I’m going to say it: Cousin Geri is a hack
Okay, of all the Facts of Life girls, who’d have guessed that the first one to come out of the closet would be Cousin Geri? The smart money was always on Nancy McKeon, considering her mullet hairstyle in the later seasons and the crackling sexual tension between the perpetually bickering tomboy Jo Polniaczek and rich girl Blair Warner (in the 1980s, second only to that shared by Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun).
If you’ve forgotten Geri Jewell, she played Blair’s cousin who appeared periodically on Very Special Episodes of the show, and though she’s commonly referred to as “that retarded stand-up comedian” (by me), she was actually a stand-up comic with cerebral palsy. I do contend, however, that since the character and the actress had the first same name, she was mentally handicapped to at least the same degree that Tony Danza was. (And her Deadwood character’s name? Jewel.)
I’ve been thinking about Cousin Geri a little recently, because I had my mouth frozen for some dental surgery a while back and I sounded a lot like her whenever I tried to talk. So, now that she’s briefly relevant again, let me say that I actually have a bit of a problem with Cousin Geri. She’s a hack.
I mean, I suppose I appreciate her for breaking barriers as a woman comic, or whatever, but she was still a hack. If a fat comic whose jokes are all about being fat is a hack and so is a black comic whose jokes are all about being black, isn’t the same true of a comic with cerebral palsy whose jokes are all about having cerebral palsy?
Worse, they’re not funny jokes. It’s the kind of lukewarm material that inspires wan smiles and weak chuckles. She’s getting only pity laughs. She uses her literal inability to stand up and walk straight as a metaphorical crutch. If she didn’t have a disability, she wouldn’t have a career because, objectively speaking, her act is really weak. It’s like Samuel Johnson said about female preachers: it’s “like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
But she’s still a comic. We should be laughing because she’s funny, not applauding her because she’s brave and inspirational and awareness-raising, and saying, “Look at that courageous, well-adjusted Cousin Geri. She’s laughing at herself before we can … well, not laugh at her because based on her act, cerebral palsy isn’t as funny as I’d imagined. She really is like us, after all. Just like us, she belongs here in the audience and certainly not onstage because she is not funny.”
But if we really treated her like a normal person, we’d boo her off the stage. Fortunately, her act is heckler-proof, because what kind of monster would shout at Cousin Geri that she sucks? (Answer: one that’s at least as courageous in risking turning the crowd against him as Geri herself is for getting onstage in the first place.) Just suck it up, and it’ll be over soon enough. Her life expectancy is only about thirty years, after all.
Of course, her new memoir, I’m Walking As Straight As I Can, could prove me completely wrong. After all, if she’s genuinely funny in print, it would show that she’s not just relying on the freak-show aspect of her stage act to evoke a positive response. However, her new book is credited to Geri Jewell with Ted Nichelson. So, unless he’s mostly there as her typist (which isn’t improbable), he might the one responsible for any funny parts. (Here’s a hint: If it’s a bit that isn’t about cerebral palsy, the co-author probably wrote it.)
Frankly, I don’t even believe that Cousin Geri really is a lesbian now. I think she just finally ran out of jokes about cerebral palsy and needs a new gimmick. Prepare to be inspired and have your awareness raised via a tepid hour-long set about what it’s like to live with lesbianism. I guarantee you there will be at least one joke about how she and her lover don’t need vibrators because her hands already shake constantly. I guarantee it. You suck, Cousin Geri.
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