Rodney Dangerfield joked about getting no respect, but he didn’t have to worry about that from his fellow comedians.
When Oakland-based comic Nina G performed on the same stage as Dave Chappelle, he said if she spent the night with him, she wouldn’t have a stutter anymore.
Steve Danner, a comedian who is a little person, told this joke, “Midget is a derogatory word. It’s only acceptable if you drop the ‘E-T’ and replace it with an ‘A,’ but we can only say it to each other, like, ‘What up, my midga?’” The comedian who followed him had this to say on stage, “I don’t care if you don’t wanna be called midget. Midget, midget, midget!” This was with Steve’s fiancé, also a little person, in the audience.
Separately, Nina and Steve have experienced silence from the audience—a comic’s worst fear. This is likely because most of us have been trained by society not to laugh at someone with a disability. But, as most comics worth their salt, Nina and Steve speak the truth and find the funny in what life has dished them.
Along with Eric Mee, a blind stand-up, and Michael O’Connell, a comic in a wheelchair, they became the Comedians with Disabilities Act and found power and popularity in their solidarity.
“We’re not just trying to ride this wave. We’re trying to share what we can do,” Steve, of Napa, said, which is why they perform benefit shows like the one scheduled at Comedy Off Broadway Oakland on May 31.
I sat down with Nina G (who is, as far as she can tell, the world’s only female stuttering comedian) and Steve in the Castro recently, where they shared the group’s history in comedy.
Corey Andrew: How did you all find each other?
Steve Danner: Michael is a Sacramento area-based comic who uses a wheelchair. He saw me at a comedy club and thought it would be great to work together and great if we could find another disabled comic—maybe a blind comic.
Corey: He immediately thought of a blind comic before you found Eric?
Steve: That’s what he said, yeah! Then he ran into Eric Mee and said, ‘Wow, here it is.’ We did the show as a threesome. I got to know Nina from the Bay Area, and she asked me ‘How do I get on the show?’ We weren’t producing the show at the time so I said, ‘Ask for a guest spot.’ She did—at the San Francisco Punchline. She did an awesome job.
Nina: I was like, ‘You don’t have a woman in your group.’
Steve: We had way too much testosterone. It was a sausage fest going on. We got to meet her and we liked her personality, and her disability awareness was a great addition to the group. We were doing our own thing with the comedy side, but she is a huge advocate for disabled people. The four of us are the core members, but we take in a lot of guest comedians.
Corey: What was it like getting to know each other?
Nina: We had a special thing when we went to Seattle. We did NBC Stand-Up for Diversity. We were able to spend a lot of time together. The four of us have a really good flow.
Steve: I think we all know each other’s material pretty well. If she goes up before me, I may say some things about her. When I go up before her, she has several jokes.
Nina: I call him a DILF.
Steve: A dwarf I’d like to …. She has some great jokes about me. We work well together and off of each other.
Corey: Do you actively work on your social media stuff together?
Steve: We should do that more.
Nina: We play off each other.
Steve: There’s a lot of e-mails back and forth.
Nina: Michael is the writer in many ways. He’s been such an asset.
Steve: A lot of our press releases come from Michael. It’s a team effort. We don’t get together a lot. A lot of it is e-mail. The hardest one is Eric. We send him e-mails, and we’re like, ‘Why aren’t you reading your e-mails?’ He has a program that reads them for him. But the program doesn’t read all the strands from the beginning. He sees, ‘OK, it will be great seeing you,’ and thinks, ‘Where? Where are we going?’
Corey: Have you talked about where you want to see it go?
Steve: It’s always brought up, but we haven’t had a round table. We always dream. College tours. Big arenas.
Nina: October is Disability Awareness Month, and we would be perfect to do a show for that.
Steve: Of course, we’d love to play theatres. We all have similar goals.
Nina: We joke about stuff. Eric said we could do a ‘Real World’ where we all live in a house. I’d love to do a disability etiquette video. Whatever opportunities come, I think we would respond.
Corey: I think your stories are ripe for a documentary-style presentation. Something like the ‘Comedians of Comedy’ film.
Steve: We’re waiting for the right people to approach us. We’re open to a lot of things, as long as it’s positive and not negative.
Nina: Disabled people for so long have been misrepresented by the media, so it’s always a little iffy about where is this information going to go. What’s it going to look like? Are we going to have some control over it? Because, we want disability to be seen in a respectful way.
Corey: It is very easy for someone to be exploited.
Nina: Like it’s always been. ‘The freak show! It’s the freak show!’
Steve: We had this interview on a comic’s podcast, a real stoner comedian, acts like an idiot. He called something ‘retarded,’ and we said, ‘Uh oh, the R-word.’ He said, ‘It’s not like you guys are retarded.’ Then Nina really went off! We don’t have anybody in our group who has a mental illness, but we’re not going to let you put people down.
Nina: We’re still a family.
Steve: We call people out often—especially Nina.
Nina: Because we’re comics, they think they can take those liberties. No, you still have to be respectful.
Steve: It’s different when we get to know each other. They’ll rip on me for the short jokes. I’ll get on her for stuttering. I’ll tell Eric not to trip. We get on each other, but it’s different because we know each other, and we know which boundaries not to cross. Last night, before the show, Eric was feeling me up with his stick. We joke around a lot. One thing that makes us a good group, we all have very supportive families. It’s funny; I don’t know Eric’s parents well. I drove all night from L.A. to do this Sacramento TV show. I wanted to sleep. Eric’s family invited me over to his house, and they treated me like family. I think that’s where a lot of us get our strong humor and strong morals as well. We had parents who taught us to not be so bitter about life and to stand strong.
The May 31 show is a benefit for Youth Organizing YO! Disabled and Proud, which connects, organizes and educates disabled youth. Comedy Off Broadway Oakland is located at Miss Pearl's Restaurant & Lounge (at The Waterfront Hotel), 1 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94607. For more information, visit comedyoffbroadwayoakland.com.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.