Chat with Nina G, author of Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen

Can you tell us about your journey as a stand-up comic?

I wanted to be a stand-up comedian since I was 11 years old. But I had never seen anybody like me do stand-up comedy so I thought that you couldn’t stutter and be a comedian.  The dream of becoming a stand-up comedian died and I pursued other things.

When I was in my mid thirties, I attended a conference at the National Stuttering Association.  There, I met other people who stuttered. Being around people like me, I noticed how I internalized the interruptions of other people.

I came back from the conference and I started making a number of changes in my life.  Within six months I had stepped onto the comedy stage and my dream of becoming a stand-up comedian was revived.

What challenges do you face as a comedian?

Just like any other comedian, the primary challenge I’ve had is writing new material.  Mining your life for funny things or something you feel strong enough to talk about on stage is always a challenge for a comedian and I am no different.

 What do you do differently, to prepare, than most other comedians?

I think where I might be different is that I have to go to more open mics to try out new material compared to most seasoned comedians. When I write a joke, I don’t really think about where I’m going to stutter or what words I’m going to stutter on, so I don’t know how it’s going to come out until I say it in front of an audience.  I work really hard to outline the material and see where I can punctuate certain jokes.

Where do you get the ideas/material for your comedy script?

I get ideas for my material from life in general.  As a person with a disability, there are absurd things that people say all the time.  Before I started doing comedy, I would get really mad at these things, but now I see them as a gift.  It’s like they’re giving you a joke to tell everybody so I can make fun of them.

Another way I find ideas is when something really bothers me and I can’t stop thinking about it. That is when I know there might be a joke in it.

What inspired you to get involved in disability advocacy?

I sometimes joke that you shouldn’t pity me for having a disability, but you can pity me for going to Catholic school with a disability in the 1980s. It was so difficult because my teachers fought against me having accommodations.  This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act, so the school didn’t think they had to give equal access to a student with disabilities.

As a consequence, I developed learned helplessness, which is when you try and you fail, so you just stop trying.  In addition, I had low self-esteem and at times even thought about hurting myself.

The discrimination I faced is something no one else should go through.  I think it’s important to speak out about my own experiences, to teach people what it is like to have a non-apparent disability.  People often times either don’t think it’s a big deal or they think it’s the worst tragedy ever.  I would like them to see that it is a normal part of life.  I also hope to spread the word that community and advocacy is a big piece of having a disability and to find people who go through the same experiences as you is very helpful in becoming the person that you want to be.

Share your own personal story and how it helped inspire you to become a comedian.

As far back as I can remember I always liked comedy.  In some families music was on all the time, in my family it was comedy.  When I was four years old I remember watching Steve Martin on TV.  As I went into elementary school, reruns of Saturday Night Live were often on and I started watching it in my bedroom before I went to bed.

School was incredibly difficult to navigate.  My mom would sometimes let me play hooky from school and we would go to the movies.  Once she even brought me to see Richard Pryor Live at the Sunset Strip when I was nine years old.  Even though I had difficulty in school, I knew about the world because of comedy, whether it was stand-up on HBO specials or sitcoms and movies.  I felt as if it was the one thing I knew more than other kids.

My comedy nerd-dom eventually culminated in wanting to become a comedian around the time I was in middle school.  Once I got to be a teenager I started writing jokes and calling venues with open mics to see if they allowed minors.  By the time I was sixteen my dream of being a comedian died because I didn’t think someone could stutter and be a comedian

What were some of the turning points on your personal journey that compelled you to pursue comedy?

I attended the National Stuttering Association conference. What really made an impression on me were the women who stuttered.  I realized that I had been holding myself back in many ways.  It wasn’t just my dreams that died, but relationships suffered. As a result of my ingrained sense of communication, I didn’t want my speech to be a burden to others. When I came back from the conference, I started making changes in my life and within six months, I stepped onto the stage for my first open mic.

What should people know about stuttering that they usually get wrong or don’t know?

According to The Stuttering Foundation, stuttering is likely caused by a genetic predisposition and neurological differences in the brain.   It impacts about five percent of children, most of whom will grow out of it by late childhood.  Men are more likely to stutter than women at a one to four ratio.  There is no cure for stuttering and treatment varies from fluency shaping to a focus on stuttering while still being an effective communicator.

What should people know about you, personally, as someone who stutters?

 I personally feel that my natural speaking style includes stuttering so I choose to educate the environment about my speech simply by disclosing, “I stutter and you are just going to have to wait for all the brilliant things I have to say!” Asking people to have patience, do NOT complete my sentences and simply live up to their role, as “listener” is all I ask.

What is stuttersplaining?

Stuttersplaining is when people who don’t stutter explain to those of us who do what causes stuttering and what we should do to get rid of it. So many times it seems that as soon as someone meets me they suddenly have a PhD in stuttering and offer all kinds of advice from slowing down, breathing, singing, and even remedies of a sexual nature!

How did the portrayal of stuttering in the media impact you?

Stigma is created by stereotypes that lead to a group being seen or feeling as separate from the general population.  Traditionally books, film and other forms of media have presented people who stutter in stereotypical ways. When I was a kid I remember the only times I saw someone stutter in movies, they were either murderous or self-loathing.  They would kill themselves or someone else.  The most positive image I had was a cartoon pig!

How do these negative depictions affect those who stutter?

When you grow up with these images it is difficult not to internalize them.  This is true of people who do and don’t stutter.  Research shows that people who stutter are viewed as “introverted, shy, anxious, nervous, quiet, tense, guarded, fearful, embarrassed and frustrated”. These stereotypes lead to low expectation from others, discrimination in the work and school settings, and generally awkward situations for people who stutter.

Interrupting my own dream to be a comedian is a perfect example of the impact that stigma had on me.  Disrupting these interruptions and breaking through the walls and barriers of what others think about us is essential to live more fulfilling lives.

 How do audiences react to your act?

 Audiences react to me the same as they do to most comedians with a few exceptions.  Sometimes, people think that I am faking the stuttering for comedic effect. I personally think it is because they have only seen poorly acted stuttering on TV and in movies so they don’t know what the real thing looks like.  Plus, they probably aren’t expecting a comedian who stutters. We are rarely seen in the media, especially as someone who is commanding a room with their voice.

Have there ever been people in the audience who are stutterers?

Every once in awhile I have someone who stutters in the audience.  I especially love that.  We are only one percent of the adult population so when that happens it is really special for me.  There have been a few times where I have been approached by people after the show who stutter or have family members that do.  Connecting with people who stutter is always a reminder that we are not alone. Plus, I love performing for people who share my common experience.  I have done a few shows at or near a conference for people who stutter and it is incredible to joke about our shared experiences.

 If stuttering is a disability why do you say that stuttering is your natural way of speaking?

 The problem with disability is in the environment and not in the person. I don’t see the problem with my speech, but with people not waiting for what I am saying, make snide remarks or simply tell me to “spit it out.” Many people think that the word disability is negative.  I do not. I think that it is neutral. Also, people with disabilities are part of a larger community.  We find strength in one another’s experiences and often share a common bond.  Disability advocates have fought for my rights to school and work as a person who stutters and has learning disabilities.  To deny my disability identity is to deny this legacy that I benefit from.

 What is worse – stuttering in front of people or their reaction?

 This is almost like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg?  But now that I think about it, it’s the reaction because the reaction is what has trained many of us to be ashamed of how we talk. It is possible to stutter and still be a good communicator (e.g. make good eye contact, be an effective speaker, etc.).  The stutter wouldn’t be so bad if people just looked and listened to us like they would others.

What kind of reactions, do you receive when you’ve stuttered?

I have gotten confused looks and pitiful faces that aren’t reflecting at all what I am trying to convey to the listener.  Then, there are the comments or advice I received.  I have gotten everything from “Did you forget your own name?” (Very common one for people who stutter), “Have you considered XXX as a cure?” and being called an inspiration.  Once after being on a panel where my stuttering was not in the forefront, someone came up to me after and said, “You are such an inspiration. If I talked like you I wouldn’t talk at all!”

Do you still have, or will you always have, trepidations when you speak?

 A few years ago I decided that my goal was not to think about my stuttering when it is happening.  I wanted to desensitize myself so that I could speak freely without thinking about how fluent I was saying it.  What I realized is that sometimes people won’t let you forget. Coaching someone in the midst of a stutter to say “calm down and breathe” isn’t helpful and makes us more self-conscious of the way we are speaking.  It is like the listener is focused on how I am saying something instead of what I am saying.

How do you educate people on your stuttering issue?

Traditionally, stuttering has been talked about in negative ways and I’m trying to change that.  Using empowering language and avoiding words like “afflicted” and “suffers from” is important.

I attempt to educate people about stuttering so that they know what to expect.  For example, I would be trepidatious if I was on a job interview.  I think most people would be, but for me it is my stuttering. That is why I go into the meeting disclosing that I stutter and that they’re just going to have to wait for my good ideas.  I think it puts other people at ease and I have just nicely told them to please be quiet and let me finish!

 Do you have the normal butterflies before you get on stage, like other comedians, or is it compounded by your anxiety about stuttering?

 I don’t really have anxiety stuttering on stage or when I am presenting.  I know it is going to happen.  I am more anxious about forgetting what I am going to say or not making people laugh. Not making people laugh at your material is so much scarier than doing something I know is going to happen.

Generally, I don’t get very nervous when I am presenting at a keynote.  It is funny because I have been more nervous doing comedy to 10 people than keynoting to an audience of 500.  In a keynote being funny is a bonus but not the goal. Talking is easy but comedy is difficult!