Skip to content

Is Cerebral Palsy TV Comedy Gold?

May 28, 2019

‘It took years to convince someone to make this show,” says Ryan O’Connell. “First of all, my book flopped and sold two copies.” Called I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, the book was a moving and hilarious account of something he had been hiding in the popular blogs he had written about his life as a gay millennial. Like 17 million other people around the world, O’Connell has cerebral palsy, a condition affecting muscular coordination.

Four years on, Special, the comedy series based on his book, is airing on Netflix to great acclaim. Written by and starring O’Connell as a fictionalised version of himself, Special follows the writer as he interns at a clickbait journalism site called Eggwoke that publishes confessional blogs headlined “50 Ways to Hate Myself” or “Why Do I Keep Finding Things in My Vagina?” When his colleagues assume his condition is the result of a car accident, and not cerebral palsy, he goes along with it.

O’Connell took his pitch to several cable networks in 2015. Despite enthusiastic responses face-to-face, the answer was always no. “I think ‘gay and disabled’ was a concept people couldn’t wrap their heads around in 2015,” he says. Or, as he wrote back then: “Cerebral palsy is NOT FUCKING TRENDING ON TWITTER.”

It still isn’t. But it could be time Twitter caught up, because O’Connell – whose show was eventually made after Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons got behind it – is not the only TV writer finding the funny side of the condition. In the past few months, four comedies featuring characters with cerebral palsy have aired. Speechless, about a teenager with cerebral palsy and his family, has just concluded its third season in the US. BBC Two’s Don’t Forget the Driver starred a character called Kieran who has cerebral palsy, and devoted an episode to his trip to a hydrotherapy pool.

On BBC Three, American Tim Renkow has created Jerk, a semi-autobiographical comedy in which he plays an American, also named Tim Renkow, who lives in London and uses his condition as a free pass for questionable behaviour. Renkow watches inappropriate videos at work, walks barefoot around the office, tells his boss he defecated in his desk drawer, and poses as a Syrian refugee for a free hot meal. “British people are so nice it’s hard not to fuck with them,” he tells his mother via Skype.

“On screen,” says Renkow, “disabled people are often less like characters and more like plot devices. I don’t like that disabled people are never flawed.” In Jerk we are presented with someone who is lazy, deceitful, stingy and rude.

Wills Whittington, the 20-year-old who plays Kieran in Don’t Forget the Driver, was drawn to the role because the character is confident, cheeky and foul-mouthed. “He suited my personality!” he laughs. “He was never patronised. I double-checked that I spoke clearly and made sure we retook scenes if I didn’t. I would swap different words into the script if needed. I wanted to show that disabled people can act.”

There are thought to be 13.9 million disabled people in the UK and 61 million in the US. But a recent report found that only 2.1% of regular characters in primetime series had a disability: the highest it’s ever been, but still far short of proportionate. In film, the picture isn’t much brighter. One 2016 study found that, of the year’s top 100 grossing films, 2.7% of speaking characters had a disability.

And most are not played by disabled actors. Another 2016 study found that more than 95% of disabled characters on TV are played by able-bodied actors. Those performances are richly rewarded: actors without disabilities who are Oscar-nominated for playing a disabled character have an almost 50% chance of winning. (To date, 59 non-disabled actors have earned Oscar nominations for playing disabled characters; 27 have won).

It’s a frustrating picture. Maysoon Zayid is a 45-year-old actor and comedian from New Jersey. Her Ted Talk about life with cerebral palsy has been viewed more than 10m times, and she is currently developing her own show, Sanctuary, for TNT. “My life’s mission,” she says, “has been to get the industry to realise how offensive, inauthentic and harmful it is to have non-disabled actors play disabled. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user. Yet most people do not consider disabled actors for roles that are written non-disabled.”

“A story,” says O’Connell, “is best depicted by the person who has lived that experience.” Whittington agrees: “We know how it feels to be disabled in our everyday life.” But he adds that the question of who should portray a disabled character depends on the disability, citing Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking as a positive example of a performance from an able-bodied actor. “If a character has Down’s syndrome, it wouldn’t work.”

For Renkow, there’s another issue. “I think getting disabled people writing, producing or directing is more important,” he says. “If you want people to take you seriously, it’s very important to tell your story – and the only way to do that is to be behind the camera.”

“Honey,” says O’Connell, “there’s not much out there. And the stuff that is is usually created by able-bodied people, which is not chic. Our stories need to be told by us.”

Still, it does feel as if progress is being made. “Thirty years ago,” Whittington says, “people with disabilities didn’t have these opportunities.” And these four shows feel like a symptom of something positive, at least in TV comedy, the place where glass ceilings are increasingly being broken.

“Humour cuts through discomfort,” O’Connell says. “It covers the vegetables in sugar. It puts people at ease, especially with disability. I think people are so scared of us, they don’t know what to do. By giving them permission to laugh, it makes them instantly comfortable.” Renkow echoes this: “Comedy is a good place to dip your toe in the water. It’s relatively easy to slip new ideas past people when they’re laughing.”

Is this a watershed moment? “Sure,” says Renkow. “I hope so,” adds O’Connell. “We’ll know for sure when there’s more than a couple of shows to point to.”

Zayid isn’t so sure. “I don’t think it’s a watershed moment,” she says. “The majority of people with disabilities I know are not employed, can’t get auditions, don’t have the experience to get in a writer’s room because no one will give them a chance, and we still have non-disabled actors playing disabled parts. There is so much more to be done.”

No comments yet

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: