Should “Retarded” be Retired from the Comedic Lexicon?

Johnny Knoxville's thoughtful take on the subject.I learned about Spread the Word to End the Word on Ellen Seidman’s blog, Love That Max. Seidman’s son, Max, has cerebral palsy, and Seidman wrote a very thoughtful post about why the word “retarded,” or the “R-word” as it’s called by the organization of the same name, should no longer be used. Seidman spent the day on Twitter yesterday sending users whose Tweets contained the words ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’ a simple message: “Hi. Mom of kids with disabilities here. The word ‘retard’ is demeaning.” One user told her to go fuck herself, and another asked how the “photo wrecker” was. (Ouch.) Other users were more open to her message, apologizing for their lack of sensitivity. I’m a comedian who generally does not like to censor herself, but I’m also the mother of a 5-year-old girl, and Seidman’s project really forced me to ask myself: Is it ever okay to use the word ‘retarded’?

I can’t think of the last time I might have described something as retarded. But I won’t say that I’ve never used it as an adjective, or that it won’t come out of my mouth again. I do remember the first (and last) time I was asked directly by someone not to say “the r word,” though. I did a show a few years ago for a women’s group in Westchester County on a weekday at 9 am. (That setup right there is, well, r…ough.) The “r word” is not in any of my written bits, but I always do a fair amount of crowd work and riffing, and it must have slipped out at some point while I was improvising. (I honestly don’t even remember saying it, which shows you how little thought most people give to the use of the word in everyday speech.)

One of the women in the audience came up to me after the show and told me she enjoyed my performance, but that she hoped I would take the word ‘retarded’ out of my act. I told her I didn’t even realize I’d said it, that I don’t use it regularly and that I was sorry if I’d offended her. She told me her son had cerebral palsy, and that if I had a child with special needs, I’d feel the same way. She was angry, but it seemed as if her anger overtook her unexpectedly, as if she hadn’t taken the time or had an occasion until that very moment to be angry about the fact that she was the mother of a child with special needs. She was having a moment of catharsis, similar to one an audience member is shown having in the Joan Rivers documentary, A Piece of Work.

In the film, Rivers is performing for a small theatre audience, and she tells a joke that references Helen Keller. In a review of the documentary, Ty Burr of The Boston Globe writes, “After a heckler at one show protests a Helen Keller joke, the comedian tears into him.” I wish the footage was online so you could see this moment if you haven’t, but Rivers tells the audience member — who had just revealed he was the father of a deaf son — that her own mother was “deaf and howling.” (And goes on to do a very unflattering act-out, no less.) She continues — having her own cathartic release — to say, “Let me tell you what comedy is about — comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with it!” Rivers then effortlessly segues into another joke and the moment is over. Except it’s not.

When Rivers gets off stage, she confesses that she feels bad about lashing out at the audience member, and that she understands how hard it must be for him to parent a deaf son. But, she adds, she thinks she said something he needed to hear.

I couldn’t agree more. Comedy is about deconstruction. Humor is a coping mechanism. Not just for comedians, but for everyone. The human condition is inherently pathetic, and without comedy — without the fearlessness being a funny philosopher demands — we’d be left exasperated, feeble lumps. If we can see our problems as being absurd, however, we can enjoy our pain a little bit. Or even a lot.

Comedian Marc Maron has a pretty good grasp, I think, on the absurdity of “the r word,” and he shared it in a bit during his last Comedy Central Presents. I was at the live taping back in 2008 and never forgot this joke, which you can see on YouTube if you’d like. This bit starts at 1:35:

I know you’re not supposed to say retarded anymore, but I like the word retarded and I wanna take it back. I grew up with the word retarded and I think we’re all adults here and I think we know the difference between saying “That’s sad, that guy’s retarded” and saying “That guy’s a retard.” In all honesty, retarded people don’t even call themselves retarded anymore, they call themselves mentally challenged. So they don’t see themselves as retarded, which means there’s an outside chance that somewhere in this country on any given day a mentally challenged person could be calling another mentally challenged person retarded, because he doesn’t think he’s that retarded. It’s sort of like the middle class not thinking they’re poor.

There are so many words we claim only by their first letter (which reminds me of the great Cory Kahaney bit about her daughter saying “F” at school), from the n word to the b word to the c word to the f word. “Fag” is an f word, too, but I have a million gay friends who say it. (And I say it when I’m with them.) Fred Phelps says it, too — and in fact, he was just given clearance by the Supreme Court to say it at the funerals of military personnel. (Talk about a tough crowd, am I right? That audience is totally gonna be dead.) I feel pretty secure in the fact that Phelps and I mean two totally different things when we say ‘fag,’ which is why it’s so important to be able to distinguish the difference between a word’s definition and the intentions of its use.

That said, I would be an idiot (should I say the I word?) not to acknowledge the fact that the use of historically hot button words is welcome amongst members of certain communities, but not by outsiders. Use of the n word is generally frowned upon, unless you’re black. (And sometimes even if you are black.) There is a grey area regarding the use of the n word, though — or more like a brown one. Latino, Hispanic and other non-white urban kids use the word frequently now, as do some white kids raised in “ethnic” neighborhoods. Jeffrey Joseph, a black comedian who sometimes works with inner-city youth, says, “I know I’ve been teaching inner-city kids too much when I refer to myself in my head as ‘this nigga.'”

Women have reclaimed the b word (and to some extent the c word), homosexuals have reclaimed gay and fag, but there was a scuffle recently over whether or not it was okay for Vince Vaughn to describe electric cars as “gay” in his latest film The Dilemma. The reference was deleted from the trailer but left in the final version of the movie. In the first season of Louis C.K.’s sitcom Louie, he asks a gay comedian (Rick Crom) if it bothers him to hear Louis use the word ‘faggot’ in his act. (Proof that despite having tough exteriors, most comedians are really very thoughtful softies at heart who sometimes choose to be abrasive anyway to prove a point.)

Reclaiming slurs has proven powerful to many oppressed groups of people, but the question remains: unless the physically disabled/mentally challenged community is willing to own the word retard, should anyone? The use of the word is protected under the First Amendment, but is it okay? I would never use it in a way that was meant to insult a disabled person, but I might use it in the same way people use gay or dumb, simply out of habit or to make a really specific point. After all, when something is the r word, it’s generally really f’d up and worth b-ing about.

To reach a final verdict, I asked comedian Nelson Addison — who, like Seidman’s son, has cerebral palsy — what he thinks about the word retarded. Here’s what he told me:

Addison: My personal opinion is that political correctness has no place in stand-up comedy.

Castiglia: Interesting. I would agree with you, but it’s validating to hear that from someone who could potentially be offended by a lack of political correctness. The reason I’m asking is because there’s a movement for people to stop saying retarded, in every usage of the word, not just in terms of being disabled. You have cerebral palsy. When you talk about that on stage, do you ever use words like disabled, handicapped, do you ever use the word retarded or talk about the word retarded?

Addison: I don’t use the word retarded, simply because I don’t have material about that. Would I censor myself from using that word? Probably not if the joke was funny. If it wasn’t a pot shot. I would never maliciously make fun of anybody — except midgets.

Castiglia: (laughs)

Addison: I want to say something about the word handicapped. Of the words disabled and handicapped, I think the word handicapped is better because disabled literally means not able. I’m able to do everything; I just need a little head start.

Castiglia: So what about the word retarded?

Addison: A couple months ago when Jennifer Aniston said retarded on that talk show, everyone was up in arms about it, and I don’t see why we should have to control Jennifer Aniston’s language. She wasn’t talking about retarded people. She was talking about herself and something stupid that she did. You know, she called herself a retard. I think we’re taking our own ability to express ourselves and making it more and more difficult to communicate.

Castiglia: It gives us all a language handicap.

Addison: As an artist, I’m trying to offend. I do that in my act. Not significantly, but just a little so you say, “Oh, that’s wrong.” If you’re gonna dampen my ability to say something that I shouldn’t say, what are we gonna have left to laugh at?

Carolyn Castiglia is so bitchin’ and winning she is her own goddesses, bro.

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