Resource Post: This American Life and Down Syndrome

Resource Posts on “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” provide full or partial transcripts of relevant documents, organized links, and minimal commentary on issues. 

A fellow parent and internet friend alerted me to a show on This American Life in which Wyatt Cenac, former Daily Show correspondent and comedian, made some jokes about Down syndrome. With the permission of my friend, I am posting excerpts of her email, the response from Ira Glass (producer and host of the show), and the transcript of the relevant piece.

Here’s the transcript of show 524: I was so High. You can also listen to it on their site.

And my phone rang. I answered the phone. But no words would come out. I couldn’t say anything. And I could hear my friend Laura on the other end. And she’s saying hello.
Then, I’m trying so hard. I’m just like, say something. Just talk. Talk damn it! And finally, I am like, (UNUSUAL ACCENT) I am so [BLEEP] high. This is terrible.
And I did it in that voice. And I have never done that voice before in my life. I don’t know where that voice came from. But I heard myself use that voice. And in my mind, I went, oh [BLEEP]. I just gave myself Down Syndrome.
(NORMAL VOICE) Now let me just say, I know what Down Syndrome is. I know that Down Syndrome is something that you’re born with when you are born with an extra chromosome. I know all that information. I knew that information then. But something about eating this brownie made me think that somehow I had grown an extra chromosome and I now had adult-onset Down Syndrome.
And for people who have Down Syndrome, it’s something they grow up with. And they grow up and they have healthy and happy lives. I just got it.
And I start freaking out. I’m just like, I’m going to have to explain this to people. And I start panicking. And I just start freaking out, freaking out to the point where I start weeping in the middle of Dodger Stadium.
And then, I start laughing. And then, I start weeping again. And then, a bunch of cops start walking towards me. And something in my brain just clicks on. It’s like, Wyatt, you have to keep it together right now. I was like, (UNUSUAL ACCENT) yes. Keep it together.
(NORMAL VOICE) Yeah, Wyatt, there are cops right there. They cannot know you are high. (UNUSUAL ACCENT) No, they cannot know I am high. (NORMAL VOICE) And now, my internal monologue has become my external monologue. And I start pointing at the cops.
And I’m like, (UNUSUAL ACCENT) you cannot know I am high. I have to fool you. I am fooling you.
(NORMAL VOICE) We thought maybe it’s time we should leave Dodger Stadium. I’m not sure exactly how far into the game we were. I know it was past the first inning. We might not have made it to the third inning.

My friend, J., wrote to complain and to ask that the segment was removed. That obviously hasn’t happened. She wrote:

I am writing you in reference to the “I Was So High” episode broadcast a few weeks ago. We are members of our local NPR station KERA and we enjoy listening to This American Life. On this particular Sunday, my husband & I were listening to the radio on our front porch while our children were playing nearby. We tuned in about ten minutes into the episode before Cenac’s piece aired. This episode was like most: entertaining, thought provoking, and amusing. We were laughing up until the moment we heard Cenac say the words “Down syndrome” – at that moment we feared what might come next. Both of my daughters, including my younger daughter, who happens to have Down syndrome, were watching us and listening to the story, which now had our complete attention.
 When Wyatt Cenac said “Down syndrome” we feared how it would be discussed in the context of a comic’s routine about drug abuse. We anticipated hearing the R-word, Retard (a term of derision). But Cenac was choosing his words carefully and he stopped short of using the R-word in his monologue. Yet his implicit denigration for those with Down syndrome was impossible to overlook. In essence, Cenac describes an incident of abusing marijuana: he is unable to speak coherently, compulsively uses the bathroom and his thinking becomes disorganized and paranoid. He describes being so inebriated that he fears he has “grown an extra chromosome” and is convinced he has acquired “adult-onset Down syndrome”. The punch line of his monologue is having a cognitive disability: “Oh Shit!” Cenac says, “I just gave myself Down syndrome” and the crowd erupts in laughter. “This is terrible!” he repeatedly states. 

The letter, which is excellent, continues to analyze Cenac’s reaction and says:

Even though Cenac avoids using the R-word, he tries to hide behind the medical term – believing it’s a safe, politically correct way to deliver an insult. As historian and author James W. Trent, Jr. writes (from Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the U.S.):

These words – idiot and imbecilefeeblemindedmorondefective and the like – are today offensive to us, and yet they reveal in their honesty the sensibilities of the people who used them and the meanings they attached to mental retardation…More recently, the mentally retarded have become mentally retarded persons and…persons with developmental disabilities or personas specially challenged…Behind these awkward new phrases, however, the gaze we turn on those we label mentally retarded continues to be informed by the long history of condescension, suspicion, and exclusion. While our contemporary phrases appear more benign, too often we use them to hide from the offense in ways that the old terms did not permit [emphasis mine]. 

To air a program that equates cognitive disability with the effects of drug abuse is far from humorous and entertaining – it’s reprehensible. I would no more laugh at this story than I would a racist joke. Try replacing the words “Down syndrome” for “Cripple” or “Transsexual”: disability-rights and LGBT activists would be alarmed and outraged! Hate speech against persons with cognitive disabilities is no less deplorable. 

In response to complains, Ira Glass wrote:

Hi J. –
Apologies for taking so long to get back to you.  Thanks for your thoughtful emails.  Sorry you’ve had to be so persistent in reaching out to get a response.

We’ve done many stories about people with various disabilities, including two about kids and parents of kids with Down Syndrome (Episode #311 <>  and Episode #358<> ).  I agree with you completely that nobody should have to listen to stories that mock and denigrate them.  This was a concern for me and my producers when we were working with Wyatt Cenac on his story for episode #524.  We talked about it as we shaped the story.  

But I don’t agree with you that his story mocks and denigrates people with Down Syndrome.  Perhaps we will never agree on this point, but just to share my side of it: In my view, the only people being made fun of in his story are people who get high.  Wyatt goes out of his way to point out that Down Syndrome means that you have an extra chromosome (not offensive).  He points out that people with Down Syndrome grow up with it and have healthy and happy lives (also not offensive).  And he talks about his own freakout.  The only thing that possibly could be offensive is his imitation of what a person with Down Syndrome sounds like, and again – we may disagree about that – I think that’s fair game for a comedian.  Black comedians imitate white people.  White comedians imitate black people.  Male comedians imitate females and females imitate men.  Wyatt isn’t doing a disability version of some racist comic making fun of Mexicans or something.  In my view, it’s clear he’s the butt of the joke.  

If I felt differently, I wouldn’t have put this on the air.  

If there’s something you think I’m missing here, I welcome your thoughts.  Let’s discuss it here in email.  Again, I say respectfully that it’s possible we are not going to agree on this one, but if it’s possible to come to some understanding with each other, I’d like that.

I’ve pasted below the transcript from our website, of this part of Wyatt’s story.
Best regards,

Ira Glass

There we have it. I think J’s letter makes the argument every strongly, but Glass wasn’t persuaded. Expect to see more on this in the near future.

4 Replies to “Resource Post: This American Life and Down Syndrome”

  1. Bobbi Ingram says:

    as a disabled person myself, I am tired of being denigrated by others for being different. Often times people who are suffering from a disability whatever it is, often have low self-esteem because they are treated differently, and they may be treated poorly by their own family or caregivers because they're not valued. They can stand out because they are dressed poorly, have a crummy haircut, and their teeth are not straight. perhaps just come I would have been better off if he had said he turned into a famous alien from science fiction.

    1. David Perry says:

      Bobbi – I'm really sorry. I hate blogger's comment system. It's so frustrating. Was the comment above the one you wanted? And yeah, I don't get a lot of comments here. Over at twitter or facebook I do more.

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