From a writer to a stand-up comedian to the president, People Who Stutter are speaking their truth

Comedian Nina G on stage in Sacramento.
(Via Nina G)

Nina G is coming to Santa Cruz next month to perform in a show called “Comedians With Disabilities Act” alongside other comics living with various health/ability circumstances. Writing from his own experience as a member of the People Who Stutter Club, Wallace Baine says that in the great directory of physical, mental or psychological afflictions that plague the human animal, “I got away pretty good.” He tells you why.

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President Joe Biden, the East Bay stand-up comic known as Nina G, and I are all One Percenters — though not in the Bernie Sanders sense of that term. We are all in the PWS Club, for People Who Stutter, which makes up about 1% of the general population.

We don’t have a clubhouse, a secret handshake or a membership card (that I’m aware of). And it’s highly doubtful the three of us will ever get to commiserate together over cappuccinos, at least without Secret Service agents around. But I’m sure POTUS, Nina and all other PWS have their middle school stories. Here’s mine:

Picture an 11-year-old kid, skinny and short but with an unnaturally large head and too much hair — or picture a Q-tip, same dif. This kid has bad eyes, or more specifically, one bad eye, which means one of the lenses in his glasses is thicker than the other, which means, in the days when lenses were glass and not plastic, that his glasses are permanently tilted to one side. Not a great look in the sixth grade.

Of the 26 letters in the alphabet, about a third of them present problems for this kid in his everyday speech. Some of them — B’s, D’s, P’s — are vocal roadblocks that require a labor to overcome that resembles a mini-seizure of the jaw. Others — L’s, N’s, R’s — produce an absurdly elongated consonant sound like Tony the Tiger in the old cereal commercials, “They’re g-r-r-r-r-r-reat!” Maybe for you, Tony. But for a doofus kid, not so g-r-r-r-r-r-reat.

The kid hides his affliction as well as he can, but inevitably some clueless (or cruel) teacher is going to make him stand in class and read from “Hamlet,” and that’s when the snickers and the guffaws and every other synonym you can think of for derisive laughter and mockery begin. Repeat until self-worth falls to zero.

Oakland-based comedian Nina G has a similar story, but it differs from mine in one enormous way. For me, speaking in front of a room full of laughing people was akin to drinking paint thinner, and given the choice at 11, I’m sure I would have opted for the paint thinner. But Nina — bizarrely, perversely, inconceivably — aspired to be a stand-up comic.

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Nina, 49, will be visiting Santa Cruz on Oct. 1 to perform in the Santa Cruz Comedy Festival, living what has been a lifelong dream. Her stutter isn’t severe, but it’s still there, and it informs her comedy and her life. She’s even written a memoir called “Stutterer Interrupted.”

She told me that, even as a child, she was inspired by comedians such as Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. Her mom would allow her to skip class from Catholic school every once in a while and take her to the movies. One of those movies was “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.”

“I just loved [stand-up comedy] and really connected to it,” she said. “It was my rock ‘n’ roll. My first crushes were stand-up comics, and I wanted to do it since I was 11.”

In middle school, she began writing material and, as a teen, she went in search of open-mic opportunities around the East Bay. Still, she couldn’t quite get up on stage because the world was telling her that’s not where someone who stutters belongs. “The dream died,” she told me.

Fast forward many years. She’s about 35, and she attended a conference of the National Stuttering Association. “I came back and I realized just how much space I had relinquished to other people,” she said. “And I made some changes in my life. Six months later, I got up on stage and did an open mic. And I’ve been doing comedy ever since.”

President Joe Biden delivers a speech Thursday in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Stuttering is back again on the national agenda thanks largely to Joe Biden. Even as a lifelong stutterer, I didn’t really know Biden was a PWS until he became president. David Leonhardt of The New York Times recently wrote a fascinating piece about Biden’s relationship to his stuttering and mentioned that many of the vocal tics and habits Biden displays are probably not, as his critics insist, a sign of cluelessness or decrepitude, but are “strategies to manage his stutter.”

I can’t even estimate the number of conscious and unconscious habits I’ve internalized in my behavior and personality as a result of managing stuttering. The mockery of the kids at Atlanta’s Dresden Middle School has a long tail, I suppose (not naming names, you know who you are). Still, we’ve come a long way since the nadir of “A Fish Called Wanda,” the notorious comedy that made laughing at stuttering a centerpiece of its appeal (If you haven’t seen it, don’t). In fact, Michael Palin, the ex-Monty Python comedian who played the hapless stutterer in “Wanda,” has redeemed himself in a remarkable turnabout, establishing the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering.

As Leonhardt reports, attitudes about stuttering remain rooted in dodgy assumptions, namely that stuttering is a sign of an anxious or insecure personality. If anything, that flawed idea puts the chariot before the horse. It’s stuttering that brings on anxiety and insecurity, not the other way around. Stuttering itself is a neurological condition that has nothing to do with the development of personality, except in how stutterers are treated by others and the messages they get from the larger culture.

Of course, as is the case with so many disabilities, well-meaning folks can be nearly as hurtful as the trolls. Patience and compassion can sometimes sour into condescending attitudes. Sure, stuttering is often an obstacle, but the line is thin between crediting someone for living their lives fully despite the obstacles, and patting them on the head as if they are a child.

Nina said that Biden once tended to treat stuttering like “George Washington and the cherry tree, this thing he overcame, and I didn’t like that too much.” But then Biden invited 13-year-old Brayden Harrington to be part of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, “and that was more like expressing a sense of community and not trying to ‘overcome,’ because that overcoming thing I hate.”

Wallace Baine hosting Lookout Trivia Night last month at Abbott Square.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I’m lucky, in that my stuttering has largely receded with age — though I’m still not fond of words with F or V, and I’ll never be able to say some D-words without running up to them like an Olympic long jumper. In hindsight, in the great directory of physical, mental or psychological afflictions that plague the human animal, I got away pretty good.

I’ll take this one relatively mild condition any day. Besides, who’s to say what I might have become if I had always been perfectly fluent. Yes, it was a supreme drag sometimes, but maybe living with some condition that most people don’t have to deal with is really where empathy comes from.

On Oct. 1, Nina G will be performing alongside several other comedians in a show called “Comedians With Disabilities Act” featuring other comics living with various health/ability circumstances. Those things are fundamentally a part of who these folks are, but they are not entirely who they are.

As for PWS and how we navigate the world, Nina said the goal is simple: “To normalize how we speak, that’s a really important piece.”

Yes, that would be g-r-r-r-r-r-reat.

“Comedians With Disabilities Act” is part of the Santa Cruz Comedy Festival, to take place Oct. 1 at Greater Purpose Brewing Company.

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