Breaking the last laugh barrier

LAUGHING AT people with mental disabilities, I vaguely remember being told as a child, was wrong. I didn’t ask a lot of questions about this rule.

But these days, laughing at the palsied, Downs-syndromed and just plain low-IQed has become totally cool. “The Ringer,” starring Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” fame and which opens in theaters Dec. 23, is a comedy about a guy who tries to pay off a debt by pretending to be handicapped so he can dominate the Special Olympics. I’m guessing he gets his comeuppance when he discovers that Special Olympics medals are made of chewy nougat.

The movie is produced by the Farrelly brothers, who often include handicapped people in the films they write and direct, including “There’s Something About Mary,” in which Cameron Diaz’s character has a brother with a mental disability.


There are also two kids on “South Park” with disabilities, one of whom just yells his own name repeatedly -- “Timmy!” -- and another who stutters and does horrible stand-up jokes about his disability.

And Howard Stern, whose show will only become more outrageous as he moves to satellite radio in January, has a whole Wack Pack of regular callers with disabilities, including “Wendy the Retard.” Wendy, for those who haven’t heard the show, is retarded.

All of this seems to me wrong and immature, like we are not only paying a quarter for the freak show but sticking around the tent afterward to pick on them. It’s nasty and it’s in bad taste -- like a minstrel show, or any movie with dwarfs who aren’t Peter Dinklage.

Then I saw “How’s Your News?” It’s a series of documentaries in which a bus of developmentally disabled people conduct man-on-the-street interviews. The reporters stammer, get confused and blurt out nonsensical phrases. It’s like they went to a journalism class taught by Dan Rather.

When a comedy writer showed me the first “How’s Your News?” tape -- which was executive produced by “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone -- I thought it was the most offensive thing I’d seen yet, and I berated him for enjoying the exploitation. His retort, I believe, was to slap his own head and poke me in the eye. It’s not easy to debate a comedy writer.

Then I went to a friend’s wedding and found out that one of the guests was Arthur Bradford, a fiction writer and Yale graduate who created and directs “How’s Your News?” So I decided to confront him, after getting really drunk.

BRADFORD, 35, told me he has worked for 12 years with mentally disabled kids at Camp Jabberwocky on Martha’s Vineyard. He said that he loves the inclusion of mentally disabled people on Howard Stern and “South Park.” He explained that “How’s Your News?” is used by disability groups as a training video and is being turned into a pilot for an MTV show in March. He thinks the idea that humor and disabilities are incompatible is a bit reactionary, controlling and patronizing.

“People with disabilities, like anybody else, are allowed to make mistakes and do funny things,” he told me. “The people in the ‘How’s Your News?’ group are performers. Ronnie is a ham. When he does his Richard Nixon impression for G. Gordon Liddy, he knows he’s being funny.”

What Bradford finds more offensive are those inspirational movies about retarded guys that always seem to win Oscars. To him, they’re like the portrayal of black people in 1940s films. He’s tired, he said, of “Rain Man” or “Forrest Gump,” where the hero is “sage and heroic, and sweet and childlike and can’t do anything wrong.” He argued that I was uncomfortable with the otherness of disabled people and wanted them put away where I couldn’t see them.

“You’ve bought into this feeling that people with disabilities are just a big tragedy. That’s a little bit degrading and not very helpful,” Bradford said.

He told me that the most militant wing of the disability movement is called “No Pity.” They sell T-shirts with sayings such as “Hire People With Disabilities, We’re Fun to Watch” and " I Have Dis ... I Can’t Spell.”

Half the humor of “How’s Your News?” or the brother in “There’s Something About Mary” -- the half I was missing -- was watching people like me freak out around mentally disabled people. “You can learn a lot about a person by the way they react to a person with disabilities,” Bradford said.

He found John McCain, for instance, to be very genuine when he dealt with the reporters from “How’s Your News?” But George Pataki and Hillary Clinton were stiff and unable to get off script even in the face of absurd questions. Al Sharpton just walked away. Sam Brownback was incredibly warm and patient because he works with handicapped organizations. He believes the full lives of the handicapped are a vindication of his pro-life philosophy because some of them might have been aborted.

I think the first step in feeling comfortable with people who seem different is to laugh with them. And even if sometimes you’re laughing at them instead of with them, it’s not like mentally disabled people are going to be able to tell the difference.

Oops. There’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve on this one for me.