How 'The Facts of Life' Broke One of TV's Most Taboo Topics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because being disabled doesn’t mean you’re not able to enjoy a good laugh every now and then.
By Barbara Fletcher
TV sitcoms of the 1980s were often about teaching viewers a lesson. Sometimes subtly, usually overtly. Whether the message was moral or ethical in nature, the gist was one of acceptance: body image, race, sexuality, ability. And The Facts of Life , the longest-running sitcom of the decade, covered them all, breaking new TV ground for taboo and uncomfortable topics.
Like having cerebral palsy and cracking jokes about it.
In the ’80s, that was enough to tighten the sphincters of the politically correct across the country. Poking fun at a serious condition, an obvious physical challenge? The Facts of Life said sure, let’s do it.
It came in the form of the feisty comedian Geri Jewell , who hailed from the standup world — and also happens to have cerebral palsy. Her character makes a visit to the boarding school where her cousin Blair lives, along with a group of girls who deal with the trials and tribulations of female adolescence.
Jewell, now 57, broke the small-screen barrier for actors with cerebral palsy, becoming the first person with a disability to be featured in a regular role on primetime TV (a group that now includes, among others, RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad). Geri was a regular on the show from 1980 to 1984, almost half of the sitcom’s nine-year run. When Geri first arrives, walking into a room of girls who seem unsure how to react to a person with a disability, she quips, “Don’t worry, I’m not drunk. I have cerebral palsy.” Then, cracking a wry smile, “When I’m drunk, I walk perfectly straight.” She proudly displays the same message on her T-shirt. Blair — the vain, self-centered “daddy’s girl” — appears especially distressed. We are led to believe that she’s embarrassed by her cousin’s disability, but it turns out she’s just jealous of Geri’s success. And Geri’s stream of one-liners soon has everyone laughing and no longer seeing the difference. Lesson learned.
The actress and writer has performed on other TV shows, including a well-known stint on Deadwood . And on a recent episode of Glee, Jewell made a cameo as an L.A. TV producer (curiously, a few weeks after character Sam develops an obsession with reruns of The Facts of Life ).
But that debut appearance, back in 1980, when we were first finding out how to live better lives via the boob tube , still stands out as a groundbreaking moment in TV history.