On February 8, comedian Ms. Pat’s first full-length stand-up special, Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?, premiered on Netflix. Ms. Pat’s led a rough life, to say the least—she had two children, fathered by a man eight years her senior who had sexually abused her since she was 12, and by age 15 and started selling crack to support them. She started making fun of her experiences onstage at age 30, after her caseworker suggested she try it. As a longtime fan of Ms. Pat, I was pleased to see her genuinely having a good time in this special, maintaining her consistent comedy thesis: “I don’t dwell on shit I don’t have control over.”
But I can’t write about this without acknowledging one particular moment about halfway through her performance. While describing assisting her disabled uncle in his endeavor to bed a sex worker procured by his dad, Ms. Pat’s grandfather, Ms. Pat refers to her uncle as “r*tarded” and proceeds to explain that this was the correct terminology at the time, so she chooses to use it now.
Considering the use of that language wasn’t removed from government documents until a 2010 act was passed and still appeared in the DSM until 2013, I don’t blame Ms. Pat’s assumption that the harm caused by the use of it is a new phenomenon. It’s also used in a way that, to me, comes across as deflective but loving. Let me explain.
In 2015, I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, was in a 10-day coma and became permanently disabled. To say I was impaired and that my mental faculties were drastically impeded was an understatement. During this time, my brother, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia a few months prior, referred to me, lovingly, as his “r*tarded” little sister. I bring this up to explain how the way we talk about someone else’s trauma is defined by our own framing of it.
In this instance with my brother, and in Ms. Pat using the slur toward her uncle, I believe it was done to preserve their senses of safety and self-preservation. For my brother, it was his way of coming to terms with his diagnosis by thinking to himself, “I may have this medical condition, but if my sister can be this damaged and I still love her, then maybe it’s okay.”
All of this to say, I’m not defending Ms. Pat’s use of the word, but I understand it. I also don’t want to sound patronizing, but Ms. Pat’s relationship with her uncle and the tasks she had to perform to aid in his ability to have sex with prostitutes were traumatic; making these types of jokes and finding the humor in the situation is an act of preservation, as I’ve said. Do I think using the word “r*tard” is part of that? Yes, and in that moment Ms. Pat chose to privilege creating distance between herself and her uncle by employing it. Could she have used a different word? Yes. And this is the point I’m having issues getting across without undermining Ms. Pat’s main thesis of humor as growth and as a method of dealing with trauma: traumatized people hurt other traumatized people, often unintentionally.
Yes, it’s extremely arrogant and problematic for me to call a 47-year-old Black woman I’ve never met traumatized. It’s just that there’s a difference between processing and punchlines. And while Ms. Pat has obviously grappled with these events enough to make jokes about them, she hasn’t yet, from my perspective, processed how her framing of certain details affects others.
Ms. Pat’s special shines when she makes fun of herself or others with more power in a situation than herself. Her 21-year-old boyfriend picking her up from elementary school when she was 12? Perfect target. Her disabled uncle’s disability? Not so much. The fact her granddad never tasked Ms. Pat to ensure her uncle used a condom? A hilarious oversight on his part. Her grandfather, who put his young granddaughter and her uncle in the situation, should have been the main target, in my opinion, for that entire bit.
Comparatively, Jimmy Carr’s recent special His Dark Material included the comedian stating the Roma and Sinti genocide during the Holocaust was “a positive.” Neither Roma, a Holocaust survivor, or related to a Holocaust survivor of any ethnicity, Jimmy Carr’s quip punched down, targeting a highly stigmitized demographic of people instead of mining his own lived-experiences or those of people with more power. Ms. Pat, sticking to her own experiences in which she’s usually the one with the least amount of agency, keeps herself from writing off sects of people. Usually.
And who’s to say Ms. Pat wasn’t the least powerful presence in this situation? I don’t want to insinuate one form of trauma or marginalized identity takes precedence over another—her uncle, after all, was an adult. But creating the emotional distance Ms. Pat needed to deliver her punchline via stigmatizing his disability under the guise of historical accuracy seemed like an out-of-character moment for someone who, outside of this instance, makes fun of the ridiculousness of her own situation instead of someone else’s marginalized identity.
At the end of the special, Ms. Pat turns to grappling with her daughter’s queerness and borders on othering the daughter due to her sexuality. But then Ms. Pat asserts that if anyone else makes fun of her daughter, she’ll end them. Again, it’s an instance of fearful and fearsome love, in which Ms. Pat doesn’t quite understand the reality and makeup of her daughter, but she’s trying. And she’s having these discussions instead of shying away from them or writing them off. And isn’t that a beginning?
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.