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Equality, Diversity & Inclusivity (EDI)

Outline of resources, collections and library initiatives related to key areas in Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity

What we're reading - May 2022

By Enda Kelly, Library Assistant IT Carlow

Title: Seriously Funny: Disability and the Paradoxical Power of Humour

Author: Shawn Chandler Bingham and Sara E. Green

The book explores the significance and paradoxical power of humour, in particular stand-up comedy which both makes light of and critiques notions of disability in wider society, especially the idea that disability is a tragedy. Humour allows disabled people the chance to craft their own narratives about their experience for the audience to understand it, beyond this simple framing of disability as tragedy. The book aims to explore the difference between disabling humour regarding disabled people and disabled humour. This is mainly done through interviews with ten comedians with varying degrees of disability about their experiences with stand-up comedy and their thoughts on how their disability informs their comedy.

The comedians stated that they use their comedy to showcase to audiences the personal experience of disability, to demonstrate how the social world reinforces and stereotypes their experiences and illustrate ways the audience may be complacent about these issues in their daily lives. To aid in understanding the nuances around this, the book also provides a broad overview of disability studies and the different models of disability.

The comedian's understanding of disability and what they want to showcase is that disability is a social construct rather than a tragedy that afflicts their lives or that disability is a simple medical diagnosis. What makes a disability is how society treats people with a certain condition. For example, if you need a wheelchair, you are only disadvantaged when for instance, a building doesn't have a lift rather than this being a disability in itself.

This is seen in one joke from Liz Carr the book points to, "I love my superheroes, I do. My favourite was, of course, Superman. And I was very, very excited when Christopher Reeve (the actor who played superman in the 70's and 80s films) became disabled, " 'Save me from this burning building!' says Lois lane, Superman replies [ imitating Superman, breathing heavily]: 'There's no lift Lois. You're. f****'” The joke entertains and informs, highlighting that even the man of steel is rendered disabled in this instance not through a medical diagnosis but rather the lack of a lift.

The book also examines the history of disability and comedy from Greco-Roman notions of disability as a sign of moral failing to the jester and to our current notion of stand-up comedy, to illustrate the differing notions of disability throughout time. As well as this, it explores the idea of political correctness concerning disability humour, concluding that political correctness can simplify the moral choice around certain words. According to the comedians interviewed, words that could be considered offensive are necessary to get raw experience across in some instances. Rather than the word itself causing offense, the intent behind it should be what counts, again playing into the book's underlying theme, that humour is complicated. Overall, it provided a nuanced overview and understanding of the power of humour to challenge social ideas while simultaneously entertaining and changing people's thinking. This message is put across very clearly and is a congenial read.

The book is limited in the fact that it does not provide any audience feedback on the comedic value of these themes of disability in stand-up shows. This may limit the impact of the social critique. The audience are just laughing at the jokes presented and not delving into or grasping the higher concepts at play. Despite all this, I do think it's a good breezy introduction to the study of disability and the various theories of humour around disability that I really wouldn't have thought about before, which would seem to be what the EDI book club is about, so it certainly does that job well.

What we've read

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About the Book Club  

The EDI book club is open to staff at SETU. We meet monthly, selecting and reading new titles related to an EDI issue.

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