Firmly rooted in disability activism, the emergence of disability studies in the 1980s took place at a time that also witnessed several disabled comedians and activists climb the stage both in the US and the UK. Considering these coinciding developments, it seems perhaps little surprising that disability studies scholarship has been engaged in the complex relationship between disability and humor from its very beginnings. However, the interplay between cringe (as a cultural phenomenon closely related to comedy) and disability has not received much attention within the field. This paper takes a closer look at the functions that disability fulfils in cringe comedy. Reading Laurence Clark’s comedy live performances against a classic “disability scene” from The Office
, I argue that while both shows humiliate the non-disabled for their reactions toward disabled people, the work they are doing differs on several accounts. While The Office
does not give its disabled characters much of a voice and thus remains ambiguous in what it is doing, Clark’s performances use cringe humor as a tool to reclaim agency. It is through the act of talking back that Clark’s performances take on a didactic function, encouraging audiences to critically reflect their own reactions to disability.
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