Growing up as a stutterer with an interest in comedy, Nina G. saw few women like herself in the media. About the closest person she can recall is Nina, a stuttering hot dog vendor who occasionally appeared on The Howard Stern Show.
Her heroes ended up being boundary-pushing men like Howard Stern, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle, who she once performed with and eventually won over—even after telling him to go fuck himself for making fun of her body. And the lessons the San Francisco-comic took from them inform her work as a disability rights advocate as much as her comedy. People with disabilities don't want to be coddled or turned into inspiration porn—they want to be treated with respect, and allowed to be as irreverent and messy as able-bodied and "fluent" people are allowed to be.
In her memoir, Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen, Nina combines autobiography with informal academic dissertation, describing how her traditional Italian family fought for her rights in an uncaring Catholic school system and how, even after making a career as a disability rights advocate, she couldn't give up on her dream of being a standup comedian.
WW spoke with Nina ahead of her Portland visit—promoting both her book and International Stuttering Awareness Day—to talk about elevating disabled voices in comedy, the irreverent advocacy of South Park and her love of cursing.
Willamette Week: What would you say is one thing right off the bat you wish fluent people knew about stuttering?
That we don't need to be fixed and we don't need to be interrupted. They say that we who stutter have a communication disorder, yet we're the ones people are not communicating with, or are not letting us communicate.
How did you decide to put a book together?
Primarily, what I've seen is that a lot of times, our voices as people with disabilities are not always represented in a way that isn't filtered through an enabled bodied lens. I wanted to represent myself in my comedic voice, as well as talking about some of the nuances. A big part of it was that I've seen so many polarizing conversations online, and it's really hard to bring the nuance into those, and I just wanted to break things down in the way I break things down.
One thing I'm struck by is how few resources there were for you to find a positive role model growing up, and how many of the people who were your positive role models were figures like Woody Allen, Dave Chappelle and Howard Stern. They're not people who are not trying to fit into polite society. Polite society still winds up being restrictive and exclusive to people with disabilities.
For me, the only place where I really saw someone who I related to growing up—and this is in the '80s, so it's a different time and different context—but Howard Stern's show, in the form of Stuttering John, and later they had this one girl on who I talked about [Nina, a stuttering hot dog vendor]. That was the first time that I really saw my experience of being a person who stuttered on TV, because the way people looked at Stuttering John was how they looked at me when I ordered food and when I talked. It was a validating thing to see it on TV. Also, they looked at him weird because he was asking very strange, awful questions, so there was that aspect too.
That also plays to cultural assumptions about what type of people people with disabilities are allowed to be. Enabled society doesn't allow them to be crass, or allow them to make people uncomfortable, so I can see why that was so important.
Part of why I wrote the book, and partly why I went with the publisher that I went with [She Writes Press], was that I wanted to tell a story about my disability experience that wasn't filtered. A lot of times people want to make you into an over-comer or an inspiration, and you're not allowed to say the word "fuck" a lot. I wanted to talk my truth and say the words "fuck" and "asshole" a lot.
I think that was the basis for South Park's Jimmy, who walks with crutches and stutters, and he wanted to be included with the other boys and how awful they are, but people would be like "Oh my God, you're making fun of him!"
South Park has done a really interesting job on inclusion for people with disabilities. If everyone's being made fun of and we're not being made fun of, it's like, why? Are we not allowed to be made fun of? Are we too hands-off? South Park has also done it where they've also represented disability culture in a way that I haven't seen other shows do—like the time where Jimmy and Timmy were searching for their "crips," for their community. It was a show about trying to find your people. I haven't seen that in popular, mainstream media, and South Park did it.
What do you make of cultural shifts like changes to PC and woke culture?
With Netflix and all these comedy specials, I don't necessarily see what is being said as the problem. What I see as the bigger problem is there are only a limited amount of voices that are being elevated, and I think what we do is focus on what is being said instead of what is not being said. That is my big issue when a comic does something that is anti-disability or anti-anything—people are focused on that comic, they aren't focused on other voices that could counter that. To me, if you're not at the table, it's hard to even bring those voices out. I think that's the problem. There isn't a diverse enough set of voices to call on or make jokes back, because I think you have to fight comedy with comedy.
In outrage, we accidentally elevate or proliferate someone who's being non-constructively offensive, and meanwhile, the people who are doing the work don't get that kind of attention or energy, because it's focused on a corrective model.
Whenever someone offends me around a disability issue who is a comic, I will try to highlight someone who has a disability in social media, because I think that's who we need to hear. If we have enough of those voices—whether this is in disability, LGBTQ+ or any group—they can't all be drowned out by the voice we find offensive. We are really good at pointing out what's wrong, not pointing out what's right.
SEE IT: Nina G will read and speak at Strum, 1415 SE Stark St, #C, on Saturday, Oct. 26. 4 pm. Free.