April 11, 2012

Andy Richter Saddens the Universe

When we talk about the dehumanization of people with disabilities, there's a general dismay that receives a certain amount of lip service, but there's a sad reality, too. Not every slur against every disability receives the same amount of outrage. Not every lobby inspires the same level of hesitation from those who might be considering making a joke in a film or on television or wherever. Some of our tribes are very, very small. The number of fists we can shake at the sky is limited.

Which is probably why comedian and Conan co-host Andy Richter didn't hesitate to make this joke earlier tonight:

@Andy_Richter
RE: the-baseball-cap-that-fits-over-the-tops-of-the-ears trend: is microcephaly now considered sexy?

There are a few reasons this bothers me, some of them very personal. But let's get this out of the way first: Andy Richter is a smart and funny guy. And that's part of the problem here. When someone like Tracy Morgan makes some joke about "retarded people", we are outraged for sure. But on some level, we might also look at both the joke and the comedian and say, "Well, honestly, that's pretty dumb."

But Richter has been one of the more intelligent and on-the-fly funny personalities on television for a long time. And there's something about this joke that seems especially cruel. The joke doesn't work (inasmuch as it works at all) unless you know about microcephaly. The joke is that persons with microcephaly have small heads. Get it? And to make this joke, Andy Richter had to be completely aware of what microcephaly is.

Of all the problems with this joke, awareness isn't one of them.

A few harsh points, then. When Richter asks if microcephaly is now considered sexy, he's kidding. If he wasn't kidding, however, the answer would be mostly no. It's not sexy because the word "sexy" is probably only really appropriate when applied to adults. Persons born with more pronounced microcephaly don't generally make it very far into adulthood. Many of them die young, buried by their heartsick parents.

I had the opportunity to meet with a great many of these parents and their amazing children a few summers ago at what is now called the Microcephaly, Lissencephaly and Polymicrogyria Convention, a huge labor of love presented by the Foundation for Children with Microcephaly. I got to know some of the most amazing people in the world at that conference; it literally changed my life.

And I learned to appreciate just how closely their world intersected with mine. At this conference, kids were examined by some of the top experts in the world, including Dr. William Dobyns, the doctor who diagnosed Schuyler's polymicrogyria. (The first thing he did when he met Schuyler in 2005 was measure her head to rule out microcephaly.) At the closing lecture, Dr. Dobyns surprised me by reporting that aside from microcephaly, the most common diagnosis he had given out at the conference was polymicrogyria.

Polymicrogyria. Microcephally. Lissencephaly. Not many advocacy groups for these monsters. No telethons or puzzle pieces or a month for awareness. No inspiring actors in popular tv shows. No movies about a Very Special Child. And no hesitation by a popular and successful tv comedian to make a joke about them, a joke that his clever fans might have to google to even understand and laugh about.

If Schuyler's disability were one that showed on her face, if she were shaped differently because of the little monster in her brain, then perhaps a famous comedian could make a joke about her, too. Perhaps I should feel lucky. Lucky that Schuyler can hide in plain sight, lucky that her appearance doesn't bring out the worst in others, lucky that she might just get to grow up without going to a movie or watching tv and seeing herself as the punchline to a joke.

But I don't feel lucky. I feel sad, mostly for the friends I made at that conference three years ago. Some of those friends have probably buried their children by now. Those who haven't probably don't have the time or the energy to be outraged at Andy Richter's monstrous, stupid joke. I'm sad for all their beautiful children, and for all the kids out there whose disability marks them in a way that attracts pointing jackass fingers. I'm sad for all the ones who can't understand the jokes that are being made, or are even aware that they are being mocked at all. That makes it worse in my eyes, not better.

Once again, I feel like the world really isn't ready to make space for our kids or our families. There's a table, and that table is set for the empowered, and it's even set for the disenfranchised.

But only if you're human. Only if you're better than a punchline.



UPDATE, 11:30am

About an hour ago, Andy Richter removed the offending tweet. It it's place, he made the following statement:

I offended a lot of people yesterday with a tweet using the word "microcephaly". It was not my intention to mock disability. I normally am not bothered by offending people, but in this case, I am. I make jokes, and this was one I shouldn't have made. I apologize for my insensitivity in this instance.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I would like to thank Andy Richter for this gesture. We all have a lot of growing to do, myself as much as anyone.

27 comments:

Matthew said...

It's sad that comedians feel they need to degrade others to get a laugh. Thanks for this Rob, I shared it on facebook as I hope we all do.

Matt

Kim said...

I tweeted your blog link to him, just in case he looks at responses. People should really put a few seconds of thought into things before posting them.

Gwen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gwen said...

All I've got to say is FTS. Seriously. He might as well have said the R word. What a dick. I've lost respect... :(

kickit said...

I love comedy and everything about it .. Louis c.k. Is wonderful. He makes horrible jokes about his average typical. Children. I guess I just don't feel the same as you on this subject. Comedy is wonderful and gets me by and makes a lot of the stress of dealing with special needs issues go away Now it is not for all people and I feel if it's not for you or you can't handle it you should not pay any attention to it.. But in my opinion there is a difference in making fun of or bullying someone and making a honest joke that for me helps relieve stress if I wasn't able to laugh about my own issues and things about myself I think I would just be stuck in a hole ..

kickit said...

I disagree

Rob Rummel-Hudson said...

kick it:

The point of the joke is that people with microcephaly have small heads. THe fact that people with microcephaly have small heads is also what makes their lives so challenging and ultimately brief.

In other words, it kills them. The thing in the joke that is supposed to be funny kills them.

If that's funny to you, if you DON'T see that as bullying or making fun of someone, well, there you go. Good luck sleeping at night.

Elizabeth said...

I'm grateful that you're out there, drawing attention to this, making our case. Thank you.

Shasta said...

Thanks, Rob. Well-written and thought-provoking as usual. I struggle a lot with where the line is in humor. Any class, gender, condition of humanity is the punchline of a joke somewhere. I've been a punchline, you've been a punchline. This joke of Richter's was in bad taste to be sure. Using the r-word is offensive, to be sure. But where does it stop? Is it OK to say "hurr," or "derf, derf," or "duh" after you've had a brain fart? Is that really referring to intellectual disabilities or is it about the quality in all of us that can be (hilariously, ironically, sillily — which apparently is a word!) inept at times?

This is probably off-topic for what you're talking about. I guess I'm just curious if somewhere out there comedy conference participants are talking about where the line is.

Jodie M. Cordell said...

Wow! I've been a fan of Andy Richter...up until now. How insensitive? What kills me the most is that it feels targeted towards people who have or deal with the affliction. The regular, off-the-street person reading that won't even know what it is so the laugh is lost to them. Did he really think that people who deal with it on a regular basis would think that was funny? Yep, just feels pointed at a small group of people who are trying to cope with a fatally debilitating disorder to me.

alexandra said...

As an aspiring comedian/comedy writer, I've adopted a hard fast rule: never joke about something people don't choose. It's a desperate comedic grab.

happy's mommy said...

SO many thoughts and emotions on this topic. But mostly...it's sadness.

There is a difference between comedy and cruelty.

But as always...I'm thankful for the voice you provide for kids like my son. Who doesn't have microphaly btw...but does have disabilities that like your daughter's can often hide in plain sight. The blessing and the curse.

watchwhathappens said...

I'm with Shasta in that I wonder where the line is. I personally found his joke just plain unfunny (and I have no idea what he's talking about re: baseball caps), but what about people who say "that's just me being OCD, ha ha ha" when they're not *actually* OCD, or "I'm starving" when they're not actually starving, or "you're crazy"? Is it that those things are too diluted or generalized that we don't perceive them as offensive?

Cindy said...

Hi, Rob:

It's important here, also, to not engender pity. I think pity is something that separates "us" from "them" and ultimately segregates people, only it's an emotional segregation.

While I am saddened over the years every time I hear of one of our "anycephaly" kids passing away, it is not the experience of the majority of these families. Your readers should know that microcephaly's impact upon human development is a spectrum, from mildly affected or having "typical intelligence" to having multiple disabilities and severe or profound impact upon brain development. Microcephaly is not an automatic death sentence.

We have many children on the microcephaly support list at Yahoogroups who are leading long and fulfilling lives. For them we continue to advocate and hope that people like Mr. Richter eventually "get it' and stop with the hurtful so-called "jokes". I don't call what he said a "joke", I call it an "insult" and it's NOT funny.

-Mom of three children with multiple disabilities, including two with microcephaly

Moira Dunphy said...

I have been a professional in the world of comedy for 25 years. It's cheap to put down someone in a minority position in order to elevate yourself. Aim at those in positions of power or privilege. Aim at the universal. Take dead aim at yourself. And, if you are connected to a community of minorities, you can aim at them either to shine light for others to get a glimpse into the world, or to speak to that community.

Unexpected coming from Andy, he is smarter than that.

Thank you for this. My sons have Tourettes Syndrome, and the comedy community loves to get a laugh at their expense...

Doug French said...

Well done, Rob. And I like to think that, if he gets the chance to read this, Andy Richter will feel genuine remorse and apologize. He doesn't strike me as a cruel guy, but Twitter makes jerks of all of us.

andros said...

there are lots of diseases and bad things that kill children and others who don't deserve it. i don't see at all what is unique and special about this one.

andros said...

there are lots of diseases and bad things that kill children and others who don't deserve it. i don't see at all what is unique and special about this one.

andros said...

there are lots of diseases and bad things that kill children and others who don't deserve it. i don't see at all what is unique and special about this one.

BLOOM - Parenting Kids With Disabilities said...

Thank you for bringing this to our attention and writing about it so movingly and intelligently.

Christine G. said...

I kind of like that he said "I apologize for my insensitivity" instead of "I apologize if i offended anyone."

So many people say "I'm sorry if you were offended," in these situations. It reads to me much more like he took ownership of what he said, and apologized for doing it, not saying "well, sorry you got offended."

There is a huge difference between what usually passes for a celebrity apology and what Andy writes out there in his tweets. I think.

glad you had a teach-to moment for someone, and they didn't dismiss you, and they made change. Thumbs up Rob...

Pia said...

I love his ownership. Well done, andy. And well done, Rob.

amylia said...

I'm so glad. I always liked Andy Richter and found the tweet disappointing. Without your blog post and following, I wonder if this would have come to his attention. I'm proud of you and this community. I appreciate also how your post was not insulting to Richter--on the contrary, it was thoughtful and succinct. I am glad he responded. Together, we really can make a difference. Perhaps he becomes another advocate for those with disabilities despite the initial gaffe. You never know.

teamaidan said...

I'm so glad to read his retraction. What a great educational opportunity to say, as you said, we can all learn and grow. I appreciate that you respectfully pointed out his poor taste and that it gave many people a moment to pause and think about our words. Thank-you.

robyncz said...

Wow. I'm impressed with Andy Richter's response. He made an error, he thought about it, and he admitted it. Wow!

fern said...

I agree with Christine. Apologizing for being insensitive means taking ownership for your mistake, and hopefully learning from it. I respect that. When someone says they are sorry for offending someone, it does not mean that they think they were wrong, only that they are sorry someone else thought so.

020eea78-8597-11e1-a871-000bcdcb471e said...

Hey, really sorry about this - almost on his behalf. Like him, I would have used this term just "as a word" meaning small head, and treated the medical connotations as a punchline. I would never have considered the related disability.

Having considered your reasonable reaction, I will certainly choose my words more carefully in future.