A Conversation with Wyatt Cenac

After my latest CNN piece on Down syndrome and comedy was published, Wyatt Cenac reached out to me and we had a long conversation. I had tried to reach him through his official emails previously, but it didn’t get through (which I regret). It was a good talk and I think the context is interesting.

First, though, I need to issue a public apology for comparing Wyatt Cenac to “Derek” by Ricky Gervais. Cenac is much funnier than Gervais, to my subjective taste. Moreover, Cenac’s engagement with the disability here is much more redeemable (and interesting, which is why I focused on it) than the portrayal of Derek. I have nothing good to say about Derek from a disability-portrayal lens. I know people like it. I know they cry. I’ll be happy to argue with you about why Derek is so bad in another thread.

Here’s what we talked about. Paraphrasing mostly, with permission from Cenac.

In our conversation, Cenac acknowledged that for someone like me, inside the Down syndrome community, the piece could easily have come off as offensive. Most comedy risks being offensive, but his goal is never to do it “at the expense” of marginalized people or “in a way that promotes continued insensitive behavior.” He talked about his experiences, as a kid, hearing people make a joke at the expense of a group of people, and thinking, “what would they be saying if I wasn’t in the room?” He doesn’t want to make those kinds of jokes and it definitely wasn’t his goal here. 

Intention matters. Results also matter and the results here were not good from my perspective, but I’m really glad that Cenac called me to provide the key context for the bit.

Cenac’s real intention was to make fun of himself for being a total screw-up. Not only was his life falling apart, but he couldn’t even escape reality by taking pot! Instead, it made him even more paranoid and depressed about the state of his life. When he ate the pot brownie, he suddenly couldn’t talk normally, and he literally had the thought, “I have given myself Down syndrome.” He felt he had now acquired some kind of disability and who, given his life’s context, would take care of him!

We agreed that in the short piece (as opposed to his longer stage shows), it’s possible that the total disaster of his life – losing a job, no money, no prospects – got lost behind the simpler humor of a funny voice and the audience laughing.

I have broad writing interests in the meaning of words, but especially the meaning of words related to disability. I wrote in my CNN piece, using the Gammy story from Thailand as a hook (a necessary part of essay publishing):

“Over the last few days, a baby boy with Down syndrome named Gammy has been all over the news. He and his twin sister were born to a surrogate mother in Thailand, but allegedly when their Australian parents discovered the boy’s genetic condition, they left him behind. To the biological parents, it seems, the words “Down syndrome” meant that he was not worth being their son.”

What’s so interesting to me about the Cenac story is that for him, in his dark moment, the words “Down syndrome” popped into his head. I do not blame Cenac for that. It’s what genuinely happened. It shows something about the work to be done in changing the meaning of the words “Down syndrome,” in shifting perceptions. That’s work I want to do on my blog, in my public writing, in my life.

At the end, as I told Cenac, I’m not sure this is a joke that can be told without offending someone like me, at least not as currently structured where the voice carries the humor. He’s a pro, though, and after our long conversation I have no doubt about his goodwill. I understand now where he was going and how the piece was supposed to work. I believe he also understands how I experienced the bit.

From a position of mutual understanding, many things become possible.

3 Replies to “A Conversation with Wyatt Cenac”

  1. Texcowgirl says:

    There is no excuse for that idiots so called joke. My son didn't ask to be born with Down syndrome and he struggles everyday to communicate with the world. Jerks like this guy (I refuse to name him.) make life harder for a completely pure and innocent individual who would not harm a fly. You both should be ashamed of trying to justify his behavior.

  2. David Perry says:

    Well, as I think is clear, my son also has Down syndrome. I try to engage rather than shout. We each have our own approaches, I suppose. Good luck to you.

  3. Lhyzz says:

    Texcowgirl: Did you know that the word "idiot" was used in a medical context to refer to a person with profound intellectual disability? As recently as the early 20th century. The words "moron" and "imbecile" were as well. Should I judge you based on your use of that word?

    Or should I instead judge your intention?

    Giving people the benefit of the doubt is important in life. In this case, someone was attempting to convey a humorous true story while also being as unoffensive as possible, and possibly failed due to ignorance or not consulting with people more knowledgable than himself. He quite obviously meant no harm, no insult, and was conscious that his words could be hurtful. He clearly tried to minimize that. He made a visible effort.

    Was it enough? Maybe not. Should he have reconsidered telling the story, at least in the broad context of NPR? Probably. Does this make him a jerk? No. He's a person, aware of the impact of speech, trying to navigate between humor and offense. It's a very delicate balance.

    The only way to change the way culture talks about and cares for individuals with disabilities is to open a civil dialog like Mr. Perry did; not to write people off and use counter-insults.

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