fb-pixel Skip to main content
IDEAS

Hollywood and the ‘R-word’

After his son is born with lifelong learning disabilities, the co-creator of the hit TV series ‘How I Met Your Mother’ has a reckoning with the terms he was careless with, too.

The author hikes with his son and daughter in the Berkshires in 2020.Rebecca Alson-Milkman

You are 31, co-running a successful network TV sitcom that you co-created; your first child is about to be born. It’s 2007. You are healthy, white, male, neurotypical (a word you don’t even know yet), and blissfully unaware of so very much.

You have no idea what is about to happen.

Your son is born with a rare genetic syndrome, a chromosomal deletion that entails risky open-heart surgery, a multitude of health issues, and lifelong learning disabilities.

You have just become the parent of a child with “special needs.”

You spend six weeks in the NICU before stumbling home as a stunned new family, into a new normal you do not even begin to comprehend.

Advertisement



You go back to work — you still have 24 episodes to produce, a writers room to run.

You start to notice that certain jokes in the room hit differently now. Jokes about pregnancy, babies, parenthood. But especially jokes about characters being dumb. One day, a writer makes a joke using the word “retarded.” Everyone laughs. You do not. All you can hear is that word, echoing in your brain. You want to say something to the room, nip it in the bud.

You do not.

You don’t know how. You barely know how to tell people the full diagnosis — you share mostly medical info, not developmental. You are hiding something from them, from yourself. You are writing a comedy at work and living a drama at home, where your wife has been with the baby all day, all week, all month, all year, taking him to medical specialists, speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy (his favorite), grinding to help him meet milestones. She’s learning the landscape and lexicon of this world. You are lagging behind.

You both need a night out. You decide to go see a movie, “The Hangover.” A character jokes that Rain Man was a “re-tard” (pronounced with a comical French flourish). The audience cracks up. You do not. Days later, your wife comes home upset after seeing some friends. One has quoted this exact joke.

Advertisement



You decide to watch a new TV series, “Veep.” In the pilot, the vice president jokes publicly about a staffer messing up: “We were hoisted by our own re-tard!” You watch on as the word “retarded” (or variations thereof) is uttered a dozen times in a half hour (also “autismo,” “f—tard,” etc.) The joke here, of course, is supposed to be “Look at how terrible these people are!” But it still just feels . . . terrible. You turn off the TV.

You decide to watch a kids’ movie instead. Your son is becoming a toddler, he loves Pixar. You show him “The Incredibles.” As Baby Jack-Jack discovers his powers, starts teleporting around the house, destroying it with fire, a befuddled babysitter calls Mrs. Incredible: “Sorry for freakin’ out, but your baby has special needs!” You feel oddly hurt hearing this term applied to a magical baby who can levitate things with his mind. Because that’s how it feels, watching all your friends’ neurotypical kids walk, talk, climb, jump. Like it’s nothing. Like magic.

You decide to watch something safe, something you’ve seen already. “Anchorman.” You’re laughing, until you’re not. Steve Carell’s dumb guy, it is stated, has “an IQ of 48″ and is “what some people might call mentally retarded.” You’d forgotten about this joke, and now it reminds you of a “Family Guy” episode, “Petarded,” which did the same joke with Peter Griffin (declaring him “legally retarded”). You realize you know some folks at that show, you think about reaching out, saying something.

Advertisement



You do not. You wonder (but only to yourself): Would any of these jokes have been less funny if they’d simply not used that word?

That word.

“Retarded.” Originally an anodyne medical term for learning delays that devolved into an ’80s schoolyard insult, a bully’s way to call someone stupid or worthless by equating them with a person with a cognitive disability. Diagnosis as diss. And today, to the disability community, a bigoted epithet, no different than one used to diminish any race, culture, gender, religion . . . yet one that has lived on, even as other slurs have become shunned, anathema, cancel-worthy.

Years pass. Your son is growing up into a kind, silly, wonderfully musical young man who lives in a world that cannot always understand him and that does not always make sense to him. Pop culture gains awareness but also starts finding coded ways of saying the R-word without actually saying it: “special,” “learning differences,” “spectrumy.” Indeed, your new friends in the disability community (taken aggregately, America’s largest minority) inform you that the term “special needs” is out of favor for this very reason — shades of the R-word. You wonder if real progress has been made.

Advertisement



Wait. You realize you have a platform. Your show! You could write about this — the expectant parent characters could have a baby with a disability. You could spark awareness, positive discussion.

You do not. The series ends. The only children born are healthy, uncomplicated, ready for prime time.

One day, you go to a meeting with some TV executives who don’t know about your son. They break the ice with an anecdote about how they used to have lunch at a nearby park but stopped because they kept winding up right next to a table of adults with cognitive disabilities. One of the execs found it too uncomfortable to share that space with them. The others poke fun — isn’t that terrible? — waiting for you to laugh. You do not. You want to shout, “That’s my son, you’re making fun of my son’s future, I’m so scared of what his future will be!” and storm out.

You do not.

More years pass. You watch as a man, popularized and platformed by network television, who has openly, on camera, mocked people with disabilities; who reportedly refers to his underlings as “retards,” is elected president of the United States. His followers begin referring to Democrats as “libtards.” You start seeing that word daily on social media. The suffix “-tard” can now weaponize any noun into a slur. It becomes a meme.

You wonder about the relationship between popular culture normalizing these jokes and a bully, a bigot, ascending to America’s highest office.

Advertisement



You finally get a small glimpse, via your son — your teacher — of what it feels like to be part of a minority, of what “punching down” feels like to the punched.

You start to hate everything, everyone, politics, show business. You feel haughty and superior, you finally start correcting people in real time when they drop an R-bomb, your voice quavers with righteousness as you put them in their place.

Then, lying awake one night, it hits you. Who you really were before your son was born.

All the times you said “retarded.” Or laughed at it. You remember one screenplay you wrote in your 20s with that word in it. Shame swallows you like a tidal wave. You want to find all copies of the script, burn them. Thank God, it was never produced.

Then you remember all the jokes you’ve written over the years — in produced scripts, no less — that might have unintentionally hurt other people with marginalized identities, people whose lives and pain you didn’t understand. You realize there are many such jokes. You feel ignorant, hypocritical, foolish, you think about casting choices, how much more of a champion of diversity and inclusion you could’ve been. Where were the actors, the writers with disabilities on your show? You think about all the writers rooms, pitch rooms, casting rooms, all the stages and hallways of Hollywood, and you wonder: Who are the gatekeepers, who gets to decide which stories get told, for which audiences, by whom, when does the rising tide lift this boat, too?

You want to go back in time and fix all your fails, find anything you ever wrote that diminished anyone, anywhere, ever, delete it from the record. You realize it doesn’t work that way. That material is a record of a moment in pop culture, a moment in your own life when you didn’t know how to step outside the limits of yourself. And you have to live with that.

You start to feel . . . forgiveness. For all the people whose infractions you’ve been cataloging. Crimes of ignorance, mostly. Like your own.

You are living in an era of broadening perspectives. You think: Maybe now I can finally write about all this, maybe the world is ready, maybe you are ready.

You co-write, with your partner, a dramedy pilot set in the ’80s about the showrunner of a feel-good, perfect-family sitcom whose own baby is born with a disability.

It does not sell.

You co-write a feature film musical about becoming the parent of a newborn with disabilities (your favorite thing you’ve ever written), a love letter to your kind, amazing, musical boy.

It does not sell.

You take this feature and adapt it into a TV pilot/series pitch.

It does not sell.

You are at a loss. You want to say something about all this, to finally use your voice — but 15 years into this journey, you still can’t figure out how.

You write an essay, in the second person (would the first person still feel too real?) about what it’s like to work in this business, to love this business — and to be the parent in this business of a child with disabilities.

You hope that the words, the emotions that spill out, make any sense to anyone, but especially anyone on a similar journey. You wish it could somehow offset your own mistakes — the glib joke you wrote years ago that was exactly what someone in pain, someone unseen, unheard, alone, did not need to turn on their TV and hear that day. You dream these words might somehow find exactly that person, make them feel more seen, more heard, less alone.

You hope so, anyway.

(I hope so.)

You are 47. There’s still so much to learn. The one thing you finally do know — in your gut, in your heart, in your soul — is just how much you don’t know.

And you know that’s a start.

Craig Thomas is a co-creator, executive producer, and writer of “How I Met Your Mother,” which received 30 Emmy Award nominations in its nine-season run. His prose has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and, soon, The Iowa Review. He and his family split their time between New York City and the Berkshires.