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Review by Corrine Li, Email: corrine.li@aol.com

Keywords: history; humor

In Seriously Funny: Disability & the Paradoxical Power of Humor, Bingham and Green show that cultural views of the disability experience can both be understood and shaped through humor. The authors, both family members of people with disabilities, analyze literature from multiple disciplines, and interviews from professional comedians with disabilities to provide insight about this intersection.

The book is organized in seven chapters that systematically explore concepts related to disability humor.  An appendix contains biographical sketches of the comedians who were interviewed.  There is a sense of temporal progression across the chapters, exploring past representations of disability and humor, examining interviews of current professional comedians, contextualizing humor as an aspect of the ongoing disability rights movement, and proposing future research.  

 This project was designed to examine what humor reveals about the disability experience, and conversely, what disability reveals about humor.  More specifically, the authors pose the questions:  how can humor be used to analyze the disability experience, and what can be learned from this; and, how is disability humor used to mediate the disability experience to an audience.  Acknowledging that their readership likely has a greater understanding of Disability Studies than humor scholarship, the authors incorporate examples to illustrate and support ideas they present.  Throughout the text, they emphasize that humor and disability are experienced differently by different people. From terminology to professional comedic aspirations, multiple perspectives are offered, and integrated with scholarship,  interview content, and media excerpts. 

After introducing their work, Bingham and Green outline different functions of humor. Once they have related concepts from Humor Studies, they assert the significance of researching humor, likening it to ways in which other cultural objects, including literature and art, are used to create meaning.  The next chapter provides an overview of the evolution of humor. In it, the authors begin with the Greco-Roman era, moving through the rise of stand-up comedy, and demonstrate connections between the nature of comedy and portrayals of disability across time. 

Moving into current times, the following chapter delves into themes that emerged from interviews with professional comedians who have disabilities.  Utilizing a form of emancipatory research, in-depth interviews were conducted with ten comedians.  The comedians shared their stories, and transcripts were later analyzed. Topics that emerged include the comedians’ social positionality, the interplay of humor and disability in their daily lives, and the creation of new narratives of disability through comedic performances.

The subsequent chapter focuses on theories of what makes something funny in relation to constructs of disability (moral, medical, and social). Types of humor are considered for ways in which they can become a means of creating disability narratives. The use of examples and writing style make the scholarly discourse easy to digest.  

The topic of political correctness receives its own chapter. Understanding the origins of this term, as well as the way it has been used, creates a framework for viewing disability humor.  Issues of language, content, and lived experience are considered in the context of activist humor.  The authors conclude with a chapter that unifies the information presented, and suggests future research.   

I enjoyed reading this unique book, and finished it with an expanded understanding of the complex relationship between humor and disability. Bingham and Green went beyond explaining the difference between disabling humor and disability humor, exploring nuances in which disability can be exploited for a laugh in contrast to being used to challenge constructs of disability. The authors’ selection of examples are effective in highlighting ways humor can hurt or heal, and divide or bring together. More specifically, in relation to disability humor, they point out how the use of humor can promote or undermine a person’s power, identity, agency, and sense of belonging. Understanding these dynamics, Bingham and Green are successful in showing that humor can be a sociocritical tool and a form of activism. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in Disability Studies, Humor Studies, or Cultural Studies.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.


Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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