"Humor is a great way to start conversations."

A Q+A with Steven Verdile, creator of The Squeaky Wheel, an online satire publication for disabled people and by disabled people.

"Humor is a great way to start conversations."
Image c/o Steven Verdile/the Squeaky Wheel.

One thing I don’t cover nearly enough in the Humorism newsletter is humor writing, a vast and varied medium as much a part of comedy’s history as standup or improv, and which has undergone just as much transformation and struggle in the digital era. Another is the work of comedy writers and performers with disabilities, who must navigate all the structural barriers we know and love as they make their art in an industry that also doesn’t give a shit about accessibility, and which in fact is still very happy to treat disability as a joke. (See: Dave Chappelle in his new Netflix special a few weeks ago, also every comedy venue that doesn’t meet baseline ADA standards.) 

I hope to spend some time this year filling these gaps in my coverage, starting today. Below you will find an interview with Steven Verdile, creator of The Squeaky Wheel, an online satire publication by and for disabled people. We touch on the site’s background, why he structured it as a nonprofit, its upcoming sketch series, and some broader thoughts about humor writing and the comedy industry. You can read the site here and support its Patreon here.

I will also take this opportunity to reiterate that I'm always interested in hearing from readers about their own experiences working in the comedy industry. Please smash that reply button if you'd like to chat, and keep reading after the Q+A for some recommendations and Recent Comedy Happenings.

Let's start at the beginning. Can you tell me about your background as a humor writer and what led you to create The Squeaky Wheel?

I didn't have a large background as a humor writer before The Squeaky Wheel, but I had a background writing for my school newspaper in college. And then I started working for NBCUniversal and did a lot of writing there as well. 

I wanted to write about disability and I wanted to write humor. And once I knew in my mind that I wanted to start writing these disability-focused satire pieces, I started writing for The Broadway Beat, primarily to get practice and learn the format. And then over the last four or five years, I've written quite a bit for The Squeaky Wheel and The Broadway Beat, and a handful of other places here and there. And I've been really enjoying it, getting deeper and deeper into humor writing. Now with The Squeaky Wheel TV series coming out this summer, I've gotten to sort of keep pushing the humor writing muscle a little further.

What did it take to create the site and get it off the ground?

I started by writing about 25 stories myself before I posted anything. I tried showing them to some of the funniest disabled people I know, like, "How does this seem? What do you think? Give me advice, give me feedback." And then once I felt more confident in that initial batch of stories, I put up the website, I launched it, and I started sharing them on every social media platform. Pretty quickly it found a little community, mostly on Instagram which is where I have had the most success. Eventually people reached out saying that they wanted to write for it, and that was always the real goal, so it was nice to see. Now we have about 30 contributing writers and 300 stories.

Can you tell me a bit about the business side of the operation? Why take a nonprofit route?

Definitely. So I can say that it's a hard, hard time to be an internet satire publication right now. There's only a handful that have even survived to this point, and some of the biggest and best ones are struggling. I just saw that The Hard Times, one of the best satire magazines out there, is doing some fundraising and outreach. So it's a tough business. I thought that one way to differentiate ourselves was to be a little bit more of a mission-based publication, and to really focus on social justice through humor and disability. That is why I created it as a nonprofit organization, primarily to reflect our values back to all the people we're trying to fundraise from—that we're not in this for the money, to get rich somehow off of satire. I want to be really transparent with all of our supporters that we're doing this because we wanted to provide opportunities to people with disabilities.

Are there other nonprofit satire publications? Is there any model that you're working from?

None that I'm aware of. I think we're alone in that regard. There also aren't really a lot of satire publications that are focused on a minority social group or cause. One exception is Reductress, which is primarily geared towards women and LGBT readers, but  that’s still a pretty big demographic. Another nonprofit org that I looked at is Comic Relief—are you familiar with them?

Not deeply, but I know of them.

Their main thing is Red Nose Day, the telethon fundraiser where all the celebrities wear red noses and make jokes. But they're similarly aligned in that they do a lot of the work with humor and social causes. Story Pirates is another one that I really like—I think they're a good example of using creativity for a social cause.

Can you tell me about a few of your favorite Squeaky Wheel pieces? 

One of my favorite things about our publication is the amount of diversity within disability humor. One of my favorites is “Disabled Monopoly Player Panics as Assets Approach $2000,” which is a silly insider-y one about Medicaid income restrictions. Another is “Oops! Supreme Court Realizes its Abortion Ban Applies to Disabled Fetuses Too,” which was a more political story that, despite being a humor piece, genuinely raises some important overlooked ways disability is part of every news story. One last one that comes to mind is “Opinion: You’re Not Disabled, You Just Don’t Have that Hustle Grindset Mentality, My Guy,” which was probably the most fun I've had writing a story.

What makes a great humor piece, for you?

I'm a headlines-first guy primarily, so I love when a headline is really short, tight, and surprising. I've probably read thousands of them, so it’s very memorable when I come across one that subverts what I was expecting. And then when the headline is that good, I can’t help but want to read the whole story and get more of that writer’s humor. 

Can you tell me about the TV show?

A little over a year ago, a Canadian TV producer reached out to me and had come across the website and our following online. He was looking to produce a television series and thought that The Squeaky Wheel would be a really good starting point. Because we had done not only a lot of work on finding the humor within disability, but also we had started building up a community, we had readers, and all this stuff that takes time. I've been working with him and the rest of the team over the last six months, on development and now production, and it will be airing sometime this summer on linear TV in Canada. In the US it will be available in some form digitally, on YouTube or possibly on our website.

The series is a sketch comedy show and parody news desk format, similar to SNL and shows like that. Most excitingly, everyone from the cast to the writers to even some of the crew are disabled, and I can’t think of many disability-focused TV projects with that level of authenticity. The show is called Squeaky Wheel Canada, and it has a lot of fun Canadian humor as well.

What other plans do you have for the site?

Just sustaining it is hard enough, so it's always hard to be like, "Oh, I want to do this and this and this and this," and I have no shortage of ideas. But I think what's gotten us this far is moving relatively slowly and carefully and not growing too big for our shoes. The TV show will bring a lot of attention in the summer, so that's exciting. And I always want more writers and new writers. The more the better. And then I think I mentioned to you last time we spoke, university workshops are a really big focus for us now—going to different student organizations for students with disabilities and teaching them not only about The Squeaky Wheel, but about comedy writing in general and how they can use that as a form of activism.

How can we use satire as activism, do you think? What can it do, what can’t it do?

Humor is a great way to start conversations. It can get people who are outside of a community to feel safe engaging with that community, learning about their struggles, and empathizing with them. I would even go as far as saying that a well-written humor piece can persuade people and make people see a topic in a new light. 

What humor can’t do is direct action. It’s a small part of shifting cultural mindsets, but ultimately you are banking on the fact that the change in beliefs will lead to change in behavior. Whether you’re a small business debating whether or not you need a ramp, or a local politician learning about disability poverty traps, we provide a silly and fun way for you to engage with disabled voices directly on those topics. It’s your choice if you want to listen.

This is an area I'm pretty ignorant about, so I’m wondering if you could talk about how you see the comedy industry fail disabled artists, and what people can do in their own communities to change it.

Standup in particular is lacking a lot. Part of that has to do with the structure. Standup clubs often are like, "Oh, you have to come every night from 1 AM to 3 AM, wait in line at open mics." And clubs themselves aren’t accessible. There's a whole part of a standup culture that can be very inaccessible for a variety of reasons. Unless you have a lot of free time and energy at midnight, it's a hard thing to break into.

There's a lot of things that can be done to make it better. One of our writers, her name is Jenny Cavallero, started a website Accessible Comedy Shows DC. It just goes through all the different comedy shows that are happening in Washington, DC and lists very basic accessibility information. It seems like common sense, but almost no venue has any of that information available on their website.

I go to a lot of shows myself, and pretty much any time I'm going to a venue I have to call and talk to them and be like, "Are you upstairs? Do you have a bathroom? What's the situation?" Or I have to ask people I know that have been there. There's really no way to find this stuff out, which is pretty far behind other industries. Restaurants, for example, are usually pretty good at posting stuff like that online. So I think that's just an education issue.

Other than that, it's like any issue in the industry that affects people who are either in poverty or people who belong to a minority group, generally it exponentially affects disabled people in those groups. And disability is very intersectional, so we run into that all the time. Most disabled people are either in poverty or belong to a minority group themselves, and it just makes it really difficult to break into these industries that are very, very gate-kept in a lot of areas.

What Else?

-If you’re in Los Angeles this weekend, check out Simple Town at the Elysian Theatre

-If you’re in San Francisco, here are the Humorism newsletter’s official Sketchfest recommendations through next weekend: 

Joel Kim Booster & Friends
Everything’s Great!
An Evening with Amber Ruffin
Clare O’Kane ft. Eugene Mirman
Resistance Is Fertile
Mohanad Elshieky & Joyelle Nicole Johnson
Gethard & Sagher
An Evening with Whitmer Thomas
Exploration: LIVE! with Charlie Bardey and Natalie Rotter-Laitman
Killing My Lobster
Asian AF
Joan & Raft

-I enjoyed Sean T. Collins on The Curse in Luke O’Neil’s newsletter (scroll down a bit). I also loved The Curse’s finale, although I have no idea what to say about it yet. 

-David Marchese’s conversation with climate activist/author Andreas Malm in the New York Times is one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve read in a long time.

-Check out all these famous comedians and actors happy to break bread with Jeff Ross. 

-Just For Laughs owner Howie Mandel, following in the footsteps of marks like Theo Von and Tim Dillon and Bill Maher, welcomed anti-vaxxer RFK Jr. on his podcast this week, giving the presidential candidate yet another opportunity to polemicize against public health.

-Comedian and alleged rapist Charlamagne Tha God, formerly of Comedy Central and currently of The Breakfast Club and Brilliant Idiots (co-hosted by Andrew Schulz), went on Fox News to complain about “the migrant issue”:

-Former Trump official Kash Patel appeared on Roseanne Barr’s podcast to discuss the deep state, Marxists, and the various prosecutions of his former boss. Barr, for her part, used the opportunity to take issue with antiwar protests at the White House:

BARR: Do you think those people that were there chanting “Free free Palestine” are the same people that are BLM and Antifa? Do they just always show up in the right numbers at the right time to parrot the Marxist bullshit? Do you think they just come on buses and wear the outfit that they want to wear?
PATEL: I’m sure it’s a mixed bag. I don’t really study the demographics of that universe. But what you would like to see is when you have a group of marauders assaulting the White House in large numbers, threatening the security of our center of government, maybe there's one arrest. Just one. When you're defacing White House property, maybe there's one arrest. Just one. And you see here the two-tiered system of justice that is ruining our country. Because Americans are seeing this. You can be a pro-Palestinian mob in front of a Biden White House and nothing's going to happen to you. But if you're a pro-America First movement, a free speech protestor, and you go to the United States Capitol en masse, they're going to arrest you a thousand times over.

The Roseanne Barr Podcast is sponsored by Zippix Toothpicks.

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