Disability need not be a punchline | Bethany Dawson and Tobias Soar call for a greater range of disabled characters in TV comedy

Disability need not be a punchline

Bethany Dawson and Tobias Soar call for a greater range of disabled characters in TV comedy

In British television comedy, disabled people are often the butt of cheap jokes: from the severely sight impaired Mr Magoo to the use of mental health problems for comedic gain in Peep Show.

However, done correctly, comedy can challenge prejudice and increase understanding of representation in society. This is why it is time for comedy commissioners and creators of comedy television to be bold, and to write disabled characters that exist beyond their disability, with lives as complex as able-bodied characters have had for decades.

Writers can, and should, go a step further and write dislikable, morally flawed disabled characters.

With millions of Brits tuning in to their favourite programmes every week, the mass reach of television has simultaneously become the greatest ally and enemy to disabled people — a single disabled character in a mainstream comedy show can hugely influence audiences' preconceptions of people with disabilities, for better or worse. Oftentimes, poor decisions lead representations to lean towards the worse. 

This article is not two people moaning about more political correctness in comedy. This is how we actually make British comedy fit for purpose for the 21st Century.

In comedy shows, particularly sketch-based programmes, many characters are written around one immediately recognisable gimmick. In many ways  Monty Python’s Flying Circus, set the template for sketches based around a repeating joke. But where Monty Python laid the foundation, others have followed; from the Fast Show’s character who thinks everything is ‘amazing’ or the Chuckle Brothers’ ever-recognisable ‘to me, to you’ gag.

This simplistic approach to comedy writing can be effective in creating humour, however, it has trickled down into wider forms of comedic television, with countless television programmes writing in disabled characters whose entire existence and evolution revolve around their disability for the sake of a laugh.

To allow for disabled characters in comedy to exist on the same level as their non-disabled counterparts, they must have the same level of complexity and depth audiences expect from any given on-screen character.

Netflix’s hit comedy drama series Sex Education presents an array of characters, and introduced Isaac (pictured) into the cast in the second series. The introduction of a funny, mischievous, and emotive character who uses a wheelchair sees the show depicting disabled people as they should: as complex humans who exist beyond their disability. 

Isaac’s character experiences multiple roadbumps of teen life – anxiety around unrequited love, the inaccessibility of aesthetically pleasing cottages which are coincidentally the only party destination within the village, and the ability to delete an answerphone message. With these common, relatable challenges, Isaac is humanised, as he is more than just a ‘token disabled character’.

Classically speaking, disabled people are hugely infantilised. With ableist stereotypes depicting disabled people as weak, unintelligent, and wholly incapable, a lot of disabled people are  seen as sweet and helpless children. To combat this, not only do disabled people need multidimensional representation within television and film: some of them need to be unlikeable. 

A great example of this unfavourable character is within the short-lived appearance of Alistair Scott in The Inbetweeners. Casting our minds back to the episode where Alistair appeared in 2010, he was depicted as wrongfully popular among everyone. The trope that Alistair should be universally liked and seen as an inspirational person is highlighted for comedic effect within the episode, as Alistair is ultimately revealed to be deeply unlikeable to only Will — the main character — and the audience. 

Here we can see the butt of the joke not be the disabled person themself, or, more crucially, their disability, but the stereotypes that are attributed to disability. Not only does this make for better and more multidimensional characterisation of a disabled person, but it highlights the nonsense that forms the foundation of ableist stereotypes, allowing the audience to recognise their incoherence and thus unravel their own participation in said stereotypes. 

Stand-up comic Rosie Jones also uses this tool within her work. As a woman with cerebral palsy, she uses brash and dry humour to juxtapose the expectation that she’ll be an introverted, shy, and weak woman. Her outwardly sexual and oftentimes rude comedy allow her to create hilarious sets which allow people to constantly question their preconceived understanding of disabled people; the preconception of disabled people as childlike is at extreme odds with Jones’ outgoing and shocking personality.

For too long disabled people have been represented in a wholly reductionist light. Their disabilities are punchlines and their multidimensional lives within ableist systems are not addressed unless said experiences can be ridiculed. Comedy writers have a responsibility to write characters that minimise the misrepresentation of the group they belong to, whether they are a second-generation immigrant, a posh person from London, or a paraplegic schoolboy.

Representation on screen is hugely important for many viewers, as some appreciate seeing someone that looks like them on telly while others can learn about people who appear to be different to them. Yet the surface level gimmicks are insufficient, these characters need to grow and interact with others beyond the limitations of their most noticeable trait. In the case of disabled people, they need to be able to exist beyond their disability — they’re people that can be likeable or unlikeable, cunning or sweet, and many other things while happening to be disabled.

The representation of disabled people in comedy needs to be accurate. There needs to be funny people, annoying people, people who are loveable and in love. Disabled people need to be shown as people, all whilst highlighting the multidimensional and intersectional realities of disabled life. Writers should take risks and shouldn’t be afraid of writing unlikeable and morally flawed disabled characters — they’re human, after all.

• This article first appeared on the blog Black On White TV and is reproduced with permission

Bethany Dawson is a freelance journalist writing with a speciality in disability and gender; Tobias Soar is a film critic and freelance writer with an academic background in politics and International Relations. His areas of expertise include representation in film and television.

Published: 9 Jul 2020

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