The Shelf Life of Disability Jokes

Illustration of an old-fashioned microphone in front of a line or red theater curtains

I am a pretty big fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s TV work. There’s Seinfeld, obviously, which left a hell of a lot of graffiti in permanent marker on the interior surfaces of my mind, including at least one really great disabled character, Danny Woburn's Mickey Abbott. And more recently I have mostly enjoyed Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. On each episode of the show, Jerry interviews a comedian while driving them around in some kind of amazingly cool car, and then getting coffee at a coffee shop.

The most recent episode features Kathleen Madigan and her comedy partner Chuck Martin. I’m writing about it here because the show included two disability moments … an impromptu riff by Jerry with an assist from Chuck, and a joke from Kathleen.

First, while driving, Jerry spotted a banner reading “Celebrate Disabilities.” He read it back in his trademark “Can you believe this?” voice, and he and Chuck riffed on how obviously weird it was to cheer about being disabled.

Later on, Kathleen talked about a comedian she knows with Cerebral Palsy who also at one time had a drinking problem. Her line to him was that you can’t have both … you have to pick one! Because, you know, two serious problems that affect your communication are unsustainable. She threw in a mock “CP voice” just to illustrate, just to help the joke along.

I enjoy comedy. I may even qualify as a comedy nerd. So I am very reluctant to condemn disability-themed comedy bits on impulse. But these were not very impressive disability jokes, for one very specific reason.

It’s not because the jokes were hurtful or offensive, though it shouldn't be a surprise if some disabled people are offended, certainly by Madigan mimicking how people with CP talk. The real problem is that both jokes rely on faulty premises and too much feigned ignorance. I believe that Jerry Seinfeld must understand on some level that a cheery-looking sign reading, “Celebrate Disabilities” isn’t nonsense ... maybe a bit too cheerful for my taste, but not a contradiction. He has to be at least a little familiar with the idea of disabled people having some pride, and attempting to get other people to view them more positively. Jerry's joke implied that the sign makes no sense, but I don’t think the’s that ignorant … so the joke doesn’t ring true to me.

Similarly, I suspect that Madigan, (a veteran comedian, not a rookie), knows perfectly well that plenty of disabled people have a drinking problem. She may even be dimly aware that disabled people are statistically more likely than the average person to have drinking problems, for a variety of reasons. Now, I do think there’s a kernel of truth in her joke … that having two significant conditions at once is probably harder than having just one. There's a legitimate bit of dark irony there. But then her joke also depends on the idea that while her friend’s CP isn’t optional, alcoholism is. I mean, alcoholism is more readily controlled than Cerebral Palsy, but not by as much as Madigan’s joke would imply. And again, she thinks her story will be funny because of the surprise factor … a guy with CP and he’s an alcoholic?! But how many actual audiences today would think this surprising?

This happens a lot to “observational” comedians. They base their jokes on shared confusion, an assumed common bewilderment over seemingly inexplicable contradictions in everyday life. But as time goes on, we learn stuff. Many things that were confusing in the ‘80s and '90s are pretty familiar to most people now. That’s one reason why disability jokes don’t work the way they used to. It’s not just because they are offensive. It’s also because most audiences now are more knowledgeable about disability and actual disabled people, so they're not as perplexed and bewildered as the comedian is, or pretends to be. If the comedian asks, "What's up with that?!" and 80% of the audience can give a logical answer, then it's not that funny.

By the way, was Madigan talking about Josh Blue? And if Josh Blue told a CP + alcoholism joke, would it be funnier? How about Jerry taking Josh Blue out for coffee in a cool car? I would watch the hell out of that.