Is it ok to laugh now?

If you don’t laugh you’ll end up crying. A cliché only gets to be one because it’s true. And this Down Syndrome business is serious enough to need a good laugh. Other people need wheelchair-accessible cars or guide dogs or have chronic asthma or a million other circumstances to mark them out as special, but to them it’s just life. Downs is a reality in my family’s life. And laughter is still needed.

One of the small ways that humour pops up for me, totally uncontrollably, is when other people, who have no abnormalities to deal with and no real experience of special needs, put their foot in it. It’s not their fault if they inadvertently give thanks to God (and to me) that all their children are ‘normal’ and then realise that our Jacob isn’t quite the same, but a tiny smile will crease my face when they do. It’s not being mean, not really. It’s just that Downs isn’t a bogey word for me. I have a grip on it, if only in the last four months. People don’t need to blush and want to apologise for their faux pas. It’s ok. I’d do the same, I think.

But laughter can stir up plenty of heated debate. Take Tommy Tiernan’s most recent stage set, Bovinity. Tiernan is an observational comedian who has had his fair share of controversy over the years. He also does great work for Down Syndrome Ireland, but when he used that experience in his stand-up routine oh boy did he get a backlash. Here’s Ed Power, writing on November 27th, 2007 in The Irish Independent.

The most uncomfortable moment, though, is at the end, when he impersonates a person with Down’s Syndrome. Introducing the segment, Tiernan explains that he participates in charity work for Down Syndrome Ireland — apparently he believes this gives him licence to laugh at disabled children. What follows is crude, cruel and, above all, unfunny. If Tiernan’s purpose is to jolt his fan-base out of its Friday night comfort-zone he has certainly succeeded.

Now you’ll have to find out for yourselves if this kind of thing offends you. I had a look at his comments on the DVD copy Dee got me for Christmas. He does indeed affect a Downs voice. He talks about how direct Downs people are, makes a joke based around the old name of Snickers (he was running the marathon in aid of DSI), goes close to the edge when suggesting that people who have DS would make great drug smugglers and generally confronts the visible reality of Down Syndrome. I can understand the anger that some people feel, and it is entirely legitimate, especially as they rise to defend someone who may not be able to defend themselves on the same platform. Yet TT doesn’t strike me as condescending or cheap. There are easier ways to get cheap laughs that making people take painful looks at themselves and their reactions. Anyway, draw your own conclusion. Suffice to say that it got a smile out of me but ultimately, I’ve heard better material from you, Tommy. I’m still enjoying more the fumblings of the people who put their foot in it and try to back out, but I’m certainly not going to pillory a comedian who shines an objective light on any group in our society, Down Syndrome included. Keep on truckin’, Tommy.

Tommy Tiernan and friend at rev-up for DSI ’07. Photo Gerry Casey.Tommy Tiernan and friend at Rev-up4DSI '07. Photo Gerry Casey.

Things the meeja said:

The Irish Independent

Sky News

RTE Liveline

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2 comments on “Is it ok to laugh now?

  1. hammie says:

    I am so glad you asked that. Making the obvious joke from the outside is tacky. But finding the humor in the reality from within takes the curse out of it. I make the odd joke about ASD, and the reactions can be a bit mixed. Although I told my Aspergers joke at a Psychology conference :If you want to diagnose Aspergers just go into a classroom and say, “you lot, you really need to pull up your socks!”
    Then count the number of kids with their heads under their desks and you have your kids with Aspergers.
    The guy from the stand beside ours laughed until he cried, And he was trying to sell computer programmes for diagnosing autism!

    I think the answer lies in the basis for the humor. If we are making the joke to de-humanise the group at the butt of the joke such as the English “paddy” jokes or the polish jokes in america in the 70’s and 80’s, or jokes about Aboriginals in Australia. By dehumanising a sector of our community we make it easier to descriminate against them, and worse. Because you can bet jewish jokes were very popular in Germany in the 1930s, as they were every where else.

    But if the humor comes from acceptance then it is a whole other board game. And what Tommy is saying is right. There is a perception of innocence, transparency and goodness about kids with D.S.
    Anyone who has spent time in a mixed special needs community will recognise the stere type of the friendly, emotionally open and giving DS child. As a parent of one of the “baddies” the aloof child with autism, this is even more obvious. We go to special needs swim camps and the ASD kids are the ones banging locker doors repeatedly and talking about the 150 different kinds of Bats, to nobody, while the D.S kids are greeting everybody in the changeroom and remembering names and generally charming the instructors to bits.
    But kids with DS are just as able to get pissed off and stubborn about things, it is just that no one holds it against them!
    I really like your blog and I am going to be tuning in regularly to hear how Joseph, Dee and you are doing.
    xx

  2. mamajoyx9 says:

    It’s been kind of odd how some pokes about Down syndrome or MR really offend me, and others I can totally see the humor in. I think the longer I get to parent a child with DS, the more humorous it becomes. I guess there’s a fine line sometimes between finding the natural humor in something and being a bully, and sometimes that fine line is subjective. No joke or lack there of is ever going to change that my son has a very challenging, wonderful, discouraging, miraculous, difficult, precious, rewarding, frustrating, amazing, disappointing, and certainly unexpected medical condition that is the greatest joy and greatest sorrow I have known.

    I think sometimes there are no right answers, and there are no right things to say or not to say. Sometimes its just hard and it hurts, and then sometimes the rays of pure, unadulterated joy fall at the most unexpected times and places.

    Here’s wishing you joy for the journey.

    Alyson

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