Strange Bedfellows – Gary Owen, Race, and Disability
It’s not new. Comedians seem to think that any- and everyone is fair game in the name of humor. If a comedian can claim knowledge or kinship with a certain disability or group, that makes it all the more acceptable. (Supposedly.) The latest assault by a comedian upon the intellectual disability community opens up three important topics for discussion.
We saw it in 2014 when Wyatt Cenac did a bit on This American Life. Author, and parent of a son who has Down syndrome, David Perry addressed Cenac in an article published by CNN – “Is Down syndrome comedy fodder?”
Cenac claimed that he was in the know about Down syndrome possibly in an attempt to avoid the backlash that was eminent:
“Now let me just say, I know what Down syndrome is. I know that Down syndrome is something that you’re born with when you are born with an extra chromosome. I know all that information. I knew that information then. But something about eating this brownie made me think that somehow I had grown an extra chromosome and I now had adult-onset Down syndrome. And for people who have Down syndrome, it’s something they grow up with. And they grow up and they have healthy and happy lives. I just got it.”
The latest controversy involves comedian Gary Owen. When news of an offensive segment of his routine being aired on Showtime started getting traction, naturally there were complaints.
Plenty of people: bloggers, parents, family members, and organizations, called him out. A petition, started in the name of Special Olympics and addressed to the president of Showtime, called for the removal of the segment and an apology from Owen. I signed the petition and felt the same level of rage as everyone else. I debated about whether or not to join the chorus of protesting voices, but decided against it when I read a Huffington Post piece by John Franklin Stephens. To me, his voice as a self-advocate with Down syndrome was the most important and really was “enough said.”
In his article, Stephens points out that 1) the problem with the segment is not just about the “R” word and 2) the fact that Owen seems to think that because he’s making fun of his own cousin it’s okay.
Stephens clarifies why the joke is not funny:
“What bothers me is that Gary Owen and at least some of his audience found it easy to believe that no two things could be less likely to belong together than a person with an intellectual disability and sex. That is the real tragedy here. Society, even people who care most for us, simply can’t see us as completely human enough to imagine that we have the same desires and needs as the rest of you. Gary Owen, however badly, was trying to mine that blindness for laughs.”
Unfortunately the Change.org petition focused on the “R” word and bullying instead of the deeper issues at hand. Even so, more than 10,000 people have signed it.
On May 7th, Owen appeared at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, Maryland. The local Arc organized a protest.
“Please join The Arc and Special Olympics in protesting the extremely offensive comedy of Gary Owens who has a routine that aired on Showtime involving his cousin with intellectual disabilities. The routine contains a very demeaning and dehumanizing portrayal of his cousin, her friend with intellectual disabilities, and Special Olympics athletes in general. There is excessive use of the R-word and more concerning is the overt tone of the entire routine and the attitude that people with disabilities are a punchline for laughs.”
Which brings me to why I finally decided to write about this issue.
On May 11th, four days after the protest in Baltimore, Owen was a guest on BlackAmericaWeb.com
During the six minute recorded session with well-known radio personality Tom Joyner, Owen claims to be the victim of bullying.
“And a guy with Down syndrome [John Franklin Stephens] saw my special and I guess he blogs and writes for the Huffington Post and he wrote a big article because I said the “R” word. I didn’t know, you’re not allowed to say the “R” word anymore.”
“So, he wrote that, then a supermodel from Russia [Natalia Vodianova] has a special needs sister so she picked up on it. So she wrote a letter to the Daily Mail which I guess is a big paper in the UK and Europe.”
“And then John C. McGinley who was on Scrubs… He has a special needs child so he went off on me.”
— John C. McGinley (@JohnCMcGinley) April 26, 2016
He goes on to talk about how he thought he had been treated unfairly.
“They tried to bully ME like. Their tweets, and their messages to me are WAY worse than my joke. I mean they’re goin’ IN on me.”
Apparently, Owen didn’t bother to read Stephen’s post or he would have known that it was not written because he said an offensive word.
Up until this point in the interview, it’s basically just Owen giving a ‘poor me’ routine.
Then, it turns into something else entirely.
When talking specifically about the protest in Baltimore, Owen tries to claim membership in another community. (For those who don’t know, Owen has bi-racial children – and they aren’t excluded from his act either)
“What was crazy, she had all these special needs people outside the Royal Farms Arena with advocates BUT, they didn’t know, I have a huge Black following. So when they saw all those Black people start to show up, that protest died fast.”
“They might be slow, but they ain’t stupid.”
“I told them on stage, I said if you are going to judge five minutes of a nineteen year comedy career, maybe you should educate yourself on who my audience is. Because they did not expect that to happen. I’ll tell you that.”
The tone of the conversation changed there. Owen explained his view of why the “R” word and the “N” word are completely different.
For me, the worst part of the interview is that Owen, and those interviewing him, seem to assume that the protesters were uncomfortable or afraid of the Black fans. What does that say? Are they assuming that all of the protesters were White? Was he claiming that his fans could possibly harm or frighten the protesters in some way – BECAUSE they’re Black?
While all of this may seem like just another politically correct battle of words, there are so many deeper issues that we, as a community, need to face and discuss.
The subject of Owen’s routine, the sexuality (or lack thereof) of people who have intellectual disabilities is one that does not garner much discussion.
The second issue, that relatives or trusted allies can make fun of disabled people without retribution, needs further debate as well.
Lastly, there is the issue of race in the disability community. Last week a hashtag was seen across social media: #DisabilityTooWhite. To say that the discussion among Twitter users was heated would be an understatement.
The intersection between race and disability is in need of exploration. Whether we’re talking about unfair treatment in streets by law enforcement or a lack of research into racial health disparities among the Down syndrome population, there are many issues that deserve attention.
Perhaps bringing these issues to light may be the silver lining in the disgusting storm cloud that is Gary Owen’s “I Agree With Myself.”
*For those who haven’t seen the bit in question but want a glimpse of it, there’s a 30 second clip on YouTube (for now).
And I’ve written a transcript of the interview on BlackAmericaWeb.com.