|About 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:
- a newly-formed group stuttering pride in the 1980’s led to protests about humor that mocked stuttering,
- stuttering comedians have moved from humor about stuttered speech to making fun of listener reactions, demonstrating increased pride in their own speech, and
- 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):
- I am sensitive.
- Therefore, anything that does not offend me is not insensitive.
- By definition, then, anyone who is offended is hypersensitive.
- 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.
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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