Dyslexia and delivering the punchline: A comedian's story
Liz Miele is a comedian with dyslexia. She has an eye for spotting comedy in her daily life, and a thousand jokes up her sleeve. Being a comedian fits perfectly with her creative, storytelling brain. Her material comes straight from her experiences — like practicing the phrase “commitmentless sperm” over and over until she can say it smoothly on stage. She puts having dyslexia and all that comes with it in the spotlight.
Liz was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age. Growing up, she considered herself a “con artist” who learned to show teachers what they wanted to see. It wasn’t until later in her life that she really understood how her brain works, and that dyslexia could be her superpower.
Liz: From everything to like being a good friend to being a comedian and being a writer, I can really trace back anything that somebody was like, "Oh, Liz is really good at this" — I can trace it all back to either me trying to survive school because I'm dyslexic or just because my brain works differently and I am dyslexic.
Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.
Learning and thinking differences are no joke, but sometimes in the right hands they can be a laughing matter. My next guest is a professional comedian. Liz Miele often talks about her experience with dyslexia on stage. The bad and the good. Liz regularly performs in New York City and across the world. She's also written a book, written and produced her own web series, and appeared on shows like Comedy Central's "This Week at the Comedy Cellar" and NPR's "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me." Liz, welcome to the show.
Eleni: We talk on the show a lot about, you know, different school and childhood experiences and how, like, sometimes learning challenges can really impact people's, like, early perception of themselves and their confidence, what they can do and what they can't do. I thought that might be a nice starting point, because I'm kind of curious how some of those early experiences for you kind of like impacted what you thought about yourself.
Liz: I like how you're like, let's start with childhood trauma. Let's just get right into it. Let's start with a trigger. How did you feel about yourself as a child? Not great. I'll tell you that much.
Honestly, I you know, in the beginning, I don't know. I thought everybody was faking it. No, I didn't get diagnosed with dyslexia until I was in the third grade, but I don't think I really started to understand how it was impacting me until I got older and there were like time constraints on stuff. Because like in elementary school, it's like, do this project. And there's like some leniency because there's a lot of coloring involved. Like, you know what I mean? Like, nobody's really getting too mad at you with what you're doing. But as soon as I hit, like, middle school and then I really kind of pushed myself to get out of the special learning classes, because I did feel "other" and I did feel — I just didn't. I felt like I was — I oddly felt smart enough and like I was good at being a con artist enough that I didn't need special classes. So I worked really hard to get out of the special classes by high school.
But what I don't think I realized is that I still hadn't changed. Like it still took me a lot longer. It took me way longer to read books. It took me way longer to write. It took me, you know, much longer to take tests. My memory and my ability to retrieve stuff in a time-pressured way was– I'm still not good at that. So I think I learned to be a con artist. I learned to, you know, read the CliffsNotes. I learned to cheat. And it wasn't until later in my life that I really found out how much I like learning and how capable I am and how smart I am. It wasn't until my mid 20s that I really started to understand how I learn, what I like learning, and what I actually need to learn. And school just taught me how to present smart, and present on time, and the way teachers needed to see me.
Eleni: Yeah, it's really interesting because I think a lot of people think like school and learning is the same thing — they're kind of synonymous with each other. That is really refreshing to hear when there's that distinction. For you, where do you see the distinction between like school and learning? Like, how did you find what works for you? How did you get to that place where you figured that out?
Liz: Like I said, like, so school for me, in my personal family, was freedom. So getting good grades meant I could hang out with my friends. Getting good grades meant I could leave the house. So I lived in such a strict household and my dad's dyslexic. All my siblings are dyslexic, so it wasn't an excuse. And that's why I did whatever it took to get the result, as opposed to learning. Because when you're a kid, you're like, oh, I don't like math. I'm never going to do anything with math. I well, I don't I'm not going to do anything with science. So who cares about science?
Like where I started to perk up and really pay attention and try to learn was when it was literature and writing. Because even though reading and writing was hard, I did enjoy it and I was a creative person, and I always kind of wrote stories and was silly in that area. And then I liked history as well, but again, I never did well on tests because it was all about memory and dates and it would all get jumbled in my head.
Then fast-forward, I'm older, I'm starting to learn the things that I want to learn because I got into stand-up. I started doing different types of writing. And I had to — so with stand-up, you write your stuff, nobody really sees it, so it doesn't matter if it's spelled wrong. But then I have to memorize it and then I have to present it, which has its aspects of what you do in like middle school and high school and stuff. But I really care about it now. So now I'm figuring out all these tools and all these ways to memorize it because I care. So I literally self-taught myself how to memorize things, how to edit, and how to present my ideas. And I was it was all self-taught.
And then when I wanted to learn something, think now fast-forward, I'm in my 30s, we have a pandemic, and I have to learn all this computer stuff, and I get very overwhelmed by any of this stuff. But now I know how to learn in the sense where I'm like, I know how to break it down. I know that I have to keep notes. I know that if I do it once, I'm going to forget everything. So if I keep notes the first time I did it, I can go back to those notes and do it again. I can update those notes. I can teach others because I'm so slow at putting stuff together that my way is basically for anybody that is also not computer literate. And I became, especially during the pandemic, the person that was teaching people basic computer skills, because I now know how to learn. And because I know how to learn, I know how to teach.
So in some ways, I learned that I'm a pretty good teacher because I'm not very innate at most things. And I think people that when it naturally comes to them aren't really good teachers, like they just are like, yeah, this is how you do it. And they look around and everybody's confused. But if you started out confused and you taught yourself, you know where everybody's going to get confused, you know where everybody is going to have a meltdown, and you can prepare for that. So I feel like in a lot of ways I — the self-teaching really opened me up to understanding my brain.
And then through — I read "The Dyslexic Advantage," which is a great book, and I actually ended up meeting those doctors and doing a presentation with them. But like, that book I read when I was 25, and that's really when I started to not call myself stupid. I still do because I am, but like I'm stupid for different reasons now. But like, I started to kind of see where my intelligence lies and what I am innately good at, and where in some places, you know, especially with creativity and comedy, people are like, oh, how do you think that way? I'm like, I don't know, I just do. So then I even have my own, you know, place where I succeed without having to try hard. And so I can go, all right, I'm not the best speller. I'm terrible at grammar. I have not the greatest memory. But I do excel at looking like divergent thinking and creative ideas. And I'm a great problem-solver, and I'm fun and silly when it comes to looking at solutions. And I'm a great aunt. I'm just like a really good aunt, and I really think I can give that to dyslexia.
Eleni: The list of things you're good at is actually a lot longer than the things that you struggle with. And I think for our listeners, you know, that's that's not an easy thing to be able to identify in yourself and like, learn and point out, you know. How did you get to a place where not only could you kind of identify what you're really good at, but, you know, be really confident in like sharing that and even, you know, bragging about that?
Liz: Well, you also have to keep in mind what I'm bad at, society says you shouldn't be bad at. So I'm bad at spelling, I'm bad at grammar. Nobody can see my notebook. And that's half the reason I got into it. Nobody sees, like, I'm very protective of my notebook. Don't get me wrong. Look, I'm still embarrassed. I don't want to lose it. But nobody sees my misspellings. Nobody sees my poor grammar. So I'm still able to express myself and be myself, even though I am 30 — almost 37 years old — and I haven't gotten any better at these things. There are things that I am innately good, at or things that I've really worked hard to be better at that have given me the acceptance and attention and validation that I was always searching for as a kid. So if I'm getting what I want and I still haven't changed, who cares? Right?
Like, I wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to express myself. I wanted to show the real version of me. And younger me was doing that writing. And I now have written a book and have done stuff that's more, you know, visual. And you see my actual writing. But in the beginning it was like, oh, I can kind of hide this part of me that I'm embarrassed about and still succeed. And now I'm just more honest about it because I misspell stuff all the time. And it's just like if the point of language is to connect and to communicate, and you understand what I'm saying, who cares? It's not a dissertation.
And don't get me wrong, I do want to spell things right. I do want my tweets to read correctly. I get frustrated when I read it 40 times and then I put it out there and it's missing four words and I'm like, why? Why? I read it 40 times. But that being said, there's a way to support people and there's a way to help them. And there's a time and place to correct them. But if the point is to communicate and you understood it, who cares? I make up words all the time. It's fine. It's good enough, like. And I think that's been what's really helped me as I got older is it's good enough. aAnd there's a ton of people that are really successful at good enough. Do I want to be better? Absolutely. Would I like to be the best? Of course. But I'm living my best life at good enough.
Eleni: Yeah. And also, I mean, I would say you're living your best life beyond good enough because you leant into the things that you were good at, and like, I agree, it's a lot of the things that society expect of us aren't necessarily like reflective of the things that are, you know, most valuable even though like, you know, you can easily kind of. And if you, if you leave some of those things behind.
Liz: Yeah. And if you look at school, school is teaching you to learn a certain way. And if you don't learn that way, you're kind of, you know, out of luck. But because school was always hard and I always had to find a way to mitigate it and work around it, I have more pivoting skills, coping skills, survival skills, just because I had to survive a thing that most people just normally do. So, you know, there's a reason that a lot of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A lot of artists are dyslexic. Because they don't follow any rules. And you have to make up your own rules. And that's where I succeed, is making stuff up.
Eleni: Yeah. And all of the skills you listed are more important to being like a thriving and successful adult than, you know, some of the skills that we learn in school, which are not everyday skills.
Liz: From everything to like doing my taxes and being a good friend, to being a comedian and being a writer, they all have become because of just a survival thing of dyslexia and then dyslexia itself. Like I can, I can really trace back anything that somebody is like, oh, Liz really good at this. I can trace it all back to either me trying to survive school because I'm dyslexic or just because my brain works differently and I am dyslexic.
Eleni: So I know when we were talking earlier about how you learn, you mentioned that sometimes it's really hard, especially under pressure, to like retrieve information or like explain to somebody else how you learn something. How do those things relate? Like the word retrieval stuff, the memory stuff, like how does that come up for you in your comedy?
Liz: A lot of times I do have to practice, like if I have a bigger word or like, oh. What is that? What did I have to memorize recently? Commitmentless sperm. Commitmentless sperm. I was like, really like giving it —.
Eleni: What does that mean?
Liz: So I was really giving it to guys online that basically said they were 45 and I want to have kids someday. And I was like, when? Like, why, you know what I mean? Like, like I just don't understand. Like, if I have a biological clock, you should have a societal clock. Like, some stuff does need to start early. So I kind of go on a rant about what needs to start early, and then I say, "Nobody wants your commitmentless sperm." So now I can say it really well. It was a struggle, like just even being able to say "commitmentless." Is that a word? I'm hoping it's a word, but....
Eleni: I'm not the right person.
Liz: Neither am I. We have to Google it together. But, so writing that down, saying it, saying it as a phrase, like that took practice. And so a lot of times I'll fumble my words in the beginning. I will retrieve the wrong word. And that can get frustrating. But I have to like — literally I'm in my room going "commitmentless sperm" over and over again.
Eleni: And you've also made up a term. Like nowhere I've never heard those two words together.
Liz: You're welcome, world. You're welcome.
Eleni: I know now.
Liz: Yeah, they're out there and you know, you need to be protected. So for me, it's a lot of practice. But also you're — being, like the adrenaline that comes in when you're performing on stage can be helpful. So in the beginning, you're just nervous and it feels like everything gets shut down. But eventually you get used to that. You're more comfortable. You can say whatever. And my ability to retrieve stuff, be funny on the spot, and be in the moment is a lot stronger than the average person because every single night I'm doing one to several shows. And I'm talking to people and I'm saying things off the cuff and whatever. So that's become its own skill, saying stuff live, in the moment, responding to people.
Do I get it wrong? Do I — absolutely. Sometimes I try to use a big word. Like I think a big word is there and I try to use it. And I was like, is that a word? And people are like, it's not a word. And I was like, well, that's a journey we went on together. Like, even just being able to be dumb in front of people and make mistakes, you really just kind of — so much of my life has happened in front of other people and on stage, and I'm very brutally honest in my stand-up. So when I mess up, even in a off-the-cuff way, it's kind of like, whatever.
Eleni: So like I know a couple of times, you said things like, oh, like, oh, I look dumb or I look stupid or whatever. Like, do you find that people have made, like, assumptions about you? Like because of your dyslexia or because of like some of these mistakes? Like, what do you find as some of the most common, like, misperceptions?
Liz: Yeah, I get called dumb all the time. Some of that might just because I'm a woman. That's always fun. Just a woman that speaks out. That's a nice thing people like to say about you. Like I said, I don't spell well. Sometimes I make an attempt. Sometimes I don't. You know, sometimes I shoot back and I go, I'm dyslexic and I did my best. I've had, you know, I had people is like, that's not an excuse. And I was like, I don't know if I'm using it as an excuse as much as I'm just giving you information.
Eleni: Informing you.
Liz: Yeah, you know what I mean? If, if somebody was supposed to meet me at 2:00 and they show up at 2:10, and they go, hey, I'm so sorry. You know, I missed the train. And also I rolled my ankle last week. I go, all right, that informs me. And now I understand why you're 10 minutes late. I'm not going to be like, what an excuse. Like, you know what I mean? Like, the trains always run. And you could have told me earlier that you rolled your ankle. You know, you just go, oh, OK.
Like, you'll have people shout out like you're not funny. And my first thought is, you don't find me funny, which is valid. You could absolutely — I have zero problem with somebody saying you — "I do not find you funny." But if you say "you are not funny," that's statistically not true at all. I have a fanbase. I have people that like what I do. I have so much success in being funny. That's factually not true. So I can see both on stage or online somebody say "you're not funny" and go one, not correct. Two, it's — that's somebody that doesn't like themselves. That's somebody that wishes they were a comic or that just somebody that doesn't like their life. And that's not my problem.
So I think more and more, as people call you dumb or people say, you know, you're never going to succeed if this is how you go about your life or or because you're dyslexic, it's just not true. There's so — even today, even more so than when I was a kid. There are so many things to help you with your dyslexia that you can hide it if that's how you choose. And also it's more known than it ever has been before. And also it just doesn't matter the way it used to. Should you become an editor? Maybe not. You know what I mean? I'm not going to tell you what you can and can't do, but who cares? Like, I just feel like there's enough support online and in your life to figure it out. So who cares if somebody thinks you're doing a bad job at it? There's there's tons of people think what I do is crappy.
Eleni: Yeah. And I know that you said, you know, you tend to be really honest on stage and you started to just like let people know. Like when did you start incorporating, you know, jokes about dyslexia, like into your comedy?
Liz: Um, probably after I read "The Dyslexic Advantage," so that was when I was like 25. So I think as I started to be less ashamed of it. Because I read that book and I called up my dad and I was like, we have a superpower. Like, you should read this book. I just found out we're better than everybody. So that book was like a real turning point for me and was really empowering. Because I had read "What Sucks About My Brain." I've read tons of books about what sucks about my brain. I never read a book about what's great about my brain, ever. And I even that same year, I read a book called "A First-Rate Madness," which is about the benefits of mental illness, because mental illness runs in my family. Again, a book about the positive side of mental illness when everybody has always said what's awful about it. So these books really shaped my outlook because there was never anybody scientifically and just, you know, educationally saying, hey, you can't do anything about the fact that you have these things, but there are benefits to it and you can hone them and you can make them stronger. And I think I was now set to make these things stronger or look at the things that I'm naturally good at and really push those to be stronger.
So I did learn that I've always seen that I was a problem-solver. I just — I don't know. I just thought because my dad's a problem-solver who's also dyslexic, that it was something that ran in my family. So there were these things like divergent thinking or problem-solving or, you know, creativity that I started to just go more down that route because, one, it's innate. Two, I enjoy it and it became empowering.
So I think the best thing you can always do is take an honest look at your faults and what you're good at. And sometimes people are only good at acknowledging their faults and they're not good at acknowledging their pros. And sometimes you need a best friend. I mean, that's where friendship is helpful. A friend comes over and it's like, well, you're really good at this and, you know, thank you, friendship. But like —.
Eleni: Yeah. I feel like I've learnt more about myself through all the people reflecting than anything else.
Liz: Yeah. And it's helpful. And but you have to — if you're going to be honest, you can't just be honest about what sucks about you. You have to be honest about what you bring to the table as well. And it's a choice to let the things that aren't — that you aren't good at hold you back. And it's also a choice to let the things that you are good at to not make them better. So I chose not to let, you know, being a bad speller and being bad at grammar hold me back. And I did choose to try to develop the skills I was moderately better at than most people and try to make them stronger.
And again, I was more open about it because I stopped letting it be this thing that bullied me both in my head and in the outside world. And it was a choice. And you know what was interesting, after I read "The Dyslexic Advantage," they have like a whole chapter on like, should you tell your employer? Should you tell people? And I was like, oh, I didn't even know you couldn't tell people. Like, I was just, I really stopped hiding it after high school because, one, I didn't want to be judged for being slower. So I wanted the excuse in a lot of ways. But also I stopped, like, you should know this about me, the same way that I started to be more open about mental illness being in my family, and I might be a little not totally right, you know, all the time. So I think in general, as I kind of took the power back, that kind of like I'll call myself fat before you call me fat? Like that kind of like I'll bully myself before you do. I think I took that humor approach of being mean to myself before other people would, and then slowly over time it became empowering, which is like, I'm dyslexic and I still did this. I'm dyslexic and I'm not good in this area, but look at all the things I am good at. And that took time. I think that takes maturity and I think that takes a little bit of fortitude and gumption on your own behalf to invest in yourself even when other people aren't investing in you.
Eleni: Yeah. And I really hope that our listeners learn a lot from that because, you know, it is such an important skill to develop, to be able to really like hone in on your skills, recognize them and like, you know, be a little bit more balanced about your own self-perception, you know?
What would you say has been one of your biggest struggles in like succeeding in comedy? And like, what advice would you have for like any listeners hoping to pursue it?
Liz: I would say some of my biggest struggle has been confidence. I think I spent the first half of my career thinking I wasn't good enough because I wasn't getting the outside validation that I thought was worthy of the effort that I was putting in. And I spent the first 10 years feeling bitter and angry and like I wasn't good enough. And not only is that not fun to be around, it's definitely not fun to be. You know, I didn't feel good about myself and then I didn't feel good about what I was presenting out. But it felt — I felt like I couldn't not be that person. And I felt like I couldn't control those emotions and I couldn't feel somehow overlooked.
A lot of things helped me reframe that. Therapy was really important to my emotional growth. I think understanding where that came from, both in the sense that I know I absolutely pursued comedy because I wanted attention that I didn't get as a kid, and I used humor as a deflecting mechanism and as a way of survival. So there's a lot of survival skills that made me get into comedy. But at the end of the day, even as they become less a survival skill and more just something I like, I still like doing it. So I really had to come back to the passion aspect about — of what I do, and go, if nobody ever saw my standup, if I never built a fan base, if I never got on TV, would I still want to do this? And if the answer is yes, then you have to just let all the accolades and validation and worthiness that you're trying to pursue, and you have to let it go and make that a a smaller subset of why you pursue comedy.
Everything good that's happened has been because I shifted that. I like who I am. I like how I work. I like what I'm working on. I like how I show up to things. And when I'm disappointed or overlooked or things don't come out the way I thought they would, it's not as disappointing as it was before. And because I've done so much on my own and I've built my career so much without the industry, when things don't work out, I go, well, I have all these other resources and I did all this stuff on my own before. I'll just keep doing what I'm doing.
Like I was supposed to — I was being looked have like a special on a big network. They took four months to deliberate. This is like years ago. I was really sure I was going to get it because all my other friends had gotten no's and I was like, well, they got no's really quickly and it's been four months. Maybe it's a yes. And then four months later, I'm alone in Australia of all places. I was touring Australia for over a month. And now I'm alone in Australia and I get this news that it's not happening. And I'm devastated. So I'm devastated. I'm alone. I'm in Sydney, just like hanging off a cliff. Somebody told me it was pretty. And I'm not being dramatic. I'm just, it was a pretty cliff and I was just sitting there. But I'm sitting on this cliff. I'm overlooking this ocean. I'm really sad, and like one of the prettiest places I've ever been. And I just went, I've done it before. I've done it on my own before. I don't need them. It's going to be annoying and it's going to cost some money, but I can do this on my own. And so then I started to work on doing a special on my own. And that special has 1.4 million views on YouTube. So, you know, I, I no longer —.
Eleni: And it's great. I listened to it.
Liz: Thank you, thank you for your view. I no longer let the no's be these worldwide — the no's used to be like no to you and no to everything you do. And now the no's are like, no to this opportunity. And then I go, OK, well how can I create this opportunity without them? And that has been so freeing in a way that I want that for everybody. I really do. Because every business is full of no's, but show business is collecting no's. I forget there was some actress that called auditioning, collecting your no's, and eventually you'll get a yes. I love it too. And it's really powering where every time I get a no, I'm like, oh, put it in the basket. You know what I mean. Put it with the others. So, all right, I'm just collecting my no's. Everybody gets no's. I'm collecting my no's. But a no here isn't a no for everything. And that has been so freeing. Everybody experiences rejection. How do you handle it? And I think as somebody that's bombed a lot on stage, I handle it pretty well.
Eleni: Well, thank you for sharing all of your wisdom.
Liz: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Eleni: You've been listening to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts about the show. Or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job. I'd love to hear from you.
If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.
"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thanks again for listening.
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