Ron Berger —
In 2008 the action-comedy Tropic Thunder, written, produced, and directed by Ben Stiller, brought forth condemnation from more than a dozen disability advocacy groups, including the Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Congress. The plot of the film entails a film within a film—a group of struggling actors who are making a fictional movie about the Vietnam War. Stiller plays of the role of Tugg Speedman, who in turn plays Simple Jack in the fictional war film. Simple Jack is a “mentally challenged” character who is repeatedly called a “retard” by his co-stars. Although film critics acknowledged this element of the film as offensive, they generally gave it positive reviews.
“Retard” is a term that has come into disrepute because of its derogatory use as a metaphor that demeans both the person to whom the attribution is directed as well as people with intellectual disabilities, the term that has nowadays replaced mental retardation, which was once considered an improvement over such words as imbecile, idiot, and moron. More generally, retard is part of the language that is used, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, in ways that are indicative of what disability advocates and scholars call “ableism,” a system of oppression comparable to racism, sexism, and heterosexism that subjects people with disabilities to social degradation and discrimination.
The question remains, however, whether humor on the subject of disability should be off-limits. In this regard, Kim Reid, Edy Hammond Stoughton, and Robin Smith make an important distinction between “disabling humor” and “disability humor.” The former refers to humor that denigrates, while the latter refers to humor that enlightens. It is essentially the difference between laughing at them or laughing with them, and whether nondisabled characters or ableist attitudes and practices are positioned to be the source of humor in situations with disabled characters. In this article, I review the ways in which disability has been used as a vehicle for humor throughout the history of American film and television.
Themes in Disability Films
Disability as a trope for comedy is a genre that goes back to the slapstick days of the silent film era, and it has been a staple of the film industry ever since. According to film historian Martin Norden, a common theme in the slapstick comedies of this era was the disability “scam artist,” whereby an able-bodied character impersonates a disabled person. I call this the disability impersonator theme. In Blind Man’s Bluff (1903), for example, a purportedly blind and one-legged beggar, after seeing that a passerby gives him a bogus coin, strikes the passerby with his wooden leg.
Another theme that was introduced in the silent film era is what Norden calls the comic misadventurer, whereby a disabled character gets into trouble because of his or her impairment. In The Invalid’s Adventure (1907), for instance, a wheelchair user escapes from his attendant and initiates a wild chase that entails a number of ludicrous accidents in which the “invalid” manages to maintain his balance. Similarly, W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), a talking remake of his silent It’s the Old Army Game (1926), includes a scene that is incidental to the plot in which a visually- and hearing-impaired elderly woman makes a mess in a grocery story.
Two decades later, the comic misadventurer appeared in the form of the animated visually-impaired Mr. Magoo, featuring the voice of Jim Backus. First introduced as a theatrical short in 1949, with the first feature length film in 1959 and a live action comedy starring Leslie Nielsen in 1997, Mr. Magoo was also made into a cartoon TV series that aired in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1960s, a series of slapstick films starring Jerry Lewis also relied on the comic misadventurer theme. Films such as The Bellboy (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), and The Disorderly Orderly (1964) featured characters of limited intelligence and awkward physicality and speech that strike many contemporary observers as based on mockery of people with disabilities.
In Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), director Stanley Kubrick combined comedy with the demonic cripple theme, a genre that is associated with horror films. There is no doubt that Dr. Strangelove, as a sardonic comedy about the dangers of nuclear war, has many redeeming qualities. But the film’s depiction of the ridiculous but villainous Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, as a disabled character troubles some disability advocates. Dr. Strangelove is a strategic military advisor to the president of the United States, but he is depicted as an ex-Nazi who has never abandoned his devotion to the Führer. He also uses a wheelchair and has a bionic hand covered by a leather glove, which is prone to malfunctioning as it attempts to raise the “Heil Hitler” salute and at times strangle his own neck.
The anti-disability representation in Dr. Strangelove can be contrasted with the counter-narrative of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), a film that is arguably more subversive from a pro-disability perspective. Based on the Ken Kesey novel, Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, a rebellious criminal serving a short sentence for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. When McMurphy is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation, he hopes to stay there to avoid going back to prison. Unlike the films I have thus far considered, Cuckoo’s Nest offers a satirical critique of societal practices by portraying the mental institution, with its mind-numbing daily routines and unpleasant medical treatments, as a major source of the residents’ grief; and it presents the staff, especially the hard-nosed, inflexible, and at times sadistic nurse Mildred Ratched as even more “crazy” than the residents.
Mental or cognitive disability is also the subject matter of Being There (1979), another film starring Peter Sellers, who plays the role of a Chance, a simple-minded gardener. Chance has the intellectual capacity of a child, and he has lived a totally dependent and isolated life. All he knows of the outside world is what he sees on television. For reasons unexplained, Chance has been living with a wealthy benefactor, and when the benefactor dies, he is forced to leave his home for the first time. After wandering around the city for a while, he is struck by a car owned by a wealthy businessman. This happenstance leads Chance into the world of the superrich and their high-powered associates—including the president of the United States—who are eager for sagely wisdom and think that Chance’s observations about gardening are intended as a metaphor for incisive insights about business and politics. This storyline is characteristic of yet another theme in disability filmmaking, what I call the wise simpleton, which critiques the intellectual shallowness and pretentiousness of elite society. Fifteen years later, the portrait of an intellectually impaired man as a wise simpleton became the subject of Forrest Gump (1994), in which Tom Hanks plays the role of a naïve man who witnesses, and in some cases influences, some of the defining events of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Two films of the 1980s starring Richard Pryor, Bustin’ Loose (1981) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), the latter with Gene Wilder, indicate that sensitivity to the oppression of one group of people does not easily translate into sensitivity to the oppression of another group. Pryor, whose stand-up routines offered biting commentary on race relations in the United States, could do little more in these films than regurgitate the comic misadventurer theme. In Bustin’ Loose, Pryor plays an ex-convict responsible for guiding a busload of physically and cognitively disabled youths through an assortment of misadventures that includes the almost obligatory scene for comedies with blind characters: driving a motor vehicle. In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Pryor and Wilder play two disabled men, one visually impaired and one hearing impaired, who enact an unending series of slapstick gags that make fun of the characters’ impairments.
The Farrelly Brothers
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, no comedic directors were as preoccupied with disability themes as Peter and Bobby Farrelly. In an analysis of five of the films they directed between 1994 and 2003, Kathleen LeBesco characterizes their contribution to the disability genre of humor as a mixed bag. That is, some entail the standard fare of making fun of disabled characters, while some actually function to challenge ableist assumptions about people with disabilities.
LeBesco is most critical of Dumb and Dumber (1994), the first of these films, because the treatment of “a pair of dim-witted friends” is at the expense of disabled people and lacks “none of the humanity that infuses” disability characters in some of their later films such as Stuck on You (2003), a story about two conjoined twins. What LeBesco finds appealing about Stuck on You is the storyline that portrays social stigma and discrimination, not the characters’ impairment, as the cause of their problems. In fact, she suggests, the film portrays the conjoined brothers as “able to function more effectively in a number of areas” such as sports and food preparation “than any of us singletons do, and … their main difficulty comes in encountering cruel and close minded people.” LeBesco also appreciates the fact that the cast includes “a relatively large number of disabled people. Actors using wheelchairs, actors with intellectual or developmental disabilities, actors with congenital variations—all seem to find a place here, whether as extras in a crowd scene, as featured extras, or as important minor characters.” In doing so, she argues, Stuck on You counters the all-too-often societal expectation that people with disabilities, in real life, should be cloistered and concealed.
What LeBesco also likes about Me, Myself and Irene (2000) and Shallow Hal (2001), films about a schizophrenic and a very obese woman, respectfully, is their use of nondisabled people’s “treatment of disabled people as the barometers by which they can be morally evaluated.” She finds it noteworthy, however, that the Farrelly films that did the best at the box office—Dumb and Dumber (which spawned a sequel) and There’s Something about Mary (1998)—do no such thing.
While I concur with LeBesco’s interpretation of Dumb and Dumber, I am more ambivalent about There’s Something about Mary. No doubt, some scenes are clearly making fun of people with disabilities. For example, Mary has a brother Warren who has an emotional disability that causes him to react violently at the slightest touch of his ear. In this case we are clearly laughing at people with disabilities. Two other scenes are a little more ambiguous, however. In one, Ted, one of Mary’s suitors, bends over backwards moving heavy furniture for a grouchy and unappreciative disabled man, whose wheelchair bumper stick reads, “How’s my driving? Call 1-800-eat-shit.” In my view, it is not entirely clear that we are laughing at the disabled man rather than at Ted’s reaction to his predicament and the undermining of his expectation that disabled people should be nice—or maybe it is both. In the other scene, Healy, another of Mary’s suitors, tries to impress her by lying about working with people with intellectual disabilities. “My passion is my hobby,” he says. “I work with retards.” When Mary challenges Healy on his use of the term “retards,” Healy replies, “To hell with that—no one’s gonna tell me who I can and can’t work with.” Here I find it interesting to observe the film’s self-consciousness about “political incorrectness,” although LeBesco thinks it does so in a way that trivializes the issue.
Like some of their previous films, the Farrellys’ The Ringer (2005), which they produced but did not direct, has brought forth mixed reaction from the disability community. In this film the lead character Steve Barker, played by Johnny Knoxville, reincarnates the disability impersonator theme by faking a cognitive disability so he can enter the Special Olympics and win a gambling bet. Barker proceeds to amuse the audience by practicing his impersonations of “retarded” stereotypes (where we are supposed to laugh at, not with, disabled people). Upon entering the competition, he meets the other participants, most of whom are played by actors who actually have the disabilities they display. In another example of the wise simpleton theme, these characters come across, writes Eric Snider, as “savvy, quick-witted … and full of insightful wisdom.” To the plot’s credit, Barker ultimately realizes the error of his ways and we are “told in no uncertain terms that mocking the handicapped is wrong.”
The popular 1980’s sitcom Facts of Life was a breakthrough program for positive representations of disability on television, with Geri Jewell appearing in a dozen episodes from 1980 to 1984. The affable Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, walks with an impaired gait and has mildly slurred speech. Her appearances on Facts of Life increased viewers’ comfort level and help paved the way for greater acceptance of people with disabilities in the same way that Ellen and Will and Grace later became path-breaking sitcoms for gay and lesbian people.
In 1994, Jewell was featured in a documentary about “stand-up” disability comedians called Look Who’s Laughing that was broadcast on public television. The other comics in the documentary included Kathy Buckley (who is deaf), Chris Fonseca (who has cerebral palsy), Alex Valdez (who is blind), J.D. England (who has paraplegia), and Bret Leake (who has multiple sclerosis). Lawrence Carter Long notes that one element in some of their routines is the use of “self-deprecating humor to shatter stereotypes and preconceived notions about people with disabilities” and to show that they are not so fragile that they can’t make (or take) a joke. Buckley tells a joke about not having dates because she is flat-chested and too tall, but then she says she may have fewer dates because she “didn’t hear the phone ring.” Fonseca, who speaks in a slow, methodical cadence, plays on stereotypical attitudes when he jokes, “I’m handicapped and I’m Mexican, so you know what that means: If you piss me off, I’m gonna pull a knife and we’re both gonna get hurt.” In another bit he capitalizes on his unsteady arm movements by recounting his experience at a shooting gallery at a state fair: “Last year I won a teddy bear … Ok, I didn’t win it. They gave it to me so I would put down the rifle.” In 2004, Josh Blue, a comedian with cerebral palsy, also gave a boost to disability humor when he won NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” competition.
Since the turn of the twenty-first century, television animation has been at the forefront of what Beth Haller calls the “new phase of disability humor,” with programs directed at both children and adults. Pelswick was a cartoon series broadcast on Nickelodeon between 2000 and 2002. It was developed by John Callahan, who was paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 21 and had previously garnered a reputation for his biting and controversial gag cartoons. The main character in Pelswick is Pelswick Eggert, a 13-year old quadriplegic boy who uses a power wheelchair but who doesn’t define himself by his disability—in Callahan’s words, he just “sees things the way they are.”
Pelswick is a bright youth with a sharp tongue. He has friends whom he plays jokes on, but he also gets bullied. He like adventures, gets in trouble, is irreverent toward school, and has a healthy skepticism of authority. His world is populated with characters such as a “tough love” grandmother who uses a walker but rides a skateboard with walker in tow. His father is a politically correct college professor who is ever so careful not to offend anyone: “Nobody’s wrong,” he says, “they’re just differently right.” His two best friends like to ride on the back of his wheelchair as they speed down hills. The school bully won’t hit Pelswick because, he says, “you can’t punch a kid in a wheelchair,” so he resorts to verbal abuse instead. Most of the characters do not have a disability and much of the humor is directed at them. But when Pelswick is the focus of humor it is therefore normalizing because he is treated no differently than anyone else. He also pokes fun at himself. Quipping about the dangers of a school-sponsored camping trip, he says, “I’m the only one in the class who can’t get accidently paralyzed.”
Unlike Pelswick, Comedy Central’s South Park is intended for adults, and in the words of John Reid-Hresko and D. Kim Reid, entails a “direct assault on American sensibilities,” aiming “less to offend than to prod a normally squeamish viewing public to confront its own taboos and preconceptions.” The character Timmy, first introduced in 2000, is a jagged toothed, wheelchair-using boy with garbled speech and a limited vocabulary of four words. He fits right in with all the other misfit characters, not as different from them but as one of them.
In one episode, Timmy’s school counselor thinks he has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) after he is unable to answer a teacher’s question about his homework. Timmy is referred to a doctor who confirms the ADD diagnosis, prescribes Ritalin, and excuses Timmy from the obligation to answer teacher questions. Seeing this, the other students refuse to answer questions as well and are all diagnosed with ADD and prescribed Ritalin. Another storyline features Timmy as the lead singer of a rock-and-roll band, the Lords of the Underworld. Timmy’s band is scheduled to open for a cartoon-rendered Phil Collins, who feels it is wrong for a disabled person to front a rock band. In another, Timmy wants to join the notorious Crip street gang, thinking it is an empowering gang for cripples like himself.
John Reid-Hresko and D. Kim Reid think that South Park works as a pro-disability representation by juxtaposing animation featuring children with outrageous humor that exposes the “inconsistencies and injustices typical of the public’s response to disability.” The Family Guy, which first aired on Fox in 2001, also pursues disability humor through animation by juxtaposing Peter Griffin, the doughy family guy, with Joe Swanson, a masculine, physically fit wheelchair user. In one episode, Peter asks Joe to play softball, not realizing he is disabled. When Joe wins the game for his team and is celebrated as a hero, Peter is jealous. In another, Joe receives a leg transplant and starts acting like a jerk, so the others decide to re-paralyze him. According to Haller, what makes the humor of The Family Guy empowering is that Joe is not singled out but is just one of many goofy characters, whereby disability is “part of the diverse humor panorama, not the reason for the comedy.”
Humor in disability film and television both reflects and influences societal views and practices. Disabling humor that denigrates people with disabilities resonates with audiences because of taken-for-granted ableist assumptions that are embedded in the collective conscience. Disability humor, on the other hand, has the potential to undermine the prejudices and institutional practices upon which disabling humor is based, while also attenuating nondisabled people’s discomfort with disabled people and allowing for emphatic understanding of matters that are difficult to acknowledge or express in other contexts. Importantly, as Haller suggests, when comedies include disabled characters of equal status as all other characters in a show, it sends a message to viewers that people with disabilities are “fully participating members of their communities” who enjoy meaningful, interesting, and vibrant lives.
This article is adapted from an essay that appeared in The Society Pages, Dec. 26, 2012 (thesocietypages.org) and a chapter in my co-edited anthology Disability and Qualitative Inquiry: Methods for Rethinking an Ableist World (2015).
Ronald J. Berger. 2015. “Disability and Humor in Film and Television: A Content Analysis.” In R. Berger & L. Lorenz (eds.), Disability and Qualitative Inquiry: Methods for Rethinking an Ableist World. Ashgate.
Beth A. Haller. 2010. Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media. Advocado Press.
Kathleen LeBesco. 2004. “There’s Something about Disabled People: The Contradictions of Freakery in the Films of the Farrelly Brothers.” Disability Studies Quarterly 24 (4), dsq-sds.org.
Lawrence Carter Long. 2012. “Disability on Screen: Mr. Magoo to Josh Blue, Who’s Laughing Now.” Disaboom, disaboom.com.
Martin F. Norden. 1994. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. Rutgers University Press.
Kim Reid, Edy H. Stoughton & Robin M. Smith. 2006. “The Humorous Construction of Disability: ‘Stand-Up’ Comedians in the United States.” Disability & Society 21, pp. 629-643.
John Reid-Hresko & D. Kim Reid. 2005. “Deconstructing Disability: Three Episodes of South Park.” Disability Studies Quarterly 25 (4), dsq-sds.org.
Eric D. Synder. 2005. Review of The Ringer (Dec. 23), ericsnider.com.