In his new Netflix comedy special Paper Tiger, Bill Burr has one particular segment that I — as an actor, comic, and person with disability — would like to break down in depth. Let’s begin with his actual routine:
This is how screwed up my country is right now. You know Bryan Cranston, right? That dude did a movie. He played a quadriplegic and people gave him shit, being like, “Why is there an able-bodied person playing a quadriplegic?” It’s like, “It’s because it’s called acting, you dumb fuck.” See, if he was a quadriplegic playing a quadriplegic, that’s not acting. That’s just fucking laying there, saying shit that someone else wrote.
“So tell us, what did you do to prepare for the role?”
“Well, I dove head-first into the shallow end of a pool when I was 23. I feel like I’ve been preparing for this role for my whole life.”
This is how screwed up my country is right now. The thesis that he intends to support implies that the country is “screwed up” not because of rhetoric espoused by a delusional privileged populace, but rather because of questions posed on behalf of a marginalized community that makes up 20 percent of the population, lives more often than not below the poverty line, has a 67 percent unemployment rate (97 percent in the film and TV industry), does not have equal access to housing and education, and deals daily with societal ignorance about disability.
You know Bryan Cranston, right? Yes, I do. He is a work friend. He is a gentleman and a great talent. He had the grace to meet with me to discuss the controversy around doing the role in The Upside, the movie Mr. Burr referenced, in which Bryan plays a quadriplegic billionaire who befriends his caretaker, played by Kevin Hart. Bryan chose to be educated about the inequalities of our business when it comes to persons with disability. He understood the fact that a simple audition that is not ADA-compliant immediately eliminates any notion of equal access, and that ignorance about disability, such as Burr expressed, is what continues to marginalize this community. Bryan was not afraid to get an education and to change his thinking on the matter. Bryan is an elevated person.
“Why is there an able-bodied person playing a quadriplegic?” Because “it’s called acting, you dumb fuck.” By that logic, you would support the notion that any person can play any race they wish. We have already had years of addressing this issue, and I think you might find some pushback there. “See, if he was a quadriplegic playing a quadriplegic, that’s not acting.” This implies that a person is only identified by their disability. It diminishes Marlee Matlin’s Academy Award for her portrayal of a woman who is deaf as not-acting. In Mr. Burr’s mind, the character is only the sum of the disability. I suppose Marlee, at the time she filmed her Oscar-winning role in Children of a Lesser God, was also a school janitor who had subconscious shame about what her voice sounded like to others. I suppose anyone who can walk who plays someone who can walk is also not “acting, you dumb fuck.” I have dwarfism and therefore any character who happens to have dwarfism that I have played onscreen — be it a father, prospective lover, sheriff’s deputy, state department head, husband or murderer — was not acting, because I am just a dwarf, by the standard Mr. Burr has set.
“So tell us, what did you do to prepare for the role?” “Well, I dove head-first into the shallow end of a pool when I was 23.” There is preparation to be done when doing a role, as Mr. Burr points out, but he critiques authentic lived experience as something to be diminished. My late friend Danny Murphy had a story just like the one Mr. Burr described above, while enjoying a day at a lake at age 19 with his friends Peter and Bobby Farrelly. As a c-spine quadriplegic actor, he went on to appear in every Farrelly Brothers movie from Kingpin onwards, even though, according to Mr. Burr’s logic, Danny brought nothing to those roles other than actual lived experience.
People will say it’s just a joke, get over it. There is no such thing as “just a joke.” This is the response of either a person with total disregard of social responsibility, or of the guilty. Comedians are important contributors to the art and culture of our time. They have great power when given the honor of a nationally recognized platform, like a comedy special. Traditionally, comics have been enlighteners, from the political commentary of Will Rogers, George Carlin and Jon Stewart to the satire of Don Rickles, The Colbert Report and Sarah Silverman to the confessional woes of Joan Rivers and Jim Gaffigan. The list of styles goes on and on, but the common thread, when done well, is to “punch up,” not “punch down.” It’s not to attack those with the softest voice. Perhaps if Mr. Burr had done his preparation for his role as a comedian, he might have gained a better understanding of what the actual rage should be about.
Danny Woodburn is a veteran actor and comic who has appeared in more than 30 movies and 150 television shows, including Seinfeld, Death to Smoochy and Watchmen. As a leading voice on disability rights and representation in Hollywood, he serves on The Ruderman Family Foundation’s International Council on Disability and SAG-AFTRA’s Performers with Disabilities Committee and is a member of the National Disability Theater Company.