Can Stuttering Be Funny? (Dale Williams)

williamsAbout the author: 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 newly released Shining a Light on Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Turn his Impairment into Applause (The Brainary), co-authored with comedian Jaik Campbell.

Humor is related to stuttering pride in a number of ways. Examples include:

  1. a newly-formed group stuttering pride in the 1980’s led to protests about humor that mocked stuttering,
  2. stuttering comedians have moved from humor about stuttered speech to making fun of listener reactions, demonstrating increased pride in their own speech, and
  3. sensitivity to jokes about stuttering appears to be related to one’s acceptance of (and pride in) their disorder.

Can Stuttering Be Funny?

Note: For parts of this essay, I borrowed from my new co-authored (with Jaik Campbell) book Shining a Light on Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy To Turn His Impairment into Applause, (The Brainary), specifically chapters 9 and 10. All such material was reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Let’s face it—most stuttering humor sucks. The level of the jokes we hear is somewhere between third grade and Flo the Progressive whatever-she-is (saleswoman? cashier? general annoyance?). Like clockwork, you stutter and an amateur comic says something like:

  • “Suh-suh-suh-suh say again?”
  • “What—you don’t know your name?”
  • “Easy for you to say!”

Language has been around for tens of thousands of years and that’s the best fluent speakers have come up with. Face it fluenters, you’re just not that damn funny.

What’s more, stuttering humor is almost invariably mean. Try saying any of the bullet points above without assuming a mocking tone. You can do it, but it takes some effort.

As the objects of such childish malice, we are, of course, conditioned to react negatively to it. Speaking personally, I know I have never heard my speech mocked and responded, “Good one! Ha ha, I almost choked on my ineffectual tongue when you mimicked me in a manner I’ve never once stuttered!”

Still, my question is this: Can stuttering be funny?

Whether it can or not seems to come back to that age-old struggle between sensitivity and humor. People continue trying to achieve a balance between the two, although, as noted, most end up accomplishing neither.

As some of you (i.e., anyone who read the Note at the top of this essay) know, I recently co-authored a book with Jaik Campbell, a successful stuttering comedian (Williams & Campbell, 2016). Here are some examples of stuttering-related jokes Jaik has told on stage:

I have a stutter. I don’t know if anyone else here has a stutter? It does sometimes happen.

(Look out over audience.) (Pause.)

They don’t normally call out.


Someone with a stutter came up to me once after a show.

He said, “You’re a shhhh, you’re a shhhh. You’re a shhhh, you’re a shining example. Well done!”

I told him to f-f-f, I told him to f-f-f, I told him to f-f-follow the advice of his speech therapist. 


Having a stutter makes you very critical of yourself, as well as making you critical of everyone around you. For example, I organize old school reunions and then don’t show up. If everyone from back then is in one place, I know I won’t bump into any of them when I’m out!


I was stopped by the police last week. He said, “You’ve got the right to remain silent.”

I said, “That sh-shouldn’t be a problem.” 

No seriously, he asked me what my name was, what my address was, and where I was going.

F-F- Fifteen minutes later, he charged me with wasting police time.


And here are some ideas he has discussed with television producers:

  • Interview a famous celebrity or politician and ask some borderline offensive questions. The person would have to keep a straight face whilst Jaik stuttered. If Jaik were culturally or socially clueless but overtly disabled, the interview subject would have to be kinder to him than he or she would be to the typical interviewer.
  • Along the same lines, “I could interview a blind politician, with my deaf comedian friend Steve. Steve would ask the question, but couldn’t hear the reply. I could hear the reply, but couldn’t tell Steve what it was. The blind politician couldn’t see what was going on as I looked at Steve in bewilderment.”
  • Hidden cameras could be used to film reactions as Jaik answered want ads for an auctioneer, bingo caller, or race track commentator.

My guess is that in your mind some of these pass for funny and others are just offensive. But can you tell me why?

My local support group once met with an acting troupe to discuss ideas for a stuttering video. Some of the suggestions were similar to Jaik’s ideas in general theme. I remember at one point during the meeting proposing a firing squad scene in which the victim would be given a blindfold and cigarette, then placed against a wall. The squad captain would bark, “Ready! Set! F-f-f-f-f-f…” The cigarette would burn low as the accused fearfully awaited his fate. The camera would switch back and forth between the doomed and perspiring criminal and the struggling captain trying to release the key word. The soldiers would glance about in confusion as the scene faded to black. I probably remember the discussion mainly because all of the people who stutter laughed at the idea but none of the non-stutterers did.

So perhaps the line between funny and offensive has much to do with who is telling the joke. Had a non-stutterer voiced the same idea, would the support group members have laughed? Did the non-stutterers stay quiet because they found the skit offensive? Or were they uncertain whether it was appropriate for them to laugh along?

In addition to who’s telling the joke, of course, offensiveness depends upon the joke itself. A Fish Called Wanda was a comedic movie in which a disfluent character was routinely demeaned and this drew protests from the stuttering community (Feinberg, 1990; McLellan, 1989). When the controversy reached Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Dennis Miller’s joke was the following.

The National Stuttering Project, protesting the portrayal of stuttering in the film A Fish Called Wanda, has received a contribution of $2,500 from MGM/UA. The payment was made in small amounts at irregular intervals (Takahama, 1991).

Instead of protesting, the National Stuttering Project (now the National Stuttering Association) applauded the joke. Why, I’m not certain. Perhaps they just appreciated any stuttering humor that rose above slapstick. Historically, movies and TV have produced only the playground-level variety of humor noted at the start of this essay: puerile comedy rooted in the speaker’s struggle.

At this point it might be instructive to explore why stuttering humor has always been so unfunny. My theory is this: Stuttering has offered an easy target in that those suffering from the disorder grew up ashamed of it and therefore were unlikely to protest. Mockers never had to up their games.

But in the 1980s, something amazing occurred. People who stutter began to speak out. The NSP and other groups launched media advocacy efforts to combat negative media portrayals on the basis that they were inaccurate and seemed to legitimize making fun of stuttering. Protests were launched, letters to the editor were written, and even theaters were picketed.

Predictably, there was backlash to these efforts. Advocates’ complaints were dismissed as “hypersensitive” (or that other favored copout phrase—“politically correct”). Essentially, critics were offering a 4-pronged argument (Williams, 2006):

  1. I am sensitive.
  2. Therefore, anything that does not offend me is not insensitive.
  3. By definition, then, anyone who is offended is hypersensitive.
  4. And, finally, if they can’t take a joke, they are certainly not worthy of sympathy, but are instead deserving of ridicule.

Of course, this argument is illogical as it is arrogant, and it served only to fuel the fire. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, in the ‘90s, the NSA was still fielding requests to protest stuttering portrayals in movies and commercials. By then however, the protesters were not the only ones speaking out. In fact, most of the requests were not honored because there was so little consensus among people who stutter regarding what was offensive. Jim McClure, the NSA Communications Director at the time, explains it this way: “It was almost a Rorschach test of desensitization and self-acceptance: Most of us who had been in the stuttering support movement for a while had become more tolerant, while folks who were just beginning to come to terms with stuttering were more easily offended” (McClure, J., personal correspondence). With that in mind, maybe it is a good sign that discussion of stuttering media portrayals has dwindled since its 1990s heyday.

It is also worth noting that popular stuttering humor is changing. All of the comics surveyed as part of the online conference a year ago (Williams, G, & Campbell, 2015) addressed stuttering in their acts, but many had changed the focus of their humor from themselves (i.e., making fun of the stuttering itself) to mocking the ignorance of their listeners. A good example of this is the short clip put together by comedians Nina G and Gina D, who demonstrate the obliviousness of typical responses to stuttering by simply repeating them (see G & D, 2012). But if it’s punch lines you prefer, here’s an excerpt from Nina G’s stand-up act (G, 2015) referencing a comment made on her YouTube channel:

This guy put: “This is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen”…The bravest thing this guy has ever seen is me doing stand-up comedy. And I just want to say…

In your face, 9/11 First Responders!

For Jaik’s part, his goals related to stuttering humor are to lighten the negativity of stuttering, educate the public, provide hope to people who stutter, and cultivate respect for these individuals. How well does he achieve these objectives? Well, I believe most would agree that the jokes and ideas related here fall throughout the entire span of the funny-to-insensitive continuum. As this is largely a matter of perspective, I will offer my own views.

I would give an unconditional thumbs up to:

  • Interviewing a politician who would have to be careful not to react and appear insensitive and
  • Organizing reunions for the sole purpose of avoiding people from the past.

Many of the other ideas risk protestations. This is not to say that they shouldn’t be tried, just that, based on the brief descriptions offered, they are unlikely to find universal appeal. Examples of such ideas include the following.

  • Joint interview of a blind politician by Jaik and a deaf comedian, i.e., one asks the question, but cannot hear the reply; another can hear, but not communicate the message. Meanwhile, the interview subject cannot see what is happening.
  • Hidden camera situations in which listeners’ patience is tried or a stuttering individual seeks speaking-centric jobs.
  • Stuttering in a way that results in arrest.

Of course, that’s just my take. It seems to all be very subjective.

 

References

Feinberg, A. (1990, July, 14). Stuttering protest and TV censorship. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-07-14/news/9002270431_1_national-stuttering-project-trim-tv-notes

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, January 22). Shit fluent people say to people who stutter [YouTube video]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stCCXC4KYPc

McLellan, D. (1989, March, 29). Stutter group pickets over ‘Wanda’ role. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/1989-03-29/entertainment/ca-716_1_wanda-insults-people.

Takahama, V. (1991, February 11). When he talks about stuttering, filmmakers listen. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1991-02-11/lifestyle/9102091161_1_stuttering-zimmerman-wanda.

Williams, D. F. (2006). Stuttering recovery: Personal and empirical perspectives. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Williams, D. F. & Campbell, J. (2016). Shining a Light on Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Turn his Impairment into Applause. Geelong, Victoria, Australia: The Brainary.

Williams, D. F., G. N., & Campbell, J. (2015). Stuttering Comedians: What Can They Teach Us? In 19th International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference (ISAD19). Available at:  http://isad.isastutter.org/isad-2015/papers-presented-by-2015/research-therapy-and-support/stuttering-comedians-what-can-they-teach-us/

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Comments

Can Stuttering Be Funny? (Dale Williams) — 66 Comments

  1. Hello! I am a graduate student in speech-language pathology. I am currently taking a fluency course. I don’t know if you have ever seen Drew Lynch, but he is also a stuttering comedian that was runner-up on America’s Got Talent. I couldn’t help but think about one of his successful jokes that he states he would be a bad GPS voice as you would miss the turn while he was attempting to get out the words. I agree there is a fine line between funny and offensive. As a person who doesn’t stutter it is hard to know when it is appropriate to laugh, even if the group it is “offending” finds it funny. My question for you is how do you think an SLP can utilize humor to help kids become more comfortable at school? Is there a place for humor in a therapy session to help the child feel more comfortable with his/her stutter or should it be strictly serious?

    Thanks!
    Morgan

    • Hi Morgan. Sorry for the delay—Hurricane Matthew kind of upset the to-do lists down here. Anyway, you asked good questions. Yes, I believe that humor can be a nice addition to stuttering therapy. One place that comes to mind is the process of desensitization, which can be helped by making treatment a fun experience for the client. The idea is to associate stuttering, temporarily at least, with positive experiences. It can work especially great in group therapy such as that typically administered in schools.

      Research for the book taught me other benefits of humor. It can reduce not just the stress of the speaker, but that of the listeners as well. Humor also helps one to understand a deeply personal matter. This understanding leads to changed behaviors when the illogic of the old ways becomes apparent. Expanding the proverbial comfort zone also becomes somewhat easier when one can have some fun doing it. It is empowering, as the comedians surveyed noted, when the speaker can turn the tables and see the ridiculousness of listeners’ reactions to stuttering (which makes a good treatment group experience).

      Along with improved understanding, treating a personal subject with humor permits one to objectify it. In doing so, the individual distances him- or herself from the issue and makes it less personal, allowing new insights to emerge. Such perspective is valuable because it keeps the speakers from dwelling on mistakes or overrating achievements, either of which could hinder the process of recovery.

      Finally, a note of caution: Humor is not necessarily the highest form of acceptance or a reflection of the best attitude one can have about stuttering. It is a disorder that different people handle in different ways. Some learn to stutter confidently, almost daring listeners to respond negatively. Others stutter openly and simply ignore the reactions. Yes, humor can help some people. But they have to decide that it is what works for them.

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. Dr. Williams,

    Hello! I am a 2nd year graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I thoroughly enjoyed your article, as I typically love having fun and joking with my clients. It is good to know that humor can help lighten up the therapy experience, and give the client some new insights after removing themselves from being so focused on the stuttering behavior itself. However, do you think it would be appropriate to use any type of humor related to stuttering with a beginning, or emerging stutterer as they may be in an emotionally vulnerable place, and can’t relate to a comedian who is confident with their stutter? Do you think this could have a significant negative impact on the client’s therapeutic experience?

    Thanks!

    Kelsey

    • Thanks for the note, Kelsey. Yours is an important question. I believe you can take a cue from the comedians on this matter: Humor related to listener reactions is likely to be a safe place to test the waters. And even if you said something with just a touch of humor, e.g., “Does anyone ever tell you to slow down—like that’s really going to help” and didn’t get so much as a smile, there wouldn’t be any sort of negative impact and you’d know the client wasn’t quite ready.

  3. Dr. Williams,

    This was a great post to read. Humor is precious to most people. Who doesn’t like to laugh? How do you distinguish when humor is an appropriate strategy for a child or adult? As you mentioned above, it does not work for all. As a second year SLP graduate student, I think it is important to understand when to be sensitive and when to be humorous. Thanks in advance for sharing your knowledge! 🙂

    • Layne – As you suggest, it is important to think about these things beforehand. With adults, and I would say young children too, I think we use the same cues in therapy that we use in everyday conversation. When you talk to someone and make a joke, you realize pretty quickly if the other person isn’t in the mood for humor (happens to me a lot, actually). Adolescents are trickier, as humor can be received much differently than intended. It’s good to be aware of that and to keep any humor safe until you figure out what the boundaries are.

  4. Dr. Williams,

    I really appreciated your take on humor in stuttering. As an SLP grad student (there seem to be a lot of us on this website!), I am slowly learning about the best way to go about helping a person who is not yet accepting of their stutter and humor seems like a great way to go about that. Obviously, as you mentioned, people who have never stuttered often feel uncomfortable with participating in “making fun of” stuttering. So my questions to you are: (1) Having never given therapy to a fluency client before, how would you suggest I begin to add humor into a session? I suppose it would depend on where they are in their journey. How would I find that fine line between offending them and making them feel better? (2) Have you found in your experience and research that certain age groups appreciate laughing at their stuttering more than others? I would be interested to know if this might affect my future career.

    Thank you so much for your time and article!
    Elise

    • Thanks Elise. One way to introduce humor into a session is to find an essay, recording, or video to discuss with your client. You can assign it as homework (read/watch this & we will talk about it next time) or watch something together during the session. The Stuttering Home Page has humorous essays and a link to Voices: Past and Present, on which you might find something. On YouTube, you can look up comedians such as Jaik Campbell and Nina G. Questions such as “Why do you think this person made a joke about stuttering?” or “How is he/she able to joke around about the ways that listeners react?” can help you determine where your client’s attitudes are and whether humor will be effective moving forward.

      Re age, no research has been done on that question, but my guess is that, generally speaking, the older the client, the greater the ability to laugh. Barriers such as shame and self-consciousness tend to decrease with age, and annoying listener behaviors become more tiresome.

  5. Hi Dr. Williams,

    I am an SLP student currently in a fluency course. I really found your paper and comments to be insightful. The aspects that stood out to me most as a clinician were: 1) People who have been dealing with stuttering for a longer period of time may be more apt to laugh at their own experiences with or listeners’ reactions to stuttering, and 2) Using humor in therapy can be quite beneficial if the client is receptive. For someone who stuttering is new, child or adult, do you advise incorporating humor early on or waiting until they are more accepting of their stutter?

    Thanks,
    Briattny

    • Thanks for your interest, Brittany. I don’t really see any problem incorporating humor right away. That’s not to say that the client will necessarily respond to it positively or eventually use it to change his or her attitudes about speech. I just don’t see much harm in introducing it right away. I can’t think of a reasonable scenario in which it would set the client back. Thus, it seems worth taking a shot.

  6. Dear Dale
    Thanks a lot for the elaborate analysis! Many years ago, I contributed a personal incident to Humor section, on stuttering homepage of Dr Judith Kuster; returned to it a couple of times, read other stories too – had a good laugh and felt lighter. In our evolution as a human being, I think, being able to take ourselves light-heatedly sometimes and laugh at our own “failings” or foibles, is an important stage. Sometime the roles we play in the world and our life-experiences, sit too heavily on our shoulders. This “rigidness” prevents forward movement and recovery. You rightly point out that who is telling the joke is important. A pws telling the joke could be a sign of empowerment; Non-pws telling the same joke could be seen as oppression of a minority. But no doubt, that we all have to do some “growing up”..

    In India, we are regularly using humor in our self-help groups. In a recent get together, a scenario was offered to a large group: What if 99% stammered and only 1% were fluent on earth? In the subsequent role plays, the small groups came up with many funny scenario.. Hilarious, liberating and memorable.

    Your paper is very timely!

    • Thank you for your insights, Sachin. I agree that humor can be a stress reducer. In some cases, it almost serves to reset one’s attitudes. I would have liked to have been in the meeting you describe. The support group here does a lot of joking around too. The meeting described in the paper (about the video) was a particularly memorable one, in part because of the crazy ideas put forth by people who stutter and also because of the reactions of some of the non-stuttering actors. They showed up walking on egg shells, all worried about saying something insensitive. They were quite surprised when we started talking about things like death row victims having to wait for a disfluency to finish.

  7. Hello Dr. Williams,
    I enjoyed reading your article on a topic I had never really thought about before. I am a second year graduate student and I have seen fluency clients in my clinical experiences. I have never tried to use humor with a fluency client, but I can see how it might be beneficial. You mention in your article that WHO tells the joke and WHAT joke is mentioned is important. Should I only let my client joke about his stutter? And if I try to use humor, how do I know what jokes/humor is appropriate? Is it best to use a social situation or activity to use humor in therapy?
    Thanks,
    Allison Burns

    • Hi Allison. Thanks for the questions and kind remarks. Activities centering around stuttering humor are good for stimulating discussion for identification/education & desensitization purposes, but humor doesn’t have to be introduced in a structured way. Quips about annoying listener reactions are safe, for example. Obviously, you want to steer clear of anything that might be interpreted as making fun of stuttering (but you already know that), although once a good rapport has been established, I sometimes test the waters there too. I recently told a client of a stuttering school-aged child who said the big advantage of stuttering was that the other kids had to prepare a 6-minute speech while he only had to prepare a 3-minute speech. But I would not have told him that earlier in the treatment process.

  8. Hi Dr. Williams,
    I enjoyed reading your essay and appreciate your perspective on this subject. I am a second year graduate student doing my clinical practicum in an elementary school. I have a 5th grade client who comes to me twice a week for individual therapy. He becomes very emotional every time discussion about his stuttering comes up during a session, and denies having any stuttering at all (although it is very clear that he does and has for quite a while). Do you think trying to slowly incorporate humor into his therapy might make light of a heavy situation and be a way to help him accept it, or do you think it could make him more sensitive? I’m sure it depends on the individual client, but I am open to any experiences or advice you are willing to share in this area!

    Thank you,
    Hayley

    • Hi Hayley. It sounds like it might be a little too soon to try using humor to help him accept his stuttering. It might, however, be a good time to introduce humor into the session to get him to associate stuttering with something positive. A video that comes to mind is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stCCXC4KYPc. A couple things to keep in mind, however: 1) since he’s in denial, you might have to phrase your questions along the lines of “Here are some things people who stutter deal with. What would you do if someone said these things to you?” & 2) the title and some of the examples are a bit too “adult” for a 5th grader, so you either have to edit, only show portions (if you can block the title), or write down the lines and deliver them yourself.

  9. Hello Mr. Williams,

    I am currently a second year graduate student at the University of South Carolina. I read your article with some of my colleagues and we enjoyed how you portrayed the humor that can be associated with stuttering from different points of view. As future speech language pathologists, we will likely be working with people who stutter at some point in our practice. We were interested in your response back to Morgan, in which you said “Humor is not necessarily the highest form of acceptance.” Could you expand on that response? Do you find people who are able to laugh and make light of their stutter are actually confident and accepting of it? Or do you think people who make fun of their own stutter have a more negative self-image, and perhaps use the humor as more of a defense mechanism, to cover up how they are truly feeling? We feel there could be a fine line between making an innocent joke about the topic and actually offending someone. We concluded that every client we see will be unique and each will be at different phases on the road to acceptance of their stutter. Hopefully we can aid each client to the best of our ability and judge whether or not humor would be a helpful addition in therapy for the individual. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic.

    Best,
    Holly Linville, Lena Martone, and Phillip Levkoff

    • 3 people typed in these comments? Interesting. Re humor not being the highest form of acceptance, I basically just meant different strokes for different folks. Some people joke about something when they’ve accepted it. Others never do (joke, I mean) and instead just talk about it openly or stop talking (and thinking) about it at all. Are those who can laugh at themselves more accepting than those who don’t? That’s probably true more often than not but, as you note, it could mean they’ve given in. As you seem to imply, it’s helpful to encourage your clients to be open and honest about what offends or bothers them, even in therapy. Sounds like you’re going to make good SLPs.

  10. Dr. Williams,

    I am a graduate SLP student and I am currently taking a fluency course. I really enjoyed reading your article. I loved how you laid how stuttering pride and humor do correlate. I found it interesting the findings from the survey taken at last year’s online conference. How many had changed their focus of their humor to mocking the ignorance of their listeners. That being said, after reading a few of the posts I see that you do agree with including humor in therapy sessions. May I ask how you would suggest to do so? I have not yet had a client who stutters but I know I will in the upcoming semester. I am just curious how to go at in the right way without being offensive. Thanks in advance for your input!

    Kelcy

    • Kelcy—it probably just comes down to acting natural. If you quip now and then, feel free to do so with clients (without being insensitive, of course). If you typically wait for the right moment to mention something funny, stick with that. I don’t believe there’s a best way to introduce humor in treatment any more than there is elsewhere.

      I hope that addresses what you meant. If not, feel free to ask again.

  11. Hi!

    I really enjoyed your article! It is a very neat perspective on stuttering and stuttering humor. Do you think that stuttering humor could help a client become more accepting of their stutter or open to an SLP?

    • Yes on both counts, if the humor helps the client distance him- or herself from the issue of stuttering and look at it with a fresh perspective.

  12. Dr. Williams,

    Thank you for the great read! I really enjoyed hearing your perspective on humor and stuttering. I was interested in your experience with incorporating humor in adult and child therapy sessions. I feel like this can be an effective approach if done correctly. I have not had any experience with individuals who stutter, however, I think that this could be a a good ice breaker strategy to include during therapy to make it an enjoyable and fun experience. If humor can help reduce stress and anxiety, then maybe this could have a positive effect toward their stuttering? I know everyone’s personalities and humor are different, but what has been your experience with this? Do you find that you have encountered positive experiences?

    Thanks!

    Briana

    • Thanks for your interest, Briana. I just want to clarify the issue of reduced stress and anxiety. Certainly, it’s easier to learn new tasks in a treatment room void of stress. In that sense, there’s a positive effect on stuttering. Could humor decrease speech-related anxiety and help the speaker to say whatever he wants to (even if he stutters)? That certainly seems possible and would also be positive. Can it reduce stuttering? That’s where it gets tricky. Stress is more likely a result of stuttering than a cause. Would it be easier to employ fluency-enhancing speaking modifications when stress is reduced? In some scenarios, that seems possible, though there’s no way of knowing if humor could reduce whatever stressors were keeping the speaker from hitting his targets. Are you a student? Maybe there’s a thesis in here somewhere.

  13. I was asked to read various posting on the ISA website for one my graduate class, and to be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this essay has been the most enjoyable and relatable. The honesty in the article is the right amount to reach a wide audience.

    I think humor is found in situations that are unexpected or mutually relatable. This means, the deliverer of a joke can make or break it. As an African American woman, there are certain things that will only be funny if another African American or woman says them. Otherwise, it will definitely come across as hurtful, because the shared experience isn’t there. On the other hand, I may give someone a “pass,” if I truly know there is no ill-intent in the joke, but that is a rare situation. It probably has a lot to do with the way the not so positive aspects of our country’s history. In regards to stuttering, I think the same can be said to how non-stutters will respond to jokes about stuttering. We don’t want to be seen as rude or having ill-intent, so most of proceed with caution.

    However, humor can be a nice leveling ground and allow real conversation (or healing) to take place, especially if all parties can really let their guards down and let go of any biases.

    I will keep this in mind when interacting with future clients, i think (if used appropriately) humor can be a useful therapy tool.

    • Thanks for placing a new perspective on this, Charnelle. I was worried that dissecting humor too much would ruin it (kind of like how explaining a joke makes it less funny), but I find this sort of thing fascinating.

  14. Hello Dr. Williams,

    I am fascinated by your paper topic, and believe that there is much to be investigated about this, as you mention, subjective topic. I am a graduate student as well in CSD and am currently learning about therapy techniques for fluency. Is there a way to incorporate some of the aspects you talk about in therapy? Also, are there any positive comedic representations of stuttering that you can share that would be useful to interested clients?

    Thank you!
    Katey

    • Thanks for your comments, Katey. The line that got the book collaboration started is here (warning – this is another clip that has some R-rated material; apparently censors in the UK are not as strict as in the US): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9a7zl3h3Sc. Anyway, I post this in response to your question because Jaik’s line “I’ve got a slight stutter. Not a great start, especially when you’ve only got three minutes on live TV!” is such a great illustration of acceptance. Accepting a condition doesn’t mean liking it. He seems to be saying that stuttering is still a pain in the, um, let’s say neck, but it’s part of life and he deals with it. That, in a nutshell, is acceptance.

  15. Hi Dale – great paper. I enjoyed your analysis of why some people may find stuttering humor funny and some may find it offensive. I agree with what was said in a comment or response that fluents might not always laugh at stuttering humor because they’re afraid that it would be like making fun of people who stutter.

    I went to a live comedy performance about six months ago and Drew Lynch, the stuttering comedian from America’s Got Talent was the headliner. I went with my mother and sister. My sister is the one who initiated the invite. When Drew came on stage and delivered his first joke, the audience, including me, laughed. But my mother and sister didn’t. They looked hesitatingly at me, as if making sure that it was OK with me that they laughed. I gave them a “thumbs -up” sign and that seemed to make them feel free to laugh and enjoy the show.

    I’ve shown some of my fluent friends Nina G’s videos and they too have glanced at me first to see how I was reacting before allowing themselves to laugh. I find this very interesting but also respectful at the same time.

    Thanks so much for sharing this perspective with us.

    As an aside, I just finished taking a beginners level improv class. It was so much fun. Once I stopped worrying about if I would stutter, I relaxed and went with the flow just like everyone else in the class. On the night of our live performance, I was “normal nervous”, not nervous that I would stutter. The show went very well and we were funny! I survived it.

    Pam

    • Hi Pam. It’s always nice to hear from you. An improv class, eh? That’s quite brave. Congrat’s.

      The issue of when it’s OK to laugh is an interesting one to me. Comedians such as Daniel Tosh and Lisa Lampanelli say derisive things about groups of people, things that would get you or me fired (or worse), but–and this is the part I don’t get–we all know of other comedians who the press have dragged through the mud for insensitive jokes that don’t seem to be all that different. So while what’s funny and what’s insensitive are both subjective, there seems to be some sort of agreed-upon scale that I don’t have access to. We need to talk about this some time and get it figured out. Nina is invited too.

        • Looking to see if it is ok to laugh is a classic thing that comes up in comedy. I find it interesting that people may not laugh at a joke if someone who might be part of that community is present, but otherwise it would be fine. I am sure there is some kind of scientific-sociological term to describe this. What I find fascinating is that as someone with a nonapparent or semiapparent disability, how the hell would people know to reference? How does this dynamic change.

  16. Dear Mr. Williams,

    My name is Sally and I am a first year graduate student in the Communicative Sciences and Disorders program. Your article was very refreshing and enjoyable to read, but it also caused me to think from a perspective that was new to me. As someone who identifies as a non-stutterer, I have always assumed that creating humor based on stuttering (or any other difficulty) was not appropriate. Although I will still be hesitant to conduct such a joke, I will be more open to laughing at them and taking them light-heartedly if the opportunity is presented. It was interesting to know that the National Stuttering Association applauded the joke from Saturday Night Live. However, after reading your article, it makes much more sense as to why they may have possibly enjoyed the humor. As you stated, not everyone may see these jokes as funny, and there will be people who view them as offensive. As a student clinician who still has a lot to learn about all types of fluency disorders, it is hopeful to know that people who identify themselves as stutterers are embracing their ‘difficulty’ per say, and enjoying its humorous side too. Thank you for sharing your stories and jokes, I will keep them in mind if I ever have a client who is open to discussing stuttering jokes.

    Best wishes,
    Sally

    • Thank you, Sally, for your insights. You might be interested in On The Lighter Side, one of the main sections of the Stuttering Home Page. There are examples of humor related to stuttering, and also its more general benefits. All the best.

  17. Mr. Williams,
    I am a first year graduate student (speech-language pathology)and really enjoyed your thoughts about stuttering humor. I thought your idea of there being a fine line between a joke being funny or offensive has to deal with who is telling the joke, to be right on point. I find this to be true in all other areas in our society. For example, for a person who has OCD, jokes may be directed towards that individual about everything being in perfect order. The person with OCD may be more opt to laugh if he/she knows the individual well enough, or perhaps if he/she made the joke themselves at some point. So many factors come into play, and more people should be self-aware of their surroundings. However, the one factor that bothers me the most is those who push the limits too far to intentionally be hurtful. These are definitely the people who should not being using stuttering humor. People need to be more insightful as to when the line should be drawn. Thank you for your thoughts!
    Best wishes,
    Jade

    • You’re right, Jade. I think one of the things that scares people away from this type of humor is concern about crossing the line. As for those who do so intentionally, some (as you note) do so to be cruel. Others truly believe that if something doesn’t offend them then it’s not offensive. They’re easy to spot—look for the ones telling everyone else to stop being so sensitive.

  18. Dr. Williams,
    Hello! I am a first year graduate student in speech-language pathology at Western Carolina University and I am taking a fluency course this semester. The idea that stuttering can be funny is an interesting one. My first thought is of course it can be funny, just take high school for example, if there is a kid who stutters he will be the biggest laughing stalk of the whole school. But is it because stuttering is funny or because it is different? Humor can be a good tool in therapy to build report and to encourage a client but what if it is the wrong kind of humor or for the wrong reasons.
    I believe that the humor behind a joke is defiantly brought to life by the presentation of the joke and the joke teller themselves. With this being said I agree that when someone tells a joke about stuttering it is often seen as offensive to others unless that joke is presented by a person who stutters. But then you have to ask your self is it really funny and that’s why people are laughing or do they feel uncomfortable and that is where the laughter comes from?
    At the top of your paper you used the term “Fluenter” this stayed with me the whole time I was reading your paper! It is so different and uncommonly used. Matter of fact I don’t think I have ever heard this term in my professional career ever. The term fluenter strikes me because first it is a label, but it is a label for something normal. The label stutter is not striking because it is defining something that is happening where as fluenter is just the opposite.
    To sum up my questions, I believe that the humor lays with each individual on weather something is funny or not? Have you tried to use humor in a session and it go badly? It is a fine line on being funny or offensive, are you always aware of that line and how do you make sure you don’t cross it? Also in therapy do you bring humor in towards the beginning as a way to build report or do you wait until you know your client better?

    • Hi Robin. You make a lot of good points. “Fluenter” is a pretty rare term. I chose it just because the sentence needed something quick. “Face it people whose fluency is within normal limits, you’re just not that damn funny…” feels awkward.

      I can’t think of a specific example of humor going awry in a session, but I’m sure it’s happened (given how many times it’s happened to me elsewhere). It wouldn’t be that big a deal to move on from that. Re the question “…are you always aware of that line and how do you make sure you don’t cross it?” no, I’m not. One of the things that inspired the paper was the idea that there seem to be a lot of people who know where the line is and I don’t. From the comments, I see that I’m not alone, which is somewhat gratifying.

  19. Hi Dr. Williams,

    What a great read! I think humor is such an important topic to discuss especially with all of the new “politically correct” language that is essential in today’s generation. Your paper offers really interesting perspectives and because each individual who stutters has a unique experience, I’m sure that each appreciates humor differently. As a graduate student studying speech language pathology, I am wondering what suggestions you have on using humor appropriately when working with children versus adults. Additionally, how do you think covert stutterers would react to this type of humor? The covert stuttering population is especially interesting to me and I imagine that some light humor could be both beneficial and detrimental depending on who the individual is.

    Thanks for the interesting topic!
    -Sam

    • Sam: Thank you for your comments and kind words. My sense is that true covert stutterers (the few that there are) wouldn’t be laughing much on the inside. I suppose the same would hold true for those who call themselves covert even though their stuttering isn’t as well hidden as they think it is (a much larger group).

  20. Dr. Williams,

    Thank you so much for sharing your opinion about humor and stuttering. I am a graduate student in a Communication Sciences and Disorders program and am taking a fluency course. I had never previously considered how humor and stuttering were connected and this was an eye opening experience for me. Thank you again for your input on this subject!

    • Thanks for reading & commenting. All the best as you make your way through grad school and beyond!

  21. Dr. Williams,
    I really enjoyed reading your paper about humor as it relates to stuttering. This is not something I have ever considered before. I am currently a first year graduate student studying to become a speech-language-pathologist. I am currently enrolled in a fluency class, and the topic of humor was introduced in our text book. There is an entire section about how it is important to include humor into a session; however, you have to know when it is effective and appropriate. From your experience, how often do you use humor effectively in sessions? Have you ever had an experience where you tried to incorporate humor and it went wrong? I currently am not working with a client who stutters; however, l am sure that I will someday in the future. What would be your best advice to a novice graduate clinician?
    Thank you again for sharing your insight on this topic!
    Nicole

    • Thanks for your interest, Nicole. I don’t know how often I use humor in sessions, which raises an interesting idea: Is there some way to quantify the effectiveness of humor, that is, how often it helps with desensitization, separation, and the other –tion’s it is supposed to aid? Maybe a retrospective study of clients who have accepted their stuttering? Anyway, until that happens, my short-term advice is this: Take your shot. Try different things, keep track of what works for you and learn from the attempts that fall short. This is your time to take risks and improve. Best of luck.

  22. Hi,
    This article was very different! It looks at stuttering through a different light. It is so important to be able to laugh at our own mistakes, but if a person is anxious about certain things, it can be difficult to find them humorous. I think it is important to encourage comedians who stutter to incorporate jokes about stuttering into their routines because it can be used to raise awareness and understanding about stuttering. I think it is a topic that is not widely understood, and any positive exposure is beneficial to raise awareness and open the conversation.

    • You’re right, Kayla, it’s a fine line. It’s likely that everyone has that one thing that’s so personal they don’t joke about in any form. Given the shame that often accompanies the development of stuttering, that may well be the one thing for many. Still, given that therapy will involve getting them outside their comfort zones, laughing off setbacks can help the recovery process. But I suppose as long as they learn from their mistakes and keep taking chances, it doesn’t really matter whether they do so with a smile.

      It’s interesting that you cite raising awareness and understanding as benefits of humor. That’s a point Jaik (co-author and stand-up comic) makes in the book. Sometimes jokes are just an escape, but they have the potential to be so much more.

  23. Hi Dr. Williams,
    I am currently a first year graduate student studying speech pathology. I found your article to be very intriguing. I have never truly considered this before and the influence it may have on PWS. Your point that humor is subjective and how it can vary depending on the audience and the speaker is interesting to me. Humor can be very offensive if the speaker is not careful. I really enjoyed your work and hearing your perspective. Thank you for sharing!
    Haley

  24. Hello Dr. Williams,

    I truly enjoyed reading through your paper. Humor is something that I love, but have not thought about in this context. I agree with your point that some people may find such jokes humorous and some may not, which, to me is a fine line. One of my professors always emphasizes creating a positive environment for clients to succeed, which I keep in mind every time I have a session right now as a student clinician. Since I do like humor, do you have a way to incorporate positive humor in therapy sessions where jokes can be made and positivity is key? Again, thanks for sharing such an interesting topic and look forward to hearing from you!

    -Amber

    • Thanks Amber. Humor is a good way to create a positive environment, one in which the client can associate speech and stuttering with something enjoyable. Just remember that it’s not the only way. With some clients, we’ve used humorous essays, clips, etc., but for others we’ve done things like hang up NBA posters or play music or whatever else was pleasurable for the given client.

      Your question reminds me of a friend of mine who used to lead a group of stuttering clients around their school. They would openly stutter with people, then discuss (and sometimes make fun of) the listener reactions they got. It sounds almost insensitive as I describe it, but was in reality a source of laughter and empowerment for the kids. There were actually non-stuttering kids who asked if they could join the group because it looked like so much fun.

  25. Hello Dr. Williams,

    I enjoyed reading your article. As a graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology and a person who does not stutter, I am being immersed in the different aspects of life for people who stutter for the first time. The area of comedy was not something that I had previously considered while thinking about stuttering. I appreciated how you highlighted comedians who are able to focus on the reaction of the listener rather than solely berate themselves for their dysfluencies. To me, this type of comedy would not only help a person who stutters to feel a sense of pride for their stuttering but also subtlety pointing out the misconceptions a person who doesn’t stutter might have. I would love to incorporate comedians, like those that you have pointed out, into future therapy sessions to help a client overcome a fear of stuttering.

    Thanks again!

    Nolan

    • Thanks for your comments, Nolan. Let me know how that goes, and if you pick up any additional insights in the process.

  26. Thank you for sharing! I am a believer in the phrase, “laughter is the best medicine!” Not that stuttering is a sort of “ailment” that requires medicine, but as a helpful therapeutic approach, for anyone. Laughter is like milk, it does the body good! The sensitivity of the audience and the topic at hand must be considered in relation to all humor (especially, in my opinion, with our hypersensitive population these days.) Comedy is a rough act to pursue due to the natural dilemma of always seeking a balance between humor and insult. Thank you for being conscious to others’ opinions and feelings, this is what makes true comedy.

    • Thanks Katie. If you ever figure out where that line between sensitivity and funny is, please let me know.

  27. Hello Dr. Williams,

    Thank you for your insightful article on incorporating humor into the world of stuttering. You touched on stuttering humor that is found in mainstream TV and movies, and how these negative portrayals in the media can be combatted with a humorous outlook. I am currently working with a student that stutters, and was wondering if I should at all prepare the student for these kinds of media portrayals? Do I preface the student that these portrayals are out there and you can learn to laugh at them?

    I look forward to hearing your input!

    Thanks you,
    Christina

    • Hi Christina. I don’t believe that true acceptance requires one to laugh at all stuttering portrayals, but a conversation about which are offensive and which are positive in some way sounds like a good means to open discussion about the client’s emotions and beliefs about stuttering.

  28. Hello Dr. WIlliams!

    I found your article to be an extremely interesting read! I am a graduate SLP student, and I am always attempting to add humor into my sessions when I can. I am also a big fan of stand up comedy and have heard of Jaik and also Drew Lynch who performed on America’s Got Talent; I think they’re both pretty funny! Your article just raised so many questions about what is/should be considered acceptable in humor as it pertains to stuttering (but is also relatable to other groups of people), and I found myself trying to make connections as to how other comics also poke fun at other groups of people who have nothing to do with stuttering. I also found myself trying to think how I could use this in therapy, as I currently am in an internship with middle school students, some of whom stutter.
    First, I completely agree with you that the way PWS have been historically portrayed in the media is unfair, and I’m glad that the humor has moved on from belittling the person who has a stutter, by people who do not.
    I completely agree with you that when engaging in comedy, one of the biggest factors in determining if a joke will land or not depends on who is telling it and who is the audience. With regard to your story about the firing squad, I chuckled when I read it, even before finding out who the audience and source was. You kept me in suspense, do you think that the joke would have still been funny had a staff member who didn’t stutter had said it? That made me think, comics often times make fun other other groups with whom they don’t identify. Seeing as how the humor has changed for the better, now focusing on the reactions rather than on the individual, do you think it would be okay now if someone who doesn’t stutter pokes fun at his own reaction or others reactions (done tastefully) when communicating with a PWS? Or would you consider this still crossing the line? I also thought, “what if the police officer described above had told that joke, would it still have been funny?” My thought is probably not, but I could be way off. Or, is the answer, “it depends” because comedy is subjective. I’d like to think it’s more accepted now, as we see more PWS poking fun at their experiences, as well as other groups of people, finding humor in the situation they’ve been given and finding, as you say, acceptance. It makes me think of that new show on ABC, “Speechless” where a child with an AAC device is the main character, poking fun at the situation, the reactions of others, but still portrays the individual in a positive light. Perhaps we are becoming better at comedy as a country? Perhaps we are becoming more comfortable/accepting of other people and ourselves? I’m not sure what the answer is.
    Lastly, I’d love to use some of these ideas and pull them into therapy. I can see how it could empower someone, but I also see how it could have a negative impact on an individual as well. What would you do if you thought this might be a good idea to incorporate into therapy with a client, and it completely backfired? Either way, I enjoyed your post. I feel like this is the type of dialogue that needs to be created so that we can talk about these kinds of issues.

    Thanks!

    Andrew

    • Very thoughtful post, Andrew. I don’t really know the rules re when an outsider can make fun of a group. Still, I believe that something like a stuttering auctioneer or firing squad captain might work as, say, a Family Guy cutaway, but you’d have to have a really good rapport with a client to use them in therapy. Perhaps outsiders are sometimes trying to make a point about acceptance (I make fun of you like I do everyone else) and other times are hoping there’s humor in being inappropriately mean, though I don’t know how they would expect people to know the difference. It could also be that they’re making fun of jerks who mock disabilities (or races or religions, etc.) by showing what boors they (the mockers) can be (which is what the makers of A Fish Called Wanda claimed), though, again, how could anyone tell?

  29. Hello Dr. Williams!

    I really enjoyed your post! I’m a SLP graduate student and we have learned a lot about incorporating humor into our therapy sessions with clients to “lighten the mood” or to help establish rapport with a client. However, I have never worked with a person who stutters and when I incorporate humor, I have never done it in a way that “pokes fun” at the client’s “problem” for a lack of a better word.

    My question is, when and how would it be appropriate to incorporate humor into a session with a client who stutters? Are there points in a persons journey in which it would not be appropriate to incorporate humor or that it would offend them? Because I am not a person who stutters and never have been, I would be a little afraid to use humor with a client because I would be afraid of offending them. Do you feel that it would be beneficial to find out how the client feels about stuttering humor before you use it with them? I am interested to know so that I can use this information in sessions in my future career.

    Thanks so much!

    Allison

    • Hi Allison. Good questions. Humor about listener reactions is probably a safe area to start. You don’t have to go for the big laugh. I doubt that mildly amusing examples of poor reactions to stuttering would be offensive to anyone. As a bonus, it should give you an idea of how your client will react to humor.

  30. Hello Dr. Williams!
    I am a Graduate student who is currently working towards his master’s in SLP and someone who loves humor. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. It took a hard look at the careful nature of humor in sensitive situations. I appreciated your conclusion and how it matches up with the “Punching up” theory of comedy I have heard from my improv friends for some time. The general rule addresses power relationships and the role they play in a joke. Thank you again for your insight, and I think I may have some more reading to do!
    -Kevin

    • Thanks Kevin for your very interesting thoughts. You’re probably right–punching up to avoid mocking the victims probably explains a great deal about where the line is that can’t be crossed. But it’s also interesting that it doesn’t explain all of it. There are still a handful of comedians who get away with humor based on stereotypes. Do any of your improv friends have theories on why? I’d be interested to hear them.

  31. With the time zone differences, I’m not sure exactly when the comments will be closed, but, given that I have to leave for an event, it will likely be before I can be on-line again. I thank everyone for their comments and questions. I’ve enjoyed interacting with you these past 3 weeks. I also thank everyone who read the paper without commenting (assuming those people exist). If anyone would like to contact me about any of this, my email is dwilliam@fau.edu. Enjoy the rest of your ISAD!

  32. Hi Dale

    You bring forward the thin line between being funny and being hurtful, something the media doesn’t really get.

    It depends on WHO makes the joke, the PWS or a fluent person, and if it’s about making fun of the PWS or of the hilarious situations we wind up into, because of our stutter. Judy Kuster captured so many of these, including some of mine. 🙂

    http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/kuster/humor.html

    Keep talking

    Anita Blom