Comedians have a job to do…be funny. Otherwise, they won’t last long in their chosen profession. As an organization representing people with intellectual disabilities, specifically people with Down syndrome, we also have a job to do. To advocate for their rights and well-being. Sometimes our job intersects with the job of a comedian.
“Offensive” comedy is nothing new. There are comedians who have built their entire brand around offending as many people as possible. Most recently, stand-up comic Gary Owen’s routine on Showtime describing his “retarded cousin, Tina” was brought to our attention. To us? Not funny. He defends his routine by saying – hey, she’s my cousin – I’m allowed! Really? We think in most families, that wouldn’t fly. And what about saying watching the Special Olympics is really funny s*&t? That’s okay because…your cousin participates?
Does the First Amendment give Gary Owen the right to use that shtick in his stand-up routine? Absolutely. But the First Amendment also gives us the right to protest it, and to ask Showtime to take a larger view of the act and how it offends a large segment of the population.
As self-advocate John Franklin Stephens wrote in a Huffington Post blog this week, “I want to start by answering the “word police” and “political correctness” arguments that I have heard before, when I have objected to the use of the term “retard.” I have never said that anyone should be prohibited from using any word. I have urged people (great and small, Democrat and Republican) to refrain from using purposely offensive slurs. Similarly, I have no desire to try to force Gary Owen to drop this bit from his act… So, what’s wrong with this bit? Well, there’s the obvious that it’s not really very funny. More to the point, it depends entirely on making fun of people who almost certainly are not in a position to defend themselves.”
Comedy has evolved over time. When is the last time you saw an “edgy comedian” in blackface? When we know better, we do better.
In 2004, Carol Mills, PhD wrote in our newsletter, Down Syndrome News, “This is not simply about semantics, political correctness or being overly sensitive. It is about respect. Once you start educating others, you will be surprised by reactions. A few may never get it, but most people will thank you. They will even tell you that they never realized the impact of their words.”
This is a great opportunity to educate both Gary Owen and his producers at Showtime.