BACK STAGE WEST

January 08, 1998

 

ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Geri Jewell & Kathy Buckley

 

Reporting by Rob Kendt

 

"Disabled comics" is a misnomer when applied to Kathy Buckley and Geri Jewell, because as seasoned standups they're both quite able, thank you, to reduce audiences to fits of laughter. Jewell is best known for her ground-breaking role on Facts of Life as Cousin Geri, in which she was the first person with a disability--cerebral palsy, in her case--to be cast in a major role on primetime TV. Since then, she has appeared as a standup comic on the nationwide circuit and in films and television, and wrote and starred in an episode of 21 Jump Street. She's also a very busy as a motivational speaker and diversity trainer for corporate and government clients.

 

Buckley is best known for her Ovation award-winning one-woman show Don't Buck With Me!, which ran to great acclaim at the Tamarind Theatre last year. She's also won the American Comedy Award for Best Standup Female Comedienne three years running and has appeared on the nationwide circuit, in the HBO comedy special Women of the Night, and in the 1991 documentary I Can Hear the Laughter--a reference to her disability, hearing loss. She, too, works as a motivational speaker for Anthony Robbins' Life Mastery classes.

 

Buckley and Jewell met a decade ago at a dinner for the Media Access Awards--an annual event honoring the entertainment industry's leaders in employing and representing the disabled, at which they'll both appear this year, on Jan. 28 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel--and have been close friends ever since. In fact, Jewell was among those who encouraged Buckley to become a standup in 1988. The two got together recently to talk about their comedy and, when they weren't cutting up or kibitzing, about educating the next generation--and the entertainment industry--about the true abilities of the disabled.

 

Kathy Buckley: It's funny, because I lip-read and you have involuntary movements, so I get seasick lip-reading you half the time. When we get together I have to take Dramamine, so I'm stoned when we're having a conversation.

 

Geri Jewell: And we have deaf lunches, which means we call each other up on the phone and tell each other what time we're going to meet and what restaurant we're going to meet at--but you have a different time and I hear a different restaurant, so we're at two separate restaurants at two different times waiting for each other to show up, both thinking we stood each other up, and then we call each other later and we say, "What did you have for lunch?" That is a deaf lunch: We have separate lunches together but apart.

 

Kathy: We manage to utilize our differences, learn from them for each other, accommodate each other, and yet still laugh at it. I found out more than anything in all my traveling that everybody has something in common. Some people pick on their cellulite, and that becomes a disability; people pick on the way they look 'cause they'd rather look like this, their height or their weight or whatever. Everybody has an issue that they go and put limitations on themselves. I have no business telling some obese woman that it's terrible she should be that way. Who am I to pass judgement? I'd rather go to the obese person and say, "So what didn't you have for breakfast this morning?" and just make fun with it.

But neither one of us makes fun of anybody. All of our jokes are pointed toward ourselves and how we observe and how we see things, you know?

 

Geri: Yeah. I always say that if you think you're being laughed at, you're really being laughed with--it's just you forgot to laugh. Life is not that serious. It really is not that serious.

 

Kathy: We need to take life seriously, but not ourselves. You know, we respect life, but what's more important is to get the people out there to laugh. It's about being totally in the moment, just enjoying what is there in the moment. When you do comedy, you have to do it with love. I don't like it when people come up to me and say, "Why are you being self-deprecating?" No, I'm loving the fact that this is who I am: God made me six foot tall, he gave me no tits, no ass, no fat, but cellulite--hello? Are we taking a nap or something, God? You have to enjoy what you have, you really do.

 

Nobody's Perfect

Geri: My inspiration as a child was Carol Burnett. She had such a wonderful ability to laugh at herself; I always thought that was such a tremendous gift and wanted to emulate that. I started to writing to her when I was 10 and told her, "When I grow up, this is what I want to do. I have cerebral palsy. What do you think?" Carol wrote me back and told me that there was no guarantee that I would become a professional, but the important thing was to make the effort and to try it--you never know how far you're going to go unless you try. She said the most important part is to enjoy doing it, however and wherever you do it; to be a professional is icing on the cake.

That was just so motivating to me, because when you're a kid with cerebral palsy, you always hear, "Well, that's unrealistic, you shouldn't even go there, stop dreaming about that, you need to find a cerebral palsy job," whatever that is.

 

Kathy: What is a cerebral palsy job? I've been looking for one for you.

 

Geri: Well, they say: CP, CPA. But I was horrible in math, so that didn't work. I tried to get a job at Taco Bell when I was 16, only I'd crunch the tacos every time I tried to make one. Then I tried getting a job at Thrifty Drugs, but they put me in the ice cream department--real smart. I put ice cream on the cones, the cone crunched, the ice cream went and hit the guy in the head. When I bottomed out, I realized I could do standup comedy, and a lot of that confidence came from Carol encouraging me. She was like a little angel putting a touch of confidence in my heart.

 

Kathy: I'm just in awe that people actually come and listen to me talk, that people love my work and they accept it, and that the public needs this different stuff. But the industry still only sees the disability. We're still knocking on the door where Hollywood says, "No, you have to be perfect."

 

Geri: Well, it's fear. It's like, we tend to shelter children from things that might be painful. But the kid is not in pain; it's the adult projecting their discomfort and pain onto the child, which creates the fear.

 

Kathy: And that's how you put limitations on children.

 

Geri: Yeah, and this is the thing about Hollywood and disability. It's the preconceived idea that this is a painful situation, hard for people to accept--"Let's not expose this too much to the public." If they just let it go, they'd be astounded how magical it could be. I always believe that you and I could be the disabled version of Laverne and Shirley or Ethel and Lucy. It would be absolutely hysterical.

 

Kathy: Yeah, that would be all new comedy--a different kind of humor that has not been brought to sitcoms, and all new storylines.

 

Geri: And that was the whole reason for the Media Access Awards in the first place, to acknowledge when the industry does embrace disability, doing something positive with it, and encouraging them to do more.

 

Pity My Ass

Geri: Early on, I remember a fellow comedian saying to me that CP was a gimmick: "Gee, if I had cerebral palsy, I could do comedy, too." I got a lot of that resentment. I'd be the first to admit it was a gimmick, but cerebral palsy is not going to be the thing that's going to carry me through life. A gimmick can only go so far. If I can't expand beyond that, then, yeah, it's a gimmick and I'm going to be crappy comedian.

 

Kathy: Yeah, when I started in comedy, there were a couple of professional comedians going, "Oh, it's about pity--the little deaf girl kind of thing. It must be nice to have a hook," and I'm going, "But you're whining about being Jewish up there half the time!" It's not a hook, it's a part of who I am. If that's a hook, then me being flat-chested and six feet tall is a hook, too.