About the Authors
|Dale F. Williams, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, BRS-FD is a Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Director of the Fluency Clinic at Florida Atlantic University. In addition, he is a consultant for Language Learning Intervention and Professional Speech Services. A board certified specialist in fluency, Dr. Williams served as Chair of the Specialty Board on Fluency Disorders from 2008 to 2010. He has coordinated the Boca Raton chapter of the National Stuttering Association since 1996. His publications include the books Stuttering Recovery: Personal and Empirical Perspectives (Psychology Press), Communication Sciences and Disorders: An Introduction to the Professions (Psychology Press), and the soon-to-be-released Exploring Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Come to Terms with His Impairment (The Brainary), co-authored with Jaik Campbell.|
|Nina G is a stand-up comedian, disability activist, author, and speaker. She brings her humor to help people confront and understand social justice issues such as disability, diversity, and equity. When she isn’t performing at comedy clubs like the San Francisco Punchline or the Laugh Factory, she is playing colleges, presenting as a keynote speaker, and training professionals! Nina is part of the comedy troupe The Comedians with Disabilities Act, which brings laughter and awareness to audiences across the country. She is the author of a children’s book Once Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities, that helps children and adults advocate for their rights as persons with disabilities. Nina’s one person show, Going Beyond Inspirational, a comical exploration about growing up with Learning and Speech Disabilities, debuted in 2015. Most recently she was part of the first ever comedy compilation of comedians with disabilities, Disabled Comedy Only.|
|Jaik Campbell is a British stand–up comedian, writer and was an Edinburgh Festival Fringe regular between 2001 and 2008. Jaik has performed stand-up at prestigious London venues such as The Comedy Store, Banana Cabaret and Headliners, and has appeared on BBC and ITV television, reaching the finals of several UK comedy competitions. His first solo show “I’ve Stuttered So I’ll F-F-Finish” was performed in 2005 and focused on how his stutter affected his life and the role that comedy had in helping him to reduce it. Jaik also campaigns for maintaining UK speech and language therapy services, early intervention for children and is a strong supporter of the British Stammering Association. As well as having two children, Jaik has recently co-written the soon-to-be-released Exploring Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Come to Terms with His Impairment (The Brainary). (www.jaikcampbell.com)|
Although stuttering comedians have been around for decades, they have not (to our knowledge at least) been the subjects of research. The probable reason for this omission is that as a population, they appear to be sparse. If stuttering occurs with 1% prevalence and the need to perform stand-up inflicts even fewer people than that, the likelihood of an individual presenting both conditions would be extremely low. Add to that the possibility that one of those variables may very well discourage the other, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the potential research population is small.
As noted in the accompanying videos, for this study the first author contacted 12 comedians known to stutter. Four did not answer the initial inquiry. In comparison to those who responded, these four would probably fall at the higher end of the fame scale, if there were any way to operationally define that concept. There were, however, exceptions to that generalization in both directions (i.e., those of relative renown who participated and those less familiar who did not).
Of the eight who responded, 5 agreed to participate, and 4 actually did. We cannot explain the fifth. Perhaps disaffirming his participation fits his comedic style, sort of an electronic version of a squirting flower.
The 4 participants were asked a series of 13 questions, the first 12 of which are included in the videos. Two answered in writing. The other 2 were interviewed via Skype and gave their permission to be identified. As they are the stars of linked videos, their bios are posted above.
In keeping with the ISAD Conference guidelines, the video Stuttering Comedians: What Can They Teach Us? has been divided into 4 parts, each around 7 minutes long. If you prefer, the video in its entirety has been posted on YouTube (see resource list at the end of this paper). As will become evident the moment you click any of the links, the first author has absolutely no experience making videos. He does, however, have 3 teenagers in the house to serve as consultants. They helped with big picture stuff (directing Dad to editing programs, filming his parts, etc.); the glitches (e.g., clips cut off mid-word; inappropriate audio feedback) are entirely the author’s fault.
In any case, part 1 explores the following questions:
- What was your motivation for entering the field of stand-up comedy?
- Describe how stressful comedy was at the start. How much of the stress was due to your stutter?
- What is your motivation for continuing stand-up comedy?
Given the open-ended nature of the questions, the data are, obviously, not numerical. Means, standard deviations, ranges, and the like can be neither reported nor compared. Instead, commonalities across the answers were sought. Of course, shared responses are not always the most interesting, so other insights were noted as well. For example, while 3 of the 4 subjects said they started performing comedy simply because it was something they always wanted to do, there were answers that touched upon less obvious reasons, such as viewing stand-up as a means to improve confidence or public speaking skills. One subject reported attending a comedy show and knowing instinctively that he could do better than the performers he witnessed.
With respect to stress (the second question), the only common theme was that the pressures faced had more to do with stand-up than with stuttering. In other words, difficulties learning lines, getting laughs, dealing with hecklers, and other comedic concerns were bigger fears than being disfluent on stage. Interestingly, none of the 4 mentioned stuttering as being a particularly fearsome stressor.
Three of the 4 respondents stated that they continue with stand-up simply because they enjoy it. Three also referenced the positive feedback they get from audiences as motivation to carry on. Other answers included the following:
- Desire to become a better comedian.
- Socialization with other comics.
- Love the creativity.
- Comedy provides a sense of achievement.
- Improves shyness.
- Improves speech.
- It’s a way to be remembered.
- It’s fun.
Video part 1
Part 2 covers 2 questions. The first of these – Has stuttering been a barrier? – resulted in an unexpected commonality: Two different subjects had been accused of faking their stutters, presumably for laughs. The other responses to this question contrasted this accusation and identified what are probably more significant barriers resulting from disfluencies, such as making audiences uncomfortable, difficulty looking confident on stage, and a diminished number of jokes, which some promoters frown upon.
The other question was “Is stuttering ever beneficial to comedy?” and this one evoked the word “unique” from all 4 subjects. Stuttering provides a unique selling point for promoters. Once the performer is on stage, it leads to a unique act, based on a unique comedic perspective. Less obvious (but also unique) advantages to stuttering included increased comedic tension and a built-in protection against rushing through routines.
Video part 2
Part 3 begins with the question “Compare your desire to do stand-up vs any shame associated with stuttering.” As this is probably the most vaguely-worded question of the bunch, it is not surprising that responses varied. Two stated that shame was a factor, although both had apparently moved past that emotion (i.e., one noted that initial shame delayed starting a comedy career and another said that performing stand-up decreased shame). The other common response involved the realization that audiences don’t really care as much about stuttering as the subjects had assumed.
There was basically complete agreement across subjects for the 2-part question “Is it necessary to address your stuttering during the comedy performance? Is it a regular topic?” All of the comedians refer to their speech in some way when they are on stage (although one resisted the idea when he first started and apparently learned the hard way that disclosure is beneficial). In addition, jokes about stuttering are part of each comic’s act. In a sense, this question touched on some of the same control issues raised during video parts 1 and 2. The comedian has to have complete command of the room. Nothing is ignored—not hecklers, random noises, or even people who exit the theater. All will be called out from the stage. Ignoring what might be the most obvious aspect of the routine would not fit with this level of control.
Everyone answered yes to the question “Has your humor about stuttering changed over time?” The trend was for stuttering jokes to become less about the speaker and more about listener behaviors. It seems that comedians become empowered, as they get more comfortable performing. Rather than putting themselves down for something that is not their fault, they find humor in turning the tables on their listeners and revealing people’s insensitivity (as the accompanying clips make very clear).
The final question on part 3 is “How does stuttering affect audience response?” There were varied responses to this one, although 2 of the 4 said that the effect of stuttering on audiences is very small. It seems the comics surveyed have experienced all manner of reactions. Some audiences respond with embarrassed silence, others are visibly puzzled, and still others laugh at the speaker’s struggles.
Video part 3
The first 2 questions on part 4 were:
- What are difficult speech situations for you? and
- What are your coping skills when speech is difficult?
Curiously, the responses to these questions were not that different than one would hear with any group of adults who stutter. This is particularly surprising for the first one, given what these subjects do for a living and the high level of desensitization it requires. Even so, most of the feared situations were relatively common:
- Placing telephone calls.
- Speaking in large groups.
- Feared words.
- Noisy and busy environments.
- Ordering in restaurants.
- First dates.
Some, however, were more specialized:
- Being on camera.
- The beginning of my set.
What’s interesting is that these comedians aren’t without speaking fears. Theirs just don’t include stand-up comedy—what many people would surely rate as the most fearful speech situation of all.
Coping strategies were also familiar. Subjects mostly reported avoidance behaviors and skills learned in therapy (notably disclosure and fluency modification targets). One reported joking about stuttering. This is a reasonable defense mechanism for a comedian.
The final item to which participants responded was “Describe your level of desensitization or acceptance of stuttering.” As would be expected, all four reported a high level of acceptance. Moreover, this appears to be a topic into which they have put a lot of thought, as several of the comments on part 4 make clear.
Video part 4
Taking stock of the answers given to all 12 questions, it appears that those who stutter and dream of becoming comedians not only need to be well desensitized, but to manifest that desensitization into self-disclosure and humor about stuttering. From there, they experience differing stressors, obstacles, emotions, audience responses, feared situations, and coping skills, pointing out—as most investigations of the disorder do—that stuttering is very individualized. Yet all of the comedians seemed to come around to the idea that the humor in stuttering derives not from the struggles of the speaker, but the inappropriateness of the reactions. By viewing the disorder as the listeners’ problem, not only did they come to accept their difference, they turned it into a strength.
The good news for non-comedians is that humor is not necessarily needed to accomplish such a reversal.
Campbell, J. (2008). Jaik Campbell performing in Stand Up Britain Heat.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgeRYi5zA6k.
Campbell, J. (2009). Jaik at Monkey Business Aug 2009 talking about stuttering.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnmHT8tKPig.
Campbell, J. (2009). Jaik Campbell in the Stand Up Britain Final, October 2002.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9a7zl3h3Sc.
G, N. (2010). “Learning To Stutter:” Nina G on Previously Secret Information.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UlwJC3eMEc.
G, N. (2015). Fluency Techniques Help Drag Out a Show.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmUL_weU-Qk.
G, N. (2015). Stuttering Comedian Bravely Responds to Youtube Bullies.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xk3txAqByA.
G, N. & D, G. (2012). Shit Fluent People Say to People Who Stutter.
Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stCCXC4KYPc.
Williams, D.F. & Campbell, J. (2015, in press). Exploring Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Come to Terms with His Impairment. Geelong, Australia: The Brainary (www.thebrainary.com).
Williams, D.F., G, N., & Campbell, J. (2015). Stuttering Comedians: What Can They Teach Us?
Video available at: https://youtu.be/9gPYy-mjiz0.
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