Wednesday morning I watched a late-night TV clip as recommended by the stream of liked Facebook news: Jerry Seinfeld appears on Jimmy Fallon’s first episode of The Tonight Show. Seinfeld says he’s honored, and Jimmy Fallon is all giggles and awe and pitch-perfect imitations, and the two laugh together and we laugh with them.
And then I click further into the clickables to watch more of last night’s episode: Seinfeld’s stand-up routine. A bit about cell phones and our addiction to them. I chuckle. A transition to e-mail and our preference for it. I chuckle. A transition to the regular postal service, specifically the US postal worker.
Seinfeld mocks him as “A dazed and confused distant brand of the Cub Scouts…” The audience laughs, and Seinfeld employs his characteristic list-making drone that is his delivery trademark: “…bumbling around the street, in embarrassing shorts and jackets, with meaningless patches and victory medals…” [more laughter] “…driving four miles an hour, twenty feet at a time, on the wrong side of a mentally handicapped jeep.”
That’s the joke’s crescendo—mentally handicapped Jeep—and the audience replies with the punctuation of a collective har-har, and I’m so baffled I do a double-take. Wait. Rewind. Replay. Did he just say that?
Mentally Handicapped Jeep, he says, and cue the audience’s laughter, which is a hint reluctant, almost guiltily so, but unmistakable laughter nonetheless.
I was sitting beside my two-and-a-half year old daughter, who someone might call “mentally handicapped,” who I call, well, I call her “Fiona.” But when I have to label her limitations, her challenges, her placement on the milestone charts, I say, “a child with developmental disabilities.” Or “a kid with multiple disabilities.” There she was, flipping through Peppe the Lamplighter or Starry Messenger or some other children’s book, occasionally applauding when the audience applauded but otherwise oblivious to the show.
According to Seinfeld, the Jeep is “mentally handicapped” because the Jeep is slow. It stops and it starts, unlike a normal car on the road, which just keeps going unless there are signs that tell it to stop. The Jeep doesn’t follow the rules, the norms, the social codes of Jeep-ness. The Jeep looks different than the other cars—its door is sometimes left open, and its steering wheel is on the “wrong side.” And so Seinfeld calls it “mentally handicapped.” In so doing, he links my daughter and people like her to something slow, different, not normal. To something mock-able.
It’s not just that I didn’t find the joke funny. It’s that it hurt. Like, out of nowhere, right in the middle of laughing with a good-natured friend, he stabs me in the side with a pencil. How could you, buddy? I paused the clip and sat stunned a minute, trying to recover.
Let’s face it: what he meant was “retarded.” What he did was perform a “search and replace” on an old word plenty of folks are advocating to retire, because its stigma is too great, its connotations too wedded to mockery on playgrounds. But with comedy acts like Seinfeld’s, “mentally handicapped” becomes the next replacement. Then “Cognitively Disabled.” Or “intellectually disabled,” as jokes upon jokes eat up the words we rely on. When we use these phrases to mean “dumb” or “stupid” or “stupidly different,” we’re tainting the words, rendering them useless, and those of us who advocate have to head back to the dictionary, as we struggle to offer up a new phrase that will bend the thinking of the culture.
A mother of a child with Fiona’s same syndrome once attended a party. There were other kids in attendance. She overheard another mother say to her kid, “Stop acting like a special needs child!”
A writer once described a moose as “a retarded horse,” and then, in attempt to be politically correct, revised it to “a special needs horse.”
I believe in the power of language. I believe that our words shape our thinking. I believe it’s important to change the language when that language becomes dead or distorted, so yes, I believe that words like “developmentally disabled” are good replacements to describe people like Fiona. But obviously not if they’re then used to mock her. In that case, it’s only a matter of time before any phrase we use is distorted yet again—because in that case, it’s our view of people with disabilities that is distorted. It’s our view that needs to change.
The Seinfeld clip got me thinking about comedy, about how it works and how it doesn’t. Black comedians make fun of white folks. Male comedians make fun of women. Female comedians make fun of men. Gay comedians make fun of straight people. “You ever notice how…” the comedian starts, and then highlights an aspect of human nature that has people howling. There’s a history of one group poking fun at another, and yes, sometimes the jokes hit the lowest common denominator, but other times, so many other times, the jokes are illuminating and clever, even important and political. Comedy as social commentary.
So why does “Mentally handicapped Jeep” feel so cruel, so crude, so low-blow and wrong? I’m still trying to suss this out, so feel free to add your thoughts, but here is my working theory:
Because in this case, a cognitively able-bodied audience laughs at a marginalized group’s difference and slowness. Because members of that marginalized group are likened to clumsy machines. And because not a single person with developmental disabilities is “in” on the joke. Which is possibly why the laughter in the audience is stilted. Reluctant. Guilty-sounding. After all, there’s an American history of this kind of laughter, a history of one majority group laughing at the caricature of an oppressed minority, a history of a hundred years of minstrel shows.
And then there’s my daughter, oblivious on the couch beside me, flipping through the pages of her books. I want to wrap her up in some magical cloak that shields her from all of this. I want to pretend for the both of us that none of it exists; that the world respects and honors her, calls her by her name, and never makes a joke at her expense.