Culture | Sit-down comedy

Alain Shain’s comic routines destigmatize disability

The first time Alan Shain performed at a comedy club, he recounted with a fond and completely unsheepish grin, he fell off the stage.

“My schtick was to juggle,” Shain said. “I lost my balance, started to fall, and then continued right offstage. The manager said, ‘Holy shit!’ That was the end of the act.” Afterward, the club manager offered a suggestion: in his future stand-up routines, perhaps he shouldn’t be standing up. Shain’s show Tuesday night, performed for this week’s Disability Symposium and entitled Comedy with Attitude: Sit-Down Comedy with Alan Shain, fortunately involved no accidental acrobatics.

It was a sit-down act for a good reason: Alan has cerebral palsy. He lists to the left when he walks. His gestures are jerky, controlled by muscles that flex and relax uncooperatively. His speech is slurred but expressive. Such pointed description is not indecorous – frankness is vital to the show. The reality of disability, as opposed to fearful or sentimental stereotypes, is Shain’s main comedic subject.

“I started doing comedy and storytelling – [partly] because I was tired of the depictions of disabled people as delicate or weak. Their experiences are something you can laugh at like everything else,” Shain said. This was certainly true of his own stories. One of the funniest of the night was about a dispatcher for Ottawa’s public adapted transport buses, who asked if Shain would need an escort. “I wasn’t planning on spending that much!” he said. “Isn’t that illegal?” For much of his set, Alan subjected common misconceptions to satirical correction: he is not automatically familiar with random amputees; despite his wheelchair, he can indeed find his way around an airport; he – a successful comedian, storyteller, and playwright – does not need restaurant menus read to him.

As Shain gracefully challenged preconceived notions about disability, he also inverted standard stand-up tropes, not the least by sitting down. In his first show, he turned juggling from Carrot Top-ian zaniness into social commentary, by exploiting his audience’s surprise. Tuesday, he used apparent self-deprecation as gentle criticism of others’ discrimination against those not able-bodied (“ablism”), whether manifested in the unease of “freaked out” diners watching him drop food on his lapel, or the misplaced sympathy of overzealous airport employees.

His comedy uses the conspicuous, including his own disability, as a sustained and implicit critique of ignorance. This includes the assumption that disability is solely a misfortune. “[My disability] gives me something important to say. Without it, I’d be just another white guy with a bad haircut,” he said. This is mostly true; his act deftly and humorously deconstructs anxieties about disability – a valuable accomplishment. His haircut, though, isn’t that bad.