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  • IntroductionDisability, Humour and Comedy
  • Tom Coogan (bio) and Rebecca Mallett (bio)

It has increasingly become apparent that the study of humour around disability is about more than the way a certain discourse treats a certain object. As Rebecca Mallett has discussed, in more than one paper, critical theories of the representation of disability that unproblematically position non-disabled laughter at disability as the product, the symptom, and the cause of negative and discriminatory attitudes, fall short when they attempt to deal with the complexities of humour. As a response to this, scholars have searched elsewhere, with both Mallett and Tom Coogan jumping disciplinary boundaries in search of alternative critical approaches. For Coogan, this involved borrowing from humour theory (in areas such as the study of “ethnic”/racist humour) in order to examine the use of disability in satirical humour. The present special issue further demonstrates the usefulness of demolishing such boundaries and acknowledging that studies of humour and studies of disability have much to offer, and to learn from, each other. This is not to say that valuable work on disability and humour has not already been conducted, but that it may be time to substantially revisit this area in the light of recent theoretical developments in both areas of study.

The timeliness of this re-examination is apparent, for example, in the fit between David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s concept of narrative prosthesis and incongruity theory, which, as Morreall points out, is the current pre-eminent theory of humour. Narrative prosthesis identifies disability as the crutch upon which narratives lean for their representational power; incongruity theory, as Morreall explains, attributes humour to situations where “there is something odd, abnormal or out of place, which we enjoy in some way” (68). We highlighted this congruence in the CFP for the present issue, but it represents just one of many productive junctures between disability and humour. Disability studies and humour studies share an intriguing slipperiness of terminology, and it is tempting to think that studying both in tandem might allow us to get a firmer grasp on each. As Frances Hasler puts it, the “big idea” of British disability studies is the social model of disability, which simply and clearly demonstrates [End Page 247] the distinction (although open to further debate) between socially constructed disability and impairment. Humour studies would benefit from such attempts at clarity: as Carmen Moran has observed, “humour” is a term with a multitude of meanings. She describes it as a “cognitive style”; a term for a stimulus (e.g. a joke) or the response to it (e.g. laughter); a term for complex interactions between individuals, or for a broader social process; a “personality trait,” or an inherent characteristic; an ability to generate a response, produce a response, or detect/observe the two. To add to the complexity, we also have the notion of “comedy” to contend with; a notion which brings with it another set of interpretations and expectations.

There have been two particularly notable volumes of work focusing on disability, humour, and/or comedy to date: a 1999 issue of Body and Society and a 2003 Disability Studies Quarterly symposium. The former comprises a paper by Ian Stronach and Julie Allan, and responses from notable disability studies figures such as Tom Shakespeare and Mairian Corker. Stronach and Allan argue that, while the “latently comic is structurally present” in some situations involving disabled people, the comedy of these situations “is phenomenally impossible” because of a (supposed) “taboo” on laughing at disabled people (39). Shakespeare refutes this, observing that “Most people with visible impairments will have experienced people laughing directly at them.” He argues that there is no taboo – that our society, in fact “revels in the shared joke about the outsider” – but that people feel “embarrassed about the violence which it perpetrates” (48). This state of affairs might be explained by the work of Michael Billig, who notes that people employing humour like to believe, to that point of wilful self-delusion, that their humour is acceptable (27). Indeed, Corker insists that humour directed at disabled people is a “constructed defence,” which seeks to over-write disabled people’s experiences with the “disembodied...


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