Disability? It's a good start for comedy

Ted Shiress describes his experiences

Can you name a comedian with cerebral palsy? If you asked such a question a decade ago, I’m pretty sure even the most hardcore of comedy geeks would struggle not to say no. However as we enter 2011, times have changed and many a casual comedy fan can reel off names such as the friendly Francesca Martinez, the likeable Laurence Clark and the just dead-on Josh Blue. So what’s changed, you may wonder. Have the physically disadvantaged suddenly caught up and learned how to tell a decent gag or two?

No. Us special people haven’t changed, what has changed is how the public react to disability. Yeah, there’s a few stares and distasteful comments, but on the whole if you have to have a disability there’s no better time to have one. I live in an age where all my peers love, tolerate or detest me for my personality traits – not the difficulties I have moving – and I am immensely grateful for this. So, it follows, when a guy with CP walks into a bar doing comedy and asks for a set the promoter won’t respond with something funny.

I recall a great Stewart Lee routine when he argues that the key to being a successful comic is to be someone with an outsider perspective on life – drawing on examples such as Spike Milligan, Bill Hicks and, of course with a murder enquiry to top the list, Michael Barrymore.

If we park the last third of that list, funny though it is, he’s dead on: all comedy to a degree is observational, and who wants to hear the observations of someone exactly like themselves? Having a disability is definitely something that marks you out as different to most other people, even when retelling mundane comedy material such as going to a bar, buying a coffee or trying to get their leg over, such situations definitely play out differently to those who don’t have a disability.

However being unique isn’t all it takes to be a successful comic, you need to be creative and have a genuine taste for humour, understanding all its mechanisms. In your first few gigs you may get a few laughs through sympathy from having the confidence to get up and appear to make light of something that is so – literally – crippling to you, but after a while this will wear off.

These first few gigs for me were definitely my chance to establish my voice; and I found I had a very dark and cynical side that manifested itself to extreme through my comedy. Although I love my life, I can’t deny I’m pretty pissed off that I have cerebral palsy. I think I’ve already done enough compromising with life so I’m not going to compromise any more without a fight. Once I had established this voice I found myself being able to write material on many things while still maintaining a very cynical outlook.

Although this still poses the question when is a joke told by someone with a disability not about having a disability? Although, mostly for social reasons, I prefer saying I have a disability rather than I am disabled, I suppose the outcome of nearly everything I’m involved in is shaped, sometimes quite significantly, by my disability.

This is why I no longer worry about if I tell material concerning my CP, I just check that the mechanism behind the joke (ie what’s making it funny) isn’t the fact I have a disability. For instance, there is a routine I often perform based on a fictional scenario of me engaging in phone sex – this routine has grown to include an extended ad lib at the end and many double entendres.

However the main punchline is when it transpires that as I only have the function of one hand, the big, hard object that I previously described holding in an almost absurdly sexual manner is actually my phone. This, to me, is a classic and often clichéd example of muddling up two semantic fields for comic effect.

So, if you have a disability and are thinking of getting into comedy, I say give it a try. However you need not focus your efforts to being unique, as you inadvertently are. Instead, when you do deliver your ‘I’m different’ material, think about what is funny about it and why it’s funny. Once you’ve established that you should find you’ve acquired a style which is funny and uniquely ‘you’, even if you are not discussing the nature of your disability.

Published: 4 Jan 2011

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