Nina G. is the only female stuttering comedian. In the world. We think that deserves some serious kudos and were delighted when the hilarious Oakland-based comic sat down with us to talk about comedy, disability, feminism and confrontations with Dave Chappelle.
What made you decide to try stand up comedy?
I’d been wanting to do it since I was a kid, but when I was a kid and throughout a lot of my adult life I thought I had to be fluent in order to do that. It wasn’t until I went to a National Stuttering Association conference in 2008 that I really started to question a lot of the ideas that I had. Before that I was like, ‘OK- I’m not gonna let stuttering hold me back.’ But when I was at the conference, I felt how much as a woman I was holding back and relinquishing my power to everybody else. It’s hard because of my speech but also as a woman you do it even more. The example I always give is that men kind of spread out when they sit, and women sit with their legs crossed not taking up space. So when I came back from the conference I was like ‘OK, I need to take up more space’ and I started to do things to change my life. Within a few months one of those things was comedy, which I wanted to do for a long time but I had my own ablebodied attitudes about it, so I started to question those. Another thing is that I didn’t really see my perspective reflected in comedy, either as a woman or as a person with a disability. I feel that a lot of disability humor is laughing at yourself and I don’t believe in that [laughter], so a lot of my humor comes out in making fun of people’s reactions to me.
Were you nervous at all about audience reactions to your stuttering or did that even come into play?
It totally came into play but I don’t know if I was nervous about it. I get a few kinds of reactions. One is people just get through it and after a minute and a half they’re comfortable, and they like it and it’s great. Most audiences are like that. Then I have some people who think I’m faking it [laughter] and that pisses me off. And that’s because they’ve seen lots of horrible, awful fake stuttering on TV. So when they see the real thing and see the inconsistencies in my speech, they expect [the character Smiley] in Do The Right Thing or something… Every person who stutters stutters differently. And then the other audiences are the ones who are just completely uncomfortable and afraid to laugh [laughter] and I have to say “I’m a standup comedian. THIS is the appropriate time to laugh.” Those audiences piss me off the most.
Tell me about your children’s book.
It’s called Once Upon An Accommodation, a book about learning disabilities. In addition to stuttering, I also have LD, so it’s in part based on my own experiences. I went to a Catholic school in the 80s so they didn’t do much for kids with disabilities in terms of accommodations. And for me the LD impacts my life much more than my speech… My pet peeve about the disability community is that we don’t talk to each other. I think that comes from a very early thing where someone like me is told, ‘well it’s not like you can’t walk, it’s not like you can’t see, it just takes you a longer time when you learn.’ And to me, defining ourselves on what we’re not instead of defining ourselves for what we are is not a great way to build community. So I really wanted to bridge the disability community with this.
You’re a member of the all-disabled comedy troupe Comedians With Disabilities Act. How did that get started?
It was started by Michael O’Connell and Steve Danner. Michael uses a wheelchair and Steve is a little person. They met Eric Mee who’s blind and they did a couple of shows and I caught wind of it. I was like, ‘you need a girl on,’ because a lot of things in comedy are a sausage fest. I had them put me on as a guest set and it all gelled very very well. We’ve been performing for almost three years. We do a lot of colleges and those are a lot of fun. It’s so great to perform with them cause like, when I go to a stuttering conference and do a show there, everybody gets almost every aspect of my jokes. And then when I have to go perform in front of an audience that doesn’t understand disability whatsoever, I get a little angry at their ignorance. But I can’t- that’s the mainstream audience and if I only perform to disabled audiences it’s not gonna work.
Do you think you’ve been treated differently being the lone female comic in Comedians With Disabilities Act?
Well, I’m the only one in the group who does not have an apparent disability so people react in a different way. I’m sure they sexualize me more. So it’s this weird thing, like I’ve had people from the audience come up to me and say I just haven’t experienced the right kind of orgasm and that’s why I still stutter… Some of the better male comics will say stuff like ‘I can help you with that stutter,’ and another said ‘I could bang the stuttering out of you and into her.’ So that’s why I included a lot of that stuff in ‘Shit Fluent People Say To Stutterers.’
Dave Chappelle said something like that to you, right?
Yeah, “Ya know Nina, I could help you with that stutter,” after he introduced me on the show. For the record it was a joke. But I get that a lot and that’s why I talk about it in my comedy. It’s almost like men think their penis has a Christ-like quality, that they just lay it on you and it cures you. But I really love Dave Chappelle’s comedy just cause it does have a real social justice vibe, although he did call me a ‘fat white girl’ once.
It was when I was an audience member at a show for him and Black Star. Chappelle said “all hip hop shows are a sausage fest,’ and I was like ‘woooooo!’ And he looked at me and goes ‘there’s always a fat white girl trying to pick up guys at these things.’ So when I performed with him later, I said ‘you know Dave, this is what you said last time, and I just want to say I was a fat child and that hurt. Even though I respect you for all the things that you’ve done in integrating social justice and comedy, that still hurt so fuck you, Dave!’ [laughter] Which was fun cause all the other comics kissed his ass, so I wanted to do something different. But I love him. His response onstage was “I’m sorry I called you fat, I didn’t realize you stuttered,” which I thought was hilarious from a disability perspective! [laughter]
In addition to the Comedians With Disabilities Act, you’ve also started a new feminist comedy troupe called Feminist Tendencies.
Yes, that’s a new project I’m really excited about. At one of the last Comedians With Disabilities Act I was talking to a lot of the young women at the show and a lot were coming at the world from a social justice perspective and it just seemed like they really embraced that and embraced me. And the thing that I really enjoy about comedy is reflecting somebody else’s experiences. So I thought, ‘who do I know that’d be a great part of that?’ So I got Queenie TT involved, who’s a great friend of mine. She has lymphedema so she’s been in some Comedians with Disabilities Act shows. And then Karinda Dobbins who I’ve also worked with and Kelly Anneken. They’re all really strong performers and positive for women. Also they don’t compromise what their values are so I really feel that it’s a quality group.
How has feminism and disability activism influenced your comedy?
It’s the perspective you take. Just like we were saying earlier, ‘do you make yourself the joke or do you make other people the joke?’ There are a few times when I make myself the joke but when I do it’s something that’s very personal and not group oriented. So I think that’s really important. And just to be socially conscious of the material you do. Also I feel that standup comedy is a practice of free speech and where better to challenge misogyny?