COMEDIAN NINA G HAS A NO-NONSENSE
APPROACH TO DISABILITY AWARENESS
Nina G is a comedian, professional speaker and author of “Stutterer Interrupted” and the new book “Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy: A Humorous History.” She has been featured in or on everything from NPR's 51%, BBC's Ouch, Psychology Today, Tedx, multiple day time talk shows, Howard 100 News and the Stuttering John Podcast. Nina shares her wit and wisdom with corporations, colleges, libraries, conferences and community events. Her no nonsense approach to disability awareness and acceptance helps to bring institutions, communities and individuals to deepen their understanding of the disability and bring practical approaches to making a more inclusive society.
IN THIS EPISODE
[01:14] On what she’s most passionate about
[01:34] Why comedy and disability rights are so important to her
[03:37] On her early interest in comedy and early comedic influences
[05:39] On when she realized comedy was something she could do
[07:39] What her first experience on stage was like
[09:34] On her work with disability activism
[13:08] On building her comedic career
[18:13] On the Comedians with Disabilities Act
[21:26] On comedy changing for women and people with a disability
[24:04] On Covid impacting her work and getting back to normal
[26:28] On her 2021 Inauguration performance
[27:55] On writing the history of Bay Area comedy in her book Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy: A Historical History
[33:11] How people who are not disabled can be advocates for those who are
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and today we're talking with Nina G, a comedian, professional speaker, and author of Stutter Interrupted and her new book Bay Area Standup Comedy: A Humorous History.
She's been featured in and on everything from NPRs 51%, BBC's Ouch, Psychology Today, TEDx, multiple daytime talk shows, Howard 100 News, and even The Stuttering John Podcast. Nina shares her wit and wisdom with corporations, colleges, libraries, conferences, and community events. Her no-nonsense approach to disability awareness and acceptance helps institutions, communities, and individuals to deepen their understanding of disability and bring practical approaches to making a more inclusive society.
So please welcome to the show, Nina G.
Nina: Hi, th-th-thanks for having me.
Passionistas: We're so glad to have Nina here on the podcast. She was part of our comedy event last year, Chronically Funny, and we've been trying to get her on the show ever since.
Nina, what's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Nina: There are two things. One is stand up comedy and the other is d-d-d-disability rights, d-d-d-disability in general. So it's kind of like a head-to-head race there.
Passionistas: Tell us why those two things are such an important part of your life.
Nina: I mean cause they are my life. Like I am as a standup comic, who's stutters and has dyslexia. And I've loved comedy my entire life, and that's why I have the book, book out now on Bay Area comedy, because I'm also from the Bay Area. I'm from Alameda and I've lived in Oakland now for 20 years. Just love, love, love comedy. I've been doing it now for 12 years. So that's one thing.
Then also I'm fourth generation d-d-d-disabled on my dad's side. So my dad is hard of hearing. His dad was hard of hearing and his mom was hard of hearing. So since we've been in America from Italy, we've been d-d-d-disabled. And just knowing my own experiences, I went to Catholic school in the 1980s with dyslexia and stuttering. I could tell from your very Irish names that you may know some of that experience. And what I always say is that you should never pity me for having a disability, but you can pity me for going to Catholic school in the 1980s with those things, because that sucked.
And so I just hope that we can make a world that less sucks for people. And that may be through access, it may be through laws, it may be through services, or it may be through re-representation in the media, in Hollywood, in whatever. And hopefully I bring a little bit of that representation when I go to colleges, when I go to corporations or when I am telling a Dick joke in a dive bar. Like the representation should be everywhere.
Passionistas: Tell us when you first really became interested in standup and who were some of your early comedic influences?
Nina: Yes. Okay. So, I mean, I think I kind of found comedy when I was around like four or five, like my family. It was the seventies and my family was super into Steve, Steve Martin. And then as I got a little bit older, when I was like 7, 8, 9, my parents never put any restrictions on us around TV me, me and my brother, and they also just brought us in to watch whatever was on. So I would stay up and watch, like the old sa-Saturday Night Lives, which then old was like five years prior. And so I was exposed to all of that, to first cast and I have like a stuffed animal that I named gi-Gilda after gi-Gilda Radner.
So it was that kind of stuff. Very early influences. My first fan letter that I ever wrote was to Emo Phillips when I was 13. And he sent an autographed picture back and it hangs in my kitchen there. My kitchen is all of my comedy stuff. So just always loved it. Then when I was like 11, I was like, I think that I want to have this as my job. And I would write jokes and I planned to go to open mics, never went because at around 17, I was like, this is not very practical.
It is 1990s now. And I've never seen a stuttering comic. You have to be fluent in order to be a comic. So dream dies. I picked it back up when I was 36 and I've been doing, and I've been doing it now for 12 years.
Passionistas: How did you decide, "no, this is something I can do?
Nina: It's a, it was a whole fricking process. So when I was 35, I had attended a conference for people who stutter. It's the na-National Stuttering Association. And at that, I realized how much space I relinquished up to other people. I think as a woman, we are socialized to give that space up to others. And I realized at that, it got kind of doubled and tripled up because I'm a woman who's st-stutters.
And so I realized, like, I would feel guilt to make people sit through my speech, to make people sit through my stutter. And when I was at that conference, I was around all these women. And women in stuttering are way outnumbered by the men. And the ratio is for every four stutterers, three are going to be men, one's going to be a woman. So it was really important for me to be around women who stutter. Because I realized I was like, well, I wouldn't want them to relinquish space up to others. So why am I? And that just made me really question that.
And in my book, my memoir is titled Stutter Interrupted because we're interrupted all the time in our speech, but like I was self interrupting. Like I wasn't even talking, I was interrupting myself. And with that comes your wishes and your dreams and your desires and just everything. And so when I came back home from that conference, I started to make changes in my life.
And within six months I got up on stage at an open mic and did my first one.
Passionistas: What was that experience like to finally be on stage?
Nina: You know? It was to like three people, four people, five people. I don't know. It's a very small audience. I did it in the context of a class. So I took classes at this San Francisco co-comedy college, and then they had like an open mic that they would kind of like trick trick to tourists into coming into. And I, I'm not sure if it was that night or a night soon after people laughed at my jokes. And I was like, "oh, I did this joke about st-stuttering, do you st-stutter?" And she's like, "no, it's just funny." I was like, oh, you don't. Oh, okay, I get it. It's like that. So it was really great to make a connection with someone else and kind of share my own experience having a disability in a way that I kind of had control of the narrative.
And also so many times when you talk about a disability experience people like, "oh, oh." And they give you like a pity face. And like, everyone tries to be super empathetic. And like, I just want people to just talk about it in a normal way. Like they would everything else. So humor kind of helps to D D diffuse some of that. And it just kind of puts things on a more equal level.
Passionistas: Let's take a step back. So between the ages of 17 and 35, before you pursued your passion, you got involved with disability activism. So tell us a little bit about what you were doing and what that period meant to you.
Nina: You know, I went to grad school, I went to college, I did all of that stuff. And I found myself doing advocacy within the co-college and looking at access issues there. There are so many ways that we could penetrate issues around access, and issues around D D disability rights. And for me doing like the individual piece and working with an individual to get access, I think that is really important.
And I would work with students around accessibility. But, that's just one piece of it, but we need to get to a bigger change in our culture, a bigger change in corporations and bigger change in colleges and like just more of a cultural shift. And that cultural shift is both in America and the world, but also in your lo-lo-local area. And so, it would get kind of frustrating, because I didn't have that reach, especially this was pre so-social media and all of that stuff.
Also for me, I was in academia and academia is not always kind to people who learn in a different way. And for me, it's really hard because my dyslexia is, is more than my stuttering. Like it impacts me more. And also I was in sp-special ed when I was a kid, when I was in high school, cause I eventually went to a public school for high school. Thank God. And, so, I did not come from the same place that most people in academia did. But I still had a lot to say, but I really felt like I didn't have that freedom to express what I wanted to.
And also, my mom brought me to see Richard Pryor Live that the Sunset Strip when I was nine. Like I want to say fuck, and like, I just need to, and that helps me to express what I want. And I can say the same things that I might say in an academic sense, but I can say them on stage, and I can say the words that I want to use that I think, you know. Like someone can read a journal article and that's going to be read by like 10 people. But you can do comedy or you can find some other avenue that people will be able to access, and access meaning that people will actually see it. And, and I think it's just a better way to get, a, a, a message out.
So it's that frustration that I had in academia, I was able to, I was able to work out. And that's why I like my book, both of the books. It was great that I learned how to do research and it was great that I went through all of that, but I also didn't want to hide behind big words. And luckily I haven't had to.
Passionistas: So you did that first appearance. How did you start to build your career and extend your reach as a comedian?
Nina: Well, I like kind of kept it hidden from most people I knew for about six months. And then even then it was like slowly, slowly, slowly. The first year in comedy, you're developing your voice. And I wasn't sure which way I would go. And I don't quite know when it was, but I think it was like my second year in, I was like, I'm a disability activist and I'm a comic.
That disability activist thing is through my entire life. Like that's... when I walk down the street and I see a sandwich sign and it's blocking the way I was like, "what the hell is this? You got to move this!" And I move it or I tell them, or I do something. So like ingrained into my head and a big part of that is because of my family and being born into it.
So I realized that, like, that was the thing that kind of led me first. And comedy was a second piece. I think that I've kind of balanced that out a little bit more, but that activism piece is always, always, always there.
And so I think my development as a comic really helped me because I was able, like I'm able to do two things in comedy and now three. So I'm able to go to colleges, and I'm able to talk to them and also corporations to do disability awareness. So there's that. And that is like a half hour of comedy and story telling, and then like Q&A afterwards and the Q&A is always like the, the funnest part.
And then I have the other thing, which is like the pure art form of standup, where I can do dick jokes. Last night, I told jokes on the sidewalk of a San Francisco cafe. And it was totally fun and it was great, and I got to develop that more and just work on that. And then, you know, I have a bunch of shows coming up and so there's that piece where like, I feel I can be an artist there and I don't really have to like... like, there's not a lot of 48 year old stuttering comics on TV.
I don't think like, like I doubt they're going to give me a sitcom. I doubt like Netflix is not knocking down my door. They're not like, because my opinion is, is that Hollywood thinks that if you have more than one intersectional identity that people's heads are going to explode. Which is why a lot of the disabled comics out there are white men. So like, you know, like, I, I, I know where I'm at. So I feel I don't have to kind of compromise my standup because it's like, I'm not going on TV. I'm good.
The other piece now that I'm, that I'm transitioning into is as a comedy history consultant as an author. And that just kind of brings my love of comedy. And like when I was in school from like high school on, anytime that I had to write a paper, I would write a paper on comedy. So this is just the natural development of the thing I love. And, you know, you write a book, it kind of puts you as like, okay, this was, she's now an expert. Like I've been saying to everybody, I'm an expert for a long time. They don't believe me, but now I have a book that says that I have some in that.
And also I wrote it with my friend, OJ Patterson. I kind of tap out on standup around 1993 and then he picks it up from there. So he loves the old comedy and he has followed it so we co-complemented one another well on that.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and you're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Nina G. To learn more about her performances, speaking engagements, and to get your copy of Bay Area Standup Comedy: A Humorous History, visit ninagcomedian.com.
If you're enjoying this interview and would like to help us continue creating inspiring content, please consider becoming a patron by visiting thepassionistasproject.com/podcast, and clicking on the patron button. Even $1 a month can help us continue our mission of inspiring women to follow their passions.
Now here's more of our interview with Nina G.
Tell us a little bit about the Comedians with Disabilities Act.
Nina: So that was started by my friend, who has passed away, but st-“Stutter Interrupted” is, it is dedicated to, to him. He so started it because there wasn't a grip, at least locally that featured only d-d-d-disabled comics.
And so it was Michael O'Connell, Eric, and Steve d-Danners as the first core. And then I, I joined, and some of the guys are, have been kind of in and out of comedy and we lost m-Michael. So we have expanded the group to have more of a showcase. And the showcase has included my, my, one of my best friends, Mean Dave, who is in recovery. And that is covered under the ADA, but people don't always talk about that. But you can access your rights and access, you know, all kinds of things because of that. So he brings that as a really important message. Jade Theriault, who's out of Berkeley, she does the sh-show a lot, and she uses a wheelchair, a-along with other comics. But not all stages in comedy are... not all of them are ramped.
So, like, to get even on the stage is an issue. And, also, to kind of bring that voice in, I think sometimes people, producers or comics or whatever, kind of think like, "oh, well that's disabled comedy." And like, like it's a different thing. No, it's just another kind of perspective, whether you're a man, whether you're a woman that, that you can bring.
And so it's, it's really nice to have the opportunity to do that in a group and also do it for people who want to hear it. Because I will do a show just with a stuttering audience, when I do stuff at a conference. And they get the premise and not the punchline. Like I don't even have to do the punchline because they're already with me at the premise.
And so it's just a different experience doing comedy for people who come from that same cu-culture and that same experience.
Passionistas: You touched on this a little bit, but as somebody who has such a deep knowledge of the history of comedy and your own experiences. You know, comedy is legendarily more difficult for women. And as you've been saying, there are a lot of challenges for comedians with disabilities. Do you feel like this is changing at all for women and for people in the disability community?
Nina: I think so. I think there's still a thing of, "well, like we only have one woman on the show, so that's good. We, we have enough." It was like, oh, why don't you just book people who are funny and the rest will come. But also people tend to book their friends. And so if it's a male producer, they're going to have more gu-gu-guy friends. And so there's that. And that's not always the case. And I think at least in the Bay Area, I think there's more of a consciousness around that, because the women have been bitching about this for centuries now, since we're now in the 21st century.
And so I think that they are getting that they need to have a more ba-balanced show in terms of the disability access. Like I have not seen Netflix have a compilation of disabled comics. I produced a CD, or not a CD, but an album called d-d-d-Disabled Comedy Only. And it featured the Comedians with d-d-d-Disability Act.
And that was the first one ever done of a compilation of disabled comics. That should not have happened. And there hasn't been one since. You know, HBO and Netflix and all of that, you got to have disabled comics, both in your mainstream, but also having a show where why doesn't like, you know, a famous d-d-d-disabled, comic bring in other comics to have a big show.
And I would love that. And it also, I think that Comedians with Disabilities Act was really conscious about the message that they send out. I also think it's equally as important for a disabled comic to get up and not talk about a disability whatsoever so that there is both, both of those things that should be happening.
Passionistas: How did COVID impact your work, and do you feel like things are finally getting back to normal now?
Nina: So it dried up my speaking gigs, because we were like, we don't know what to do now. And people have zoom fi-fatigue. So for me, when, when my first book, or when my memoir came out, it was great.
I was booked. I did, like, an event at Coca Cola. I sold books afterwards, making money. Like it was great. And then 2020 happened and like, oh! Like I need to talk to my st-student loan people to see if they'll base my income on last year's instead of on the prior years, cause there's such a change.
But I think people are seeing that there is a possibility to do events online. And so, yeah, I am traveling less, but I'm still doing, doing corporate and college shows. And some of those are picking up in, in person, too, so that's great. As a comic, I have performed into the void of Zoom and it's okay. Like it's really taught me to trust what I'm saying and to trust my comedy. Because there isn't the ha-ha's and they're, you know, not even the LOLs. And I always encourage people to do the LOLs in the tags so I get something out of it. So in, in, in, so that that's changed. I think lo-locally, comedy's opening up. I'm finding with doing book, book gigs, now that it's about half and half.
So releasing a book, which my book came out on February 14th. And yeah, it's a heck of a time to release a book because you're not going on a big tour. And so it'll be interesting to see how that rolls out.
Passionistas: You did have one unbelievably cool gig during the pandemic, which we're dying to hear about, right around the inauguration. Can you tell us about that?
Nina: Yeah! It was the first night of the inauguration festivities. I got asked to do a performance, and so it was all online. Like I wish I was at the White House, but no, it was all online. And what I did was I pre-taped it at the Alameda com-com-Comedy Club and we brought my pa-parents in, and, and I performed for them for the inauguration. So my parents were very happy to have the back of their heads in the screen as well. And so I did my five minute set there and sent it in and it got in with all of the other speakers, which included Whoopi Goldberg. Also, now I can say that I opened for the Vice President.
A lot of my comedy credits are so weird and so, un-un-unbelievable that people don't even think they're true when they're said. And opening up for the vice-president is one of them.
Passionistas: Speaking of home, let's talk about your new book, Bay Area Stand Up Comedy: A Humorous History. What inspired you to write it, and why is the history of Bay Area comedy so important?
Nina: Well, the thing that inspired it was being bored in the pandemic. So that was the biggest piece. I was finding that I was going toward like old comedy and watching that on YouTube. And also I was doing a project where I was interviewing comics about the pandemic. So asking them what that experience was like, to transition into Zoom, or what did they think was going to, was going to happen. So I did that under The Comedy Time Capsule.
And in doing that, I had interviewed ma-Marga Gomez, who is a staple in San Francisco comedy. She also comes out of the queer comedy scene and she was telling me about her past experiences and her own history. The first place that she felt she could really bring her whole self into, into her stand-up was at the, the, The va-Valencia Rose in San Francisco. And that was the first LGBT open mic. And they had LGBT shows and I was like, "oh, this is such an interesting history, and so is San Francisco!" I don't know this, and I'm a big nerd, so other people must not know anything about this.
And I was like, okay, something needs to happen. So I contacted OJ who now lives in, in Southern California. And like me and him, when he was doing comedy, he is, he is retired now from, from it. But when he was doing it, we would just talk endlessly about stuff and like interesting things we heard and just the in, in just analyzing it.
And so I was like, okay, you want to write this book? I'll do it to this point, you do it to this point. And he said yes. And we worked on it for a year. And the book has over a hundred pictures in it, so it almost feels like a yearbook of Bay Area comedy. And the reason why I think Bay Area comedy is so important is that it's been the place that people can develop their voice, and then kind of move on to the next stage.
So we had a lot of comics here from Boston in the 1980s, like Paula Poundstone and Bob-Bobcat and d-Dana Gold. And, like, San Francisco audiences, at least back then, were just like patient and just like wanted people to kind of experiment. And they were just great around that, which I think lent itself to the improvisational style that had developed here.
But before all of that, there was The Hungry Eye and The Purple Onion, and The Purple Onion is where Phyllis di-di-di-di-Diller ca-came out of, and her being especially important to with women comics. She developed her act in San Francisco. And right across the street at The Hungry Eye is where Mort Sahl developed a whole new way to do comedy.
So Bay Area comedy, especially in the North Beach area changed comedy forever and, and had that really, really big impact.
And the first stand-up comic was in the mid 18 hundreds. And I, and I, I know this because the work of Rich Schneider has put, a, has put, a-a-a spotlight on this. And the very first comic in the mid 18 hundreds came to San Francisco. And people would pay cover in gold because greenbacks were not totally, a thing yet. So the, so the history goes back to Mark Twain and then onto the pandemic. A-and of course, Robin Williams being kind of the pinnacle of the whole thing. And not only in his comedy, but also the heart, because he just gave so much to the world, but also so much to Bay, so much to, to, to the Bay and was just the most gracious and nicest guy that, that people still, uh, talk, talk about the things he did.
Passionistas: What can people who aren't in the disability community do to advocate for people who are?
Nina: I think everybody can kind of choose their own way in that. Because if you are a teacher or you are a speech therapist, I'm going to have very different expectations of that than somebody who works in more of a retail industry.
I think they can kind of choose what they want to do and how to be an ally. I think a lot of times people think you have to go march or you have to go do some kind of activist role. No, you could just be cool. Like you can just listen and not be overly empathetic.
And I think the main thing is to listen to disabled people and take their lead. They are in the lead. I think that word "empowerment" isn't always a great word because it kind of assumes that like you have the power, and you're empowering the other person. That person already has that power. And it's you who should be fo-fo-following them. And also don't expect disabled people to teach you. I think that's the other thing, because sometimes people are like, "oh, so tell me about what it's like to have this." I was like, ugh! Unless you're paying me, no! Like go read my book and then we'll talk. So I think there's also putting people who have a disability into a position to hear their voices, but in a way that is respectful and not exploitive.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Nina G. To learn more about her performances, speaking engagements, and get a copy of Bay Area Standup Comedy: A Humorous History visit ninagcomedian.com.
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