How did something as obscure yet historically pivotal as a landmark ’70s sit-in by disability rights advocates end up on the brilliantly skewered TV show, Drunk History?
The short answer is, “Hey, it’s Hollywood. It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
A wonderful woman named Candace Cable — nine-time Paralympian, eight gold medals, first woman to medal in both the summer and winter Para games, writer, speaker, educator — had an idea. Her sister was the costume supervisor for Drunk History, now in its fifth season on Comedy Central, and Candace was hanging around the set one day when a light bulb went off in her head. What a perfect format to tell one of the central tales of the rise of disability rights in America: the nationwide sit-in of federal buildings in April, 1977, to force the government to enact the first major anti-discrimination law allowing people with disabilities unencumbered access to all government facilities. The part of the law in question was called Section 504. The main sit-in, in San Francisco, lasted 28 days and remains to this day the longest non–violent occupation of a federal building ever, by anyone. In the end, the occupiers got what they came for. They changed history.
Candace and I are friends, so she called me with this idea. Not only did I think it was brilliant, I had connections. Jeremy Konner, the co-creator and director of Drunk History, just happened to be the son of Ronnie Konner, a charter member of the group I chair, the Writers with Disabilities Committee at the Writers Guild of America. I knew the guy’s mom! I call Ronnie, Ronnie calls Jeremy, Jeremy says, “Freaking A!,” and we’re off!
Candace dug deep to find out what really happened in that fed building. Judy Heumann, the woman who led the sit-in on the way to becoming one of the superstars of the whole disability rights movement, didn’t mince words. It was a crazy, wild, 25-day bacchanal, even more than you can show on cable TV. The phrase Candace quoted to me tells all: “Everyone was having sex.” There had never been such a coming-together of young people with disabilities before, and given it was the WTF ’70s, why hold back? This spirit of liberation is richly conveyed by the well-juiced narrator, actress and Drunk History star, Suzi Barrett, who summed up the experience in her immortal line: “Woodstock in an office building with wheelchairs and medical supplies.”
Jeremy Konner ended up using over 30 actors with disabilities in every role that called for one. The cast list is indicative of the ever-expanding corps of talented and experienced performers with disabilities, or PWD. Ali Stroker, the first woman in a wheelchair to star on Broadway, plays Judy Heumann — “… Me and my 150 friends would like to roll over your ass …” Other PWD stand-outs include deaf actor Sean Berdy, Lauren Potter from Glee, A.J. Murray from the feature-length documentary, “Becoming Bulletproof,” and Zach Anner, the YouTube star currently working on Speechless. I shouldn’t forget to mention the bad guy of the piece is played by John Stewart regular and Hot Tub Time Machine star, Rob Corddry. Needless to say, he’s hysterical.
Stellar cast, stellar production, stellar, for-the-ages comic celebration of being disabled.
Anyone with a disability should be proud to be the beneficiary of such political courage and on the other hand, sorry they weren’t there for the sex, drugs, and rock & roll.