If You’re Going to Offend Me, At Least Make Me Laugh

WRITTEN BY: Thatcher Heldring

I watched Die Hard again recently. The movie holds up. There is something so spot-on human about Hans Gruber’s furious search for his missing detonators: it’s any of us looking for our keys (or CGM or poker) on a hectic morning as the seconds tick off the clock.

But it was another scene in the movie that really got to me, maybe more than it should have.

John McClane is on the 31st floor of the Nakatomi Plaza watching a police car roll slowly around a circular driveway far below. McClane is desperate. He knows the stakes. The fate of 30 hostages, and the continuity of the plot, hinge on this lone black-and-white noticing that terrorists have seized control of the building.

As the tension builds, a dismayed McClane whispers to himself, “Who’s driving this car — Stevie Wonder?” That line made me laugh in 1988. Thirty years later, I am not so sure.

It turns out that jokes based on disabilities and diseases aren’t always funny.

In 2013 my son Peter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. We’ve since grown into our new normal. We learned to carb count, mostly. We realized that there are multiple types of diabetes, all of which are frequently misrepresented in the media. And, like minivans after you buy one, we started spotting diabetes jokes everywhere: somehow they had become the go-to punchline for any observation about sugar-consumption.

For example, we’ve all seen what happens when a barista in Florida with some dark roasted beans and a staggering genius for in-store comedy decides to use the back of a coffee cup for his edgy commentary about the links between the carbs in the drink he is serving and a devastating chronic disease.

“Diabetes here I come.” Seriously, that’s the whole joke. This visionary in a green apron was motivated enough to mine the misfortune of others for a cheap laugh but couldn’t be bothered to hammer out anything more original than “diabetes here I come.” No wonder Starbucks apologized.

(Also, the customer had two siblings with Type 1 diabetes. Whoops.)  

If you ask me, though, the real disgrace is not just one jackass making light of an already stigmatizing condition. It’s that anyone would do it while trying to pass off a stale joke as some kind of achievement.

To put it another way: Does this offend me as the parent of a child with Type 1 diabetes? No. It offends me as a writer!

Getting real again, my sense is that most of these armchair comics are not mean-spirited. They just lack the capacity to form original thoughts. Sort of like how Peter’s pancreas stopped producing insulin. Only there is no monitoring device for a hypoglycemic sense of humor.  

There is, however, a parallel universe of genuinely funny jokes invented within the Type 1 diabetes community that make “diabetes here I come” seem even lamer by comparison. That’s no accident. We embrace the humor because humor is sustaining and empowering. But, it’s our humor. There are other jokes and words I have to use with care, or not all, because I have not lived the truth that gives those words their potency.

And that’s what stuck with me about the Stevie Wonder joke.

Who’s driving this car — Stevie Wonder?

Ha. Ha? Or, not?

At the risk of sanctimony, what I see now is a canned line that comes at the expense of one person, and, millions of others who are blind or visually impaired. So, let’s be honest. Other than being delivered by a professional actor, is the line really any different than “diabetes here I come”? For that matter, what about jokes punctuated by deaf or braindead or heart attack?

These examples lurk in a grey area between a good-natured expression like “break a leg” and an always out-of-bounds word like “retarded.” It gets more complicated. A comment that doesn’t upset one person might upset 10 other people. For all I know, Stevie Wonder had no problem with the joke in Die Hard. After all, his song “Skeletons” was playing in the same scene! So, there are very few rules. But it’s worth examining why diabetes jokes touch a nerve for so many of us while at least wondering whether we might be throwing stones from glass houses.

I promise this is not a sermon about being more sensitive. Or being less sensitive. My big point is that humor, in a way, is no joke. By all means look for lightness in dark places. But put some effort into it. Make it count. And, seriously, if you’re going to offend me, at least make me laugh.

Read The Unicorn Frappuccino Diabetes Meme: An Appraisal by Forester McClatchey.

Thatcher Heldring

Thatcher Heldring is a freelance writer and author focused on Type 1 Diabetes, environmental education, and other issues related to children and health. He has also partnered with clients working on literacy, sustainable communities, youth leadership development, and health policy. He is also the author of four sports novels for young readers and the father of an 8-year old T1 and an 11-year-old T3. You can reach Thatcher through his website at www.spitballinc.com.