As a stand-up comedian who stutters, I’m always dealing with people’s assumptions. Fluent people often tell me how brave I am for engaging in public speaking. I remember once, after doing a presentation at a library (before my days as a comedian), a woman came up to me and said, “Wow, you’re such an inspiration. If I talked like you, I wouldn’t talk at all!” When people are constantly feeding you lines like that, how do you not turn to comedy?!
People who stutter also make assumptions about me. They see me telling dirty jokes in a dive bar at midnight (one of the essential functions of being a stand-up comic) and think I must be totally free of the stutter bug—all the fear, shame, frustration, and other negative stuff we often feel when talking to people. Doing comedy doesn’t magically make me immune to these feelings; we feel them because we live in world that doesn't reflect our speech patterns and discourages us from accepting our own natural way of speaking. So to those who think I stutter through life without the bug catching me, I am writing this for you. This is a story about stuttering on your own terms.
Let me start the story backwards. It was a Friday night, the night I faced the first round of the Killer Laughs Comedy Competition against all odds. When I say “against all odds,” I don’t mean because I stutter or because there was some 1980s-style teen drama going on; I mean the numbers were literally against me. I was the first comedian on the lineup that night, and the first one to go up pretty much never wins. My parents were supposed to be in the audience to support, and, more importantly, VOTE for me, but of course they were late to show up as usual. Having given up on the idea of winning the competition, I decided to use the opportunity to get back at my no-show parents for something they did to me when I was eleven.
Flashback to 1987: I’d worked up the gumption to enter a joke-telling contest on a local late night AM radio show. I got my joke ready, called the station, and they put me on hold so I could tell it to the judges live. One of those judges was comedy legend Will Durst; if he liked my joke, I’d win free tickets to see him perform at one of San Francisco’s most famous comedy clubs (the Other Cafe, which sadly closed in 1992). So there I was, telling my joke to Will Durst on the radio, and the next thing I knew I’d won the tickets! At that age I was already a huge comedy nerd, so you can imagine how giddy I was at the prospect of seeing my first real club show---paid for with my own comedy skills, no less! I won’t mention that the joke I told was stolen from Pee Wee Herman’s appearance on Letterman (“I don’t know his name, but his face rings a bell”).
My family and I lived in San Leandro, about 45 minutes from the venue. Of course, since my parents were the ones taking me there, we arrived ridiculously late. By the time we got to the club, we could see through the corner window that the show was already underway. My parents refused to go inside, fearing that the comedian on stage to make fun of us for being late. So that was it. What could have been the highpoint of my childhood ended in nothing but tears. I wouldn’t get see a real comedy show for another four years, and even after that I continued to hold a grudge against my parents.
Which brings us back to that night at the Killer Laughs Comedy Competition. Usually at a show like this I stick to my scripted jokes, but since I was going dead-first and my family wasn’t there to support me, I figured screw it. I told the crowd how my parents robbed me of my first comedy club experience, how they were probably in the parking lot right now and would come walking in late during my set. I signaled for the audience to turn around and boo when my parents came through the door. And I made sure to tell the crowd how I wasn’t going to win anyway because I was up first, demystifying the statistical formula for winning comedy competitions.
To everyone’s surprise, throwing my family under the comedy bus seemed to work, because I came in first place that night. I went on to the next four, beating out 120 comedians and winning the whole competition. My parents went to most of my performances in the competition and were never late again. And to all you comedians who think competitions don’t matter, or I’m not funny, or I just got the pity vote... whatever, I won!
So that’s how the night ended. Now let me tell you how it began. I carpooled to the competition with a bunch of my comedy friends (who I’d also be competing against). My car must’ve been pretty clean that night, because all five of us were able to fit in my Jeep. Wanting some caffeine before the show, I decided to pull into McDonald's to get a (large) Diet Coke. As we approached the drive-thru, I asked everyone in the car if they wanted me to order them anything. They all declined my offer. “Are you sure?” I asked, but they insisted that I was the only one ordering. Sure enough, as soon as I ordered my Coke, everyone started barking out requests: “Order me a Fillet-o-fish!” “Get me a Big Mac with cheese and a Sprite!” I literally froze... I couldn’t do it! I rolled down all the windows and made everyone place their own order. Afterwards my friends were pretty astonished that I couldn’t order for them, making the observation that I could talk in front of hundreds of people but couldn’t name a few menu items in front of a faceless fast-food intercom. I responded with the only thing I could think of: “I stutter... we don’t always do drive-thrus!”
What actually happened was that I felt a lack of control when everyone started shouting out requests. When I’m on stage, I have the mic and I’m usually the one in control. I say what I want to say and how I want to say it. I disclose my stuttering and consequently stutter on my own terms. So many times, we as people who stutter blame ourselves for not living up to perceived expectations. We internalize the idea that we need to be fixed and talk like everyone else. Even if we stutter openly, many of us feel pressure to be self-accepting and courageous at all times no matter what. People perceive my ability to talk in front of hundreds of people as evidence that I stutter confidently without stigma 24/7. How is that even possible in the world we’ve been socialized in? We’re not always going to live up to other people’s expectations—or our own—and so we need to be kind to ourselves.
Sometimes asking a significant other to order the pepperoni pizza after a long day of work isn’t a stuttering sin. If you stutter, awesome; if want to sit this one out, that’s fine too. It doesn’t signify lack of pride or self-acceptance or make you lesser than anyone else. Stutter with as much pride as you can, but on your own terms and no else’s. And if you’re ever in a car with me, know that I will throw my Diet Coke at you if make me order a frickin’ Fillet-O-Fish.