Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Cool Aspie Humor: Cognitive Difference and Kenneth Burke's Comic Corrective in the Big Bang Theory and Community

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Cool Aspie Humor: Cognitive Difference and Kenneth Burke's Comic Corrective in the Big Bang Theory and Community

Article excerpt

The article explores the complexities of humor in the context of intellectual disability, autism, and Asperger's Syndrome. Specifically, the rhetorician Kenneth Burke's theory of perspective by incongruity is applied to humor theory, and there is a focus on his comic corrective as a way of understanding potentially transformative contexts of humor and disability. Two television shows, The Big Bang Theory and Community, are considered, the argument being that each offers new and unexpected ways of understanding and blurring categories such as "autistic" and "neurotypical," as well as "nondisabled" and "disabled."


In recent years, controversy has erupted when disability has been used in the context of humor. Films such as Tropic Thunder and television shows such as Family Guy typify these controversies. In 2008, people with disabilities and their allies protested the film Tropic Thunder, in which the word retard was repeatedly used. Victor Pineda, a youth advisor for the United States National Council on Disabilities, criticized the film for its discriminatory message: "What does this film mean for young people?," he asks, declaring, "It means we can be afraid of things we don't know and use words without thinking and without repercussions... We're not against humor. We love humor. But let's understand the humor that we're using" (Puig).

In 2010, the animated show Family Guy also created controversy by including a character with Down Syndrome in an episode. In response to the character she assumes is modeled on her son (who has Down Syndrome), former US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin asks, "When is enough enough? And when are we willing to say, you know, some things just aren't really funny" (Hubbard). Palin assumed the character, Ellen, was a jab at her son, Trig. But Andrea Fay Friedman, the actress who performs the voiceover for Ellen and who has Down Syndrome, replied, "Sarah Palin didn't even get the joke," explaining that the purpose was to poke fun at Palin, not her son (Hubbard). "Getting the joke" about disability is often not as simple as it seems, especially when certain terms or figures are used.

Meaning is extremely flexible and even contradictory in humor. As John Morreall notes, Incongruity Theory is currently the most widely accepted theory of humor. What makes a situation funny is that "there is something odd, abnormal or out of place, which we enjoy in some way" ("Humour," 65). In rhetorical studies, a similar theory, called "perspective by incongruity," has been employed by Kenneth Burke to explore a wide range of situations, including comedy. Burke calls perspective by incongruity a "method for gauging situations by verbal 'atom cracking'" wherein a "word [that] belongs by custom to a certain category" can be wrenched loose and metaphorically applied "to a different category" (Attitudes, 308). Something is "out of place" in a productive way. Words, attitudes, and meanings are flexible and potentially transformative when employed in perspective by incongruity.

Perspective by incongruity possesses the potential to exert transformative effects in the context of humor and disability. Beyond indicating that something is simply "out of place" in a humorous way, perspective by incongruity can operate as a productive lens for situations involving humor and disability by resisting stereotypes and producing new meanings. Specifically, I explore a particular kind of Burkean perspective by incongruity - the comic corrective - in the context of humor surrounding cognitive difference. I explore how comedy functions as a corrective to limiting stereotypes and assumptions concerning autism and Asperger's Syndrome in two popular television comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Community.1 I explore humorous situations that show people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome as integral elements to their communities and social circles, resisting the stereotype that people with autism are asocial or isolated. …

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