke can leave me rat­tled – think­ing I de­serve the sec­ond-class cit­i­zen­ship that comes with a dis­abil­ity in this coun­try

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Fer­dia MacAonghusa

Did you know that po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is killing com­edy? Did you hear that no one is al­lowed make jokes any­more, be­cause ev­ery­one is too sen­si­tive these days? Yep, there are no more jokes in our so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially none that mock mi­nori­ties or women. I was kind of shocked to hear the news my­self. ’Cos I was un­der the clearly mis­guided im­pres­sion that I’ve been hear­ing edgy jokes about my dis­abil­ity ev­ery day I’ve left the house this year.

Maybe it’s my en­vi­ron­ment, I’m study­ing film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion with a lot of funny peo­ple and (also) a lot of peo­ple who make a lot of jokes. Not to men­tion, this is Ire­land: the Cana­di­ans have po­lite­ness and con­sci­en­tious­ness; the English have the crush­ing weight of colo­nial his­tory which they refuse to ac­knowl­edge; and the Ir­ish have their sense of hu­mour!

I once read, in an Ir­ish guide­book, that Ir­ish friend­ships are mea­sured not by how kind we are to each other but by how much mock­ing or “slag­ging” (scare-quotes theirs, not mine) we can give or re­ceive. It feels weird to be judged so ac­cu­rately, right?

But ques­tions of en­vi­ron­ment aside for the mo­ment, I’ve been try­ing to hon­estly ex­am­ine how I feel about dis­abil­ity-re­lated com­edy. So I’m gonna do the one thing ev­ery good writer knows makes jokes much much fun­nier; I’m go­ing to sin­cerely and soberly an­a­lyse them.

Usu­ally when some­one makes a first “crip­ple joke” (my own scare-quotes this time) around me, they stop. They ask me, either in English or in a par­tic­u­larly ar­tic­u­late di­alect of body-lan­guage, whether what they just said was okay.

And I, al­most al­ways, put them at ease. Of­ten I say some­thing to the tune of, “I pre­fer peo­ple be­ing com­fort­able mak­ing jokes about it than peo­ple be­ing un­com­fort­able and awk­ward”. And this is more or less the truth, de­pend­ing on the type of the joke.

Be­cause some­times the jokes are funny. Some­times they’re bor­ing. And some­times they shake me to my very core. It’s not all that cool to ad­mit, but some­times a joke can leave me rat­tled for days – think­ing less of my­self, think­ing I de­serve the sec­ond-class cit­i­zen­ship that comes with a dis­abil­ity in this coun­try. Think­ing all of my am­bi­tion is a sad lit­tle joke.

More com­pli­cated

But it’s more com­pli­cated than jokes bad or jokes good. Be­cause hu­mour can break down bar­ri­ers, it can help us dis­cuss top­ics we oth­er­wise wouldn’t.

Be­cause I re­ally do choose peo­ple laugh­ing ir­rev­er­ently over peo­ple pity­ing re­spect­fully. And be­cause peo­ple are com­pli­cated. We have de­sires and mo­ti­va­tions and prej­u­dices and group­think af­fect­ing our ac­tions. Be­cause why else would I make even more ruth­less jokes about my­self?

In Han­nah Gadsby’s Net­flix com­edy spe­cial Nanette, there was a line that hit me – hard. Talk­ing about her ca­reer, built on self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour, she asks her au­di­ence: “Do you un­der­stand what self-dep­re­ca­tion means? When it comes from some­body who al­ready ex­ists in the mar­gins? It’s not hu­mil­ity, it’s hu­mil­i­a­tion.”

It made me take a long and hard look at my­self and my re­la­tion­ship with self-dep­re­ca­tion.

It made me won­der whether I’m do­ing the right thing, mock­ing my­self for my dis­abil­ity or let­ting oth­ers do the same. Be­cause Han­nah Gadsby made one thing clear through­out the spe­cial: com­edy isn’t al­ways good, com­edy doesn’t al­ways make you more free.

Some­times, com­edy en­forces the sta­tus quo – mak­ing sure that LGBTQ+ peo­ple, women, peo­ple of colour, dis­abled peo­ple etc know their place.

And I worry about how com­plicit I am in all of this. But it’s still more com­pli­cated than jokes bad or jokes good. There is a place, not just a place, a need for com­edy that’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary. If you want to fight back against crush­ing op­pres­sion, against prej­u­dice, against the in­sti­tu­tional mad­nesses of modern life, there are worse places to start than ex­pos­ing their ridicu­lous­ness.

So I guess I’m is­su­ing a chal­lenge. The next time you want to make a joke that pushes bound­aries, that’s edgy and brave and proudly cham­pi­ons free speech, ask your­self who you’re tar­get­ing. Are you mock­ing the pow­er­ful, are you in­ter­ro­gat­ing how are so­ci­ety is run, are you mak­ing peo­ple think? Or are you just do­ing the pow­er­ful peo­ple’s dirty work for them.

The next time you want to make a joke that pushes bound­aries, that’s edgy and brave and cham­pi­ons free speech, ask your­self who you’re tar­get­ing

Fer­dia MacAonghusa: “I’ve been try­ing to hon­estly ex­am­ine how I feel about dis­abil­ity-re­lated com­edy”

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