Two speakers from the University of South Florida (USF), hosted a program titled “Seriously Funny: Disability and the Paradoxical Power of Humor” Thursday, to show how humor can be used by people with disabilities to tell their stories and experiences of living with a disability.
Shawn Bingham, assistant dean of the USF Honors Program and assistant professor of sociology, and Sara Green, director of interdisciplinary social sciences program and associate professor of sociology, wrote a book about disability humor with the same name as the lecture. They interviewed 10 comedians from the U.S., U.K. and Canada including Josh Blue, Liz Carr and Kim Kilpatrick about using humor about their disabilities in their performances.
“It was a really intriguing project that I personally think is just gonna drive a lot of my work as a sociologist,” Bingham said.
Green’s daughter has cerebral palsy and Bingham’s brothers were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Bingham was fascinated by how his brother could use his wit to get better services and get the resources he needed. It also allowed him to put people at ease and use his disability as a bridge to create relationships.
“We’re interested in the connection between activism and humor, particularly humor that critiques and tests boundaries and also humor that provides insight for things that are happening in society,” Bingham said.
Throughout the program, both Bingham and Green played video clips of comedians. However, Green first distinguished the difference between disabling humor and disability humor. She used the example of Donald Trump mocking a reporter with a disability.
“Disability humor is where people with disabilities are using humor to reframe their own experience, [and] sometimes they’re wanting to simply counter the tragedy narrative,” Green said.
Bingham spoke about the four different types of humor including superiority, relief, inferiority and incongruity and how comedians use those types of humor. He explained that often people with disabilities use comedy as a relief mechanism. To get their audiences comfortable, they make jokes about themselves but then turn the jokes onto the audience.
Comedians often refer to this as breaking the “fifth” wall, he said. People are conditioned not to mix humor and disabilities together, which often makes these types of comedy shows uncomfortable for audience members, Bingham said.
The goals of these comedians are to educate people about those with disabilities, said Green and Bingham. Both professors hope to break the stigma that people with disabilities are sad and isolated. Green said these comedians are using their platform to reclaim the disability experience and to retell the story through humor.
“Those assumptions that people with disabilities are very sad, very isolated, very introverted, stuck in institutions — that’s the kind of story that these folks are trying to grab ahold of and turn around and retell,” Green said.