Nina G is America’s favorite female stuttering stand up comedian (granted she is the only one). She is also a disability activist, storyteller, children's book author and educator. She brings her humor to help people confront and understand social justice issues such as disability, diversity, and equity.
AXIS: For our readers that don't know about your awesome comedic routine, could you give us a little insight into what that entails and how you use your knowledge of stutter and disability to educate people?
NINA: I am not sure if I so much educate people about Disability. I just talk about my personal experience of Disability. I think people see it as educational because there are so few venues for people to hear about the Disability experience, but really I am not sure if the intoxicated audiences I do comedy to on some nights learn much. Of course I do integrate comedy into my Disability related trainings. I think humor is a great way to disarm people in trainings. Plus, if I say that there is a Brown Bag Lunch Lecture with a “Disability Educator”, my experience is that two people come to the presentation (and they are usually the ones who planned it or have a personal interest). If it is advertised as a lecture by a stand up comedian, people actually come. The message is the same either way, but the comedy piece entices people to come.
I do try to reflect my Disability experience with dignity and pride. I am fourth generation Disabled on my dad’s side, so I am pretty sensitive to what might represent Disability in a poor light. Sometimes people think that I make fun of my disabilities but really my aim is to make fun of the reaction people have to Disability or the experiences having a Disability puts me in. Between my own experiences and observing those of my friends with disabilities, there is a lot of material to mine! Hopefully people learn a little bit about what not to say when they interact with us from my act. Primarily I hope to talk about the things that we don’t always get to talk about, like ableism. I also work with the Comedians with Disabilities, a comedy troupe made of comedians with a variety of disabilities. It is great to have a mainstream venue to talk about the issues we deal with, and comedy makes it easier for people to sit and listen. We have the first ever stand up comedy compilation album of comedians with disabilities coming out this Spring, so I am super proud of that!
Could you please share a little bit of your personal story and why you chose to use humor for issues that have such a stigma in society?
Currently I am working on my one woman show, Going Beyond Inspirational, which examines my experiences as a woman who stutters and has learning disabilities. With stand up I am not always able to get into the real issues and stories that I think are important. I am hoping that I can really examine my experience with the audience. Hopefully it will bring to light our experiences and I hope to show the importance of issues like advocacy, recovering from learned helplessness and importance of finding our communal and individual voice as people with Disabilities.
I was diagnosed with a Learning Disability when I was in the third grade, which was about the same time I started to stutter. I was also born into a family that kind of got disability off the bat. My dad is hard of hearing as was his father and paternal grandmother. My mom’s mom had polio when she was a child so Disability was normal in their experience. I think being born to people with these experiences helped to give me a headstart in self-acceptance and I received modeling from the outset. Also, my dad had a model for how to raise a child with a disability, which I also think is important for parents to see. When I started to experience difficulties in school my parents were ready to get help and to advocate for me with little shame or stigma associated with my problems. Of course I got a great big dose of stigma from the grammar school I attended. It was a private Catholic school in the 1980s and they didn’t feel that they needed to include kids with disabilities (apparent or nonapparent) into their curriculum. Of course, a lot of Catholic schools have embraced disability and neurodiversity, but in my day, and the schools I attended, this was not the case. So most of my challenges as a child came from that experience. When you encounter that kind of obvious and covert discrimination, it is difficult to not internalize it and you have to consciously fight it. Even to this day, the beliefs I began to develop about myself then, which resulted in low self-esteem, still crawl up on me.
Throughout my childhood I always loved comedy. My parents didn’t have boundaries around what me and my brother watched on TV, in fact, it was my mom who brought me to see Richard Pryor Live at the Sunset Strip at the movie theater when I was in grammar school. For me comedy was what I loved and identified with, the way that most children and teenagers identified with music. I secretly wanted to become a comedian but was too embarrassed to talk about my fantasy (which was was the case until about 5 years ago!). I have also always been a fan of African American comedy like Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock and even Dick Gregory. I really admire that you can be funny while purging racism in our society. When I first started comedy, I used them as a model, especially since we haven’t seen the same kind of comedy reflected in the Disability culture. I see Dick Gregory as an especially important role model of mine because he really did do activism and comedy and still does.
What are your hobbies and what inspires you to create a routine?
One of my hobbies is playing pinball. I have had to put that on hold while working on the one person show, but it doesn’t get into my act too much. I do host a monthly comedy showcase at the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda. I think what inspires me most is just interacting with people and noting what annoys me most. So much of comedy comes out of tension and for me, if I am going to tell the same joke over and over again, then I need to be passionate about it. The world offers so many absurd things that I think you just need to acknowledge them when they happen and decide what is good for comedy. For example, this week my dad fell and broke his hip. He was sharing a room with a guy who was also recovering from something but had a lot more mobility. My dad had not yet had a bowel movement so he was sitting on the portable toilet. At the same time the roommate was brought his lunch. The nurse's aide was also in there changing the bedding and left the curtain between the beds pulled back. The two lock eyes, one trying to take his post-surgery dump (which was mostly loud farts) and the other eating his lunch. I have been thinking a lot about that situation to see if it might be something that I put into my act, so we will see if it inspired me enough.
What is a piece of advice would you give to someone who struggles with a stutter? I know that you gave me some profound advice that changed my life forever as a teen that was scared to talk to new people.
Stuttering is different for everyone so it is difficult to give general advice, but I think one important aspect to stuttering is self-acceptance. Although there are ways to manage your stuttering, there is no cure. And even to manage your stuttering, that is a lot of work. I think accepting your stuttering, or whatever disability you have is important because it is an aspect of yourself. I know, for myself, I always told people that they could do pretty much whatever they wanted no matter their disabilities, meanwhile I had the life long dream to do stand up comedy, but thought that you had to be fluent to do it. I really had to challenge myself around my own internalized stigma and ablelism. Going to the National Stuttering Association conference really helped me to get over that hurdle. Seeing yourself reflected in other people, especially, for me, women, changes how you see yourself in an Abled bodied society. You can feel validated and put less restrictions on yourself.
If you could be on TV show for a day, what show would you be on and why?
This is going to sound really strange for a Disabled feminist, but it would be Howard Stern. As a kid there were not many people I could relate to who stuttered. The primary people in the 1980s were Lester Hayes (Oakland Raiders), Mel Tillis (Country singer), and or course Porky Pig (if you count cartoon pigs as people). Although each had an impact on me, they were not people I would identify with if they didn’t stutter. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I saw a person who stuttered in a comedy role, and I mean really stuttered. It wasn’t fake, it was just how he talked. That came in the form of Stuttering John from the Howard Stern show. They made fun of him but they made fun of everyone on the show. Before seeing “Stuttering John” Melendez I thought the only option, especially if you were in the public eye, was to be fluent. He stuttered openly and that was so weird to me and left such an impact. Stern did it again when I was in my early 20s when he had on the first woman I had ever seen on TV who stuttered. Her name was also Nina and she happen to be an attractive woman who sold hot dogs in a bikini. I always say that when a feminist with a Disability says the only place she saw herself reflected on TV was on the Howard Stern show, that the media could be doing a better job representing us!
Seeing these images of stuttering in a comedy venue helped to normalize my experiences. I do admit that there are things on the show that are ableist. I think Howard himself has some issues around disability that reflect society’s (e.g. pity, inspirational, etc…), but he lays them out and talks about them. There are so few mainstream media outlets that really talk openly about Disability issues. I would love to have that conversation with Howard, plus I really feel that for me as a person who stutters, he helped form my identity. That is why you will hear a “Bababooey” on the recording of my stand up on the upcoming Disabled Comedy Only album.
◦ The Comedians With Disabilities Act CD Release – Spring 2015. For more information, visit www.NinaGcomedian.com
◦ Dis/Play at SOMA Arts San Francisco; The Comedians With Disabilities Act & Friends in collaboration with photographer Josh Denault – March 26, 2015 http://www.somarts.org/displayopens/
◦ Premiere of one person show: Going Beyond Inspirational at the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California. Tickets at www.beyondinspirational.com
◦ Nina G hosts a panel discussion with AXIS Dance, a dance company composed of individuals with and without disabilities, at SOMA Arts San Francisco – April 8, 2015
◦ Going Beyond Inspirational - hosted by Ability 1st at Theater Tallahassee in Florida. Please call Ability1st at 850-575-9621 for more information.