This guest post is by Emily Sullivan Sanford , who blogs at Painting on Scars. Emily has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. She lives in Berlin, where she writes and speaks about disability and equality. Check out her previous guest post, too!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Art complicates politics because it mixes matters of taste with matters of justice. I can think of no better example of this than the tangle of a few good messages and many awful jokes that is HBO’s Life’s Too Short, starring Warwick Davis.
In a mockumentary format, Warwick Davis (Willow, Harry Potter, Return of the Jedi) plays a caricature of himself: a former actor with dwarfism who’s struggling to make money, enjoy the fame he actually never had and take advantage of his knowing Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the show’s writers. Oh, and he’s quite a jerk.
In my humble opinion, jerk humor is only as good as it is creative. George Costanza of Seinfeld appealed to the 10 percent of our consciousness that might agree with his anti-social logic. (What’s really wrong with eating it if it wasn’t touching any of the other trash?) Flight of the Conchords decorated their idiocy with very good manners. (“Thank you for having me, Officer.”) And Homer Simpson has always balanced his selfishness with a childlike sincerity (“Just once I’d like someone to call me ‘Sir,’ without adding, ‘You’re making a scene’”).
Instead of complex, Warwick Davis’s character is inconsistent. Sometimes he’s playing the straight man—and since he’s usually pointing out others’ cruel attitudes toward dwarfism, I prefer it when he is—and the rest of the time he’s a jackass who can’t understand why no one likes him. At a wedding, he interrupts a memorial toast to a dead parent, elbowing his way to the microphone in order to make graphic sex jokes about the bride, only to find out she can’t have children, which he then announces to the room. It’s such lazy comedy, so obviously the result of the writers listing some offensive things they thought up on their way to work. As the series progresses, his missteps simply trespass on more heart-wrenching topics in more contrived situations: e.g. gay bullying involving a quadriplegic kid. Fans of broad humor are sure to defend it and they’re entitled to their tastes. But I’d like to dismiss these failed jokes in order to make a stronger case for those that do work.
At the wedding before his toast, Davis is put into a bear costume by the bride and groom who are Star Wars geeks and want to see an Ewok. Davis’s faux pas was showing up to the wedding in a suit; his presuming that they invited him as himself and not their play thing. Earlier in the episode, his secretary suggests he earn more money by taking advantage of his short stature as a chimney sweep. “It used to be children, didn’t it?” she asks.
“A hundred years ago, yeah,” he replies.
“But it’s cruel to send children up there nowadays.”
“So it’s not cruel to send a dwarf up there?”
She argues he wouldn’t have to climb up the chimney. He could just use a broom on a pole.
“So now I’m not even taking advantage of my size? I’m just a chimney sweep?”
Moving on to other money-making ideas, she suggests, “You could hide in places that are too small for other people to hide in.”
Those of us with dwarfism have all gotten the You-Must-Be-Really-Good-At-Hide-And-Seek line more than once in our lives. Everyone seems to think they’re the first to have come up with it. But putting it in the context of an actual job suggestion is clever. “I don’t even know what job that is,” Davis retorts. The hilarious running gag that no one has seen the one film in which he had lines and didn’t wear a monster mask is built on more truth than fiction. People who truly want to see dwarfs like Davis as their chimney sweep or their Ewok are rarely called out for their lookism, so it is refreshing to see their views exposed and skewered.
Then again, when Davis actually is stuck in a bear costume, a frog costume, a doggy door, a garbage pail, a toilet, and left dangling from a shelf, I can’t help but feel it’s an excuse to let audiences laugh at a freak show. The same goes for when Davis watches in horror as two dwarfs audition in his office singing “Ebony and Ivory” with one of them in both drag and blackface. And when two dwarf actors awkwardly reenact the first sex scene of Brokeback Mountain with Davis dismissing them as too ugly to pull it off. And when a dwarf actress spreads her legs for the camera, making Davis, Gervais and Merchant cringe. A scene of an intoxicated dwarf vomiting profusely before crashing a stolen tricycle only reminded me of my former classmate who three years ago listed “scary drunken dwarfs” as one of his Facebook Likes. (He was egged on by five other friends until I told him I’m way scarier when sober.)
Ricky Gervais claims that much of the show is based on Davis’s real life experience with others’ ableism and lookism, and that turning his character into a jerk makes it all the funnier. Does it? Is it possible to identify with the injustice Davis feels when he’s never half-way decent to anyone else? I’m all for deconstructing the patronizing stereotype that all disabled people are too innocent for sarcasm or sex jokes. But using a repulsive character as an ambassador to a cause would logically seem to distract the audience from his cause. This is voiced by another character who serves as president of a fictional dwarf rights organization, but his reprimands come off as boringly pious and pitifully ineffective.
Most reviewers stick to talking about Gervais in any event, quipping here and there about Davis as his vehicle. And this brings us to the least original, most flat-out annoying aspect of the show: the reviewers’ inability to keep their height puns to themselves. People with dwarfism are so accustomed to seeing dwarf actors’ names preceded by “wee,” “tiny,” “diminutive” and anything else the writer’s Microsoft Word Thesaurus offers, we really should make drinking games out of it. Sometimes it comes off as an unconscious bad habit that’s been incubated in a time capsule, like those who still say “lady doctor.” Other times it’s such a painful stretch—“Gervais and Merchant’s comedy does have a way of growing on you (dwarf pun three, my sacking imminent)”—I wonder if these people secretly wish they could have run away with the circus instead of graduating in media studies.
Someday, perhaps, journalists will all silently agree that repeatedly reminding readers of a dwarf actor’s size is as redundant as repeatedly pointing out their skin color or elbow shape. And admit that arguing, “But they do it themselves!” is the whining excuse of a playground bully. But until then, I’ll expect much of the press to be a bunch of self-proclaimed professionals that default to a kindergarten mindset the moment someone with a skeletal dysplasia comes onto the screen. How much of Life’s Too Short’s audience behaves the same way is anyone’s guess.