It’s said that comedy comes from a place of hurt, so that if the humor seems hurtful, no one is more hurt than the comedian. Still, when a white standup comic mimics some stereotype of a black man in a mocking way, is he bringing out the prejudices that many people keep quiet inside themselves so that the feelings can be recognized and conquered, or is he merely gratifying bigotry? If a lesbian comedian dumps on lesbians the way she fancies homophobes do, is she contributing to the stereotype as much as puncturing it?
Such questions have been on my mind since I recently watched “One Leg Too Few,” a comedy sketch involving a one-legged man written by Peter Cook and performed by Cook and Dudley Moore in 1964. (Moore was to gain Hollywood stardom a decade later.) As a child, I loved Cook and Moore and would watch anything of theirs that my parents let me.
The sketch proceeds as follows. Moore, playing the role of Mr. Spiggott, hops on one leg (the other bent mostly out of view under a raincoat) into a room where the seedy, unnamed talent agent, played by Cook, is waiting. The audience laughs uproariously as Spiggott keeps hopping around until, at the agent’s urging, he comes to rest at a chair and the interview commences. (I note that the audience suspends any awareness that a real-life one-legged applicant would have been fitted with an artificial leg.)
Once Spiggott stops at the chair, the agent observes that he has come to audition for the part of Tarzan, a “role traditionally associated with a two-legged man.”
Spiggott enthusiastically agrees: “Yes, correct, yes, yes.”
“And yet you, a unidexter, are applying for the role.”
Again, Spiggott is effusive: “Yes, right, yes.”
The agent presses on: “A role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement.” The conclusion is obvious to the audience, but the agent asks if he need point out Spiggot’s deficiency for the role.
“Yes, I think you ought to.”
And quite right, too. Just because it might seem obvious which factor disqualifies him, natural anxiety mustn’t become a self-defeating assumption.
The agent informs Spiggott that the deficiency is in “the leg division … to the tune of one.”
Seemingly unable to recognize that the decision to reject him has already been made, Spiggott remains puzzled. So the agent goes on elaborating, at which Spiggott at last shows signs of dispiritedness.
The agent says, “I don’t think the British public is yet ready for the sight of a one-legged ape-man swinging through the jungly tendrils.”
Feeling bad for Spiggott and embarrassment for himself, the agent keeps floundering around for words that will get rid of him while preserving both men’s dignity. He comes up with the bright idea that a “unidexter” would “score over a man with no legs at all.”
Here, some members in that 1964 audience, laughing but perhaps also discomfited, might have thought of Douglas Bader, the RAF hero who had lost both legs in a prewar flying accident, who nevertheless went on to fight in the Battle of Britain and, after being shot down, serve out the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Paul Brickhill’s biography, Reach for the Sky (1954) depicts Bader dancing with his wife. No one would have been surprised if he’d auditioned for a part in a movie, possibly even the role of Tarzan, nor, perhaps, if he’d been chosen.
The agent’s false comfort revitalizes Spiggott: “So there’s still a chance?”
“Of course there is still hope.” The agent implausibly suggests that it’s just possible that no two-legged man will apply for the role in the next eighteen months, in which event “there is every chance” that the agency will attempt to contact Spiggott “telephonically.” That last awkward word betrays the agent’s prevarication. Spiggott stands up, shakes the agent’s hand and hops out the door. (For the lines I quote, I’m relying on what I hear in the 1964 YouTube video, as somewhat aided by the transcript of the version of the sketch that Cook and Moore performed on Saturday Night Live in 1976.)
I don’t recall having seen this sketch as a child. If I had, at that age it might have distressed me. I was uncomfortable when physical handicap was the subject of comedy. I had clubfoot, which had yet to be corrected at the time and which undoubtedly accounted for my sensitivity. My mother elevated my discomfort to an ethical level by getting annoyed whenever someone lightly said a word like “spastic” without showing awareness that it was the name for a very real physical condition.
By contrast, I wasn’t upset by the Mr. Magoo cartoons. I only vaguely remember them from childhood, mainly, I think, because they bored me. Unlike my hostility to depictions of orthopedic deformity, I’m pretty sure the portrayal of short-sightedness didn’t trouble me, even though I was myself classified at the time as partially sighted. Neither I nor any of my partially-sighted classmates bumbled around like Mr. Magoo, so it didn’t occur to me to take him personally.
By my twenties I no longer showed signs of clubfoot, but I’d lost my vision, and so my sensitivity to disability humor had shifted to jokes about blindness. I have one of those odd memories that makes you wonder why it has outlived so many others. I am waiting alongside a gay friend for a traffic light to change. My friend is telling some self-mocking joke about gays, and I’m wondering why I can’t be as open to humor about my disability.
In 2001, a former member of the staff at my old law office published the second of her light-hearted novels, and I learn that one of the characters is a blind judge. I wrote to her to congratulate her on her publishing success, but told her my misgivings: “I hope that the blind judge’s claim to psychic powers, his typos, his constant gazing in the wrong direction, his miserable taste in ties and his overall self-deception don’t mirror your experiences with me.” I added that I thought the danger in such a cartoonish representation was that there are too few blind people for the ordinary reader to have any counter-examples.
In 1997, the National Federation of the Blind protested against that year’s full-length film titled and based on the 1949 cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, as denigrating partially-sighted people. (Julie Hunter, the parent of a partially sighted child, wrote a thoughtful commentary in support of the NFB’s position.) I would need vision to make my own appraisal today, but based on my vague recollection from childhood, I thought the NFB made too much of what had to be obvious caricature.
I was more disturbed in 2008, when Saturday Night Live took to mocking David Paterson, at the time Governor of New York, who has poor vision. Most of SNL’s several Paterson sketches, over the course of nearly two years, relied on visual humor, so it’s hard for me to make an independent judgment, but here’s how Gabe Pressman summarized the skits:
Comedian Fred Armisen portrayed our legally blind governor holding a chart upside down to make fun of his blindness. The actor wandered around the stage pretending to be directionless. Later he showed up in another skit, walking aimlessly, acting as though he didn’t know where he was.
A friend tells me that Armisen also maintains an asymmetrical facial expression, with one eye open and the other only half-open. Apparently, it is a fair imitation not only of Paterson, but also of some other blind people. Still, while I can’t say of my own knowledge whether, in real life, Paterson wanders around aimlessly and keeps bumping into chairs, it’s hard to imagine that an accomplished politician could let himself act like such a buffoon.
Paterson himself made it known he’d been offended. On September 25, 2010, he made a personal appearance on the show, where he said, “Jokes that degrade people solely for the fact that they have disabilities are sophomoric and stupid.” The rest of the time, he engaged in SNL’s particular brand of humor with other members of the show, though he did so on his own terms.
I admire Paterson’s comportment during his SNL appearance, and he did much to generate good feeling. Even so, calling jokes about disability “sophomoric and stupid” doesn’t really help. All jokes are seen as sophomoric and stupid by at least some people. The question remains whether a line can be drawn between what is acceptable and what is merely hurtful.
This was the question that preoccupied me as I watched Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “One Leg Too Few.” The sketch can be enjoyed on several levels. One is the sheer comic and acting genius that Cook and Moore display. It is a classic Cook-Moore collaboration where they put themselves in an absurd situation and pursue the internal logic as far as they can take it.
However, to the extent the sketch echoes real-life situations, “One Leg Too Few” shows a striking sensitivity toward both disabled people and those baffled by how to handle themselves in the presence of disability. It portrays the talent agent’s condescension and candidate’s sincerity, the agent’s pity and how the candidate responds with alternating enthusiasm and passivity, and the role of politeness in preventing a true assessment of a candidate’s suitability for employment. Spiggott doesn’t beg or beseech. He is seeking neither sympathy nor special favor. He assumes he is entitled to consideration and recovers his morale even as the agent maneuvers the interview to an end. His willingness to credit the agent’s ludicrous suggestion that no two-legged men might try out for the role itself demonstrates a touching belief in himself. Suspending my Holden Caulfield-like aversion to phoniness, I also find the agent’s efforts to keep up Spiggott’s morale touching.
One might ask what difference Spiggott’s upbeat attitude made, since he didn’t get the job. But his optimism surely explains why the talent agent cannot bring himself to reject him outright. When a decision is deferred, even if disingenuously, you never know what might happen. If it were another job, or if Spiggott were applying for the same job in a more open-minded era, his attitude might have tipped the scales in his favor. Because the agent is so intent on ending the interview with both men’s dignity intact, he fails to consider whether Spiggott might have the skills and experience needed for this or another position.
This last point is made forcefully in an alternative ending, described in a Wikipedia entry as follows:
In some early versions of the sketch … a further punchline follows after Spiggott has left. A two-legged actor walks in normally:
Cook: Ah, good morning Mr Stanger. Now I believe you are applying for the role of Long John Silver.
In this scenario, the talent agent is also conducting auditions for a role for which a one-legged man would seem well-suited. But he has been so focused on Spiggott’s deficiency for one job that he overlooks his qualifications for another.
I suspect many people today would hate the sketch’s premise so much that they’d dismiss the clever lines, the aplomb, the theatrics. Conventional wisdom (if not necessarily actual practice) has evolved from the idea that a one-legged Tarzan is an oxymoron to a belief that, given a chance, anyone can do just about anything. For all I know, the world might now be ready for the talent agent’s skeptical vision of “a one-legged ape-man swinging through the jungly tendrils.”
Just how much attitudes have changed since the sixties may be evidenced by the uproar over Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s perceived mimicry of a reporter’s congenital defective joint condition. Trump denies it was his intent, but if his spastic-like gestures were meant to imitate, his underlying intent could only have been to demean the reporter’s intellectual capacity. Throughout history, physical defects have been used to symbolize intellectual and moral failings.
In 2014, Disabilities Studies Quarterly published an article on the David Paterson/SNL controversy which quoted various third-party commentators and identified some blind and otherwise disabled comedians. The authors say their “analysis acknowledges the freedom of speech.” Actually, the First Amendment, which created the right of free speech in America, addresses only government interference with expression, and no one has suggested the government take action against SNL. To the extent free speech is an issue, it consists in both NBC’s right to air such comedy and the right of everyone else to push back. Paterson did push back, and not just during his appearance on the show. In an article published just last February in The Observer, he claimed the SNL sketches caused his approval ratings to decline. Perhaps they did, which is not to be dismissed lightly. However, the sketches’ lasting legacy may well have been the public backlash.
For me, Paterson’s best line during his 2010 SNL appearance was, “You’ve been so busy making fun of my blindness that I forgot I was black.” Disabilities Studies Quarterly calls this “a racially focused” joke, which misses the point. He’s really saying, “… that I forgot I was a human being.” In this joke, there is wisdom about humor that gets people to laugh, makes a point in a way that comedy does best, and yet doesn’t leave disabled people feeling diminished. It’s something to keep in mind whoever a joke’s target might be.
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