I feared becoming a comedian might undermine the image of disabled people | But Simon Minty says humour shows pride and confidence

I feared becoming a comedian might undermine the image of disabled people

But Simon Minty says humour shows pride and confidence

I have funny bones in reality, as I have a disability that is muscular skeletal, so I have differently shaped bones. I also have funny bones in that I am pretty good at making people laugh. I enjoy it. I like being with people who make people laugh.

I’m going to try to answer this question: is it a better world because we have professional disabled comedians, or are the disabled comedians going well because the world is more confident about disability?

One of the comedians I work with is Lost Voice Guy. He has cerebral palsy and uses a speech machine, well, an iPad. At the end of his set, he says: ‘Thank you for laughing at a disabled man’, which makes most of the audience laugh.

He also says: ‘People have always laughed at me. As a comedian at least there’s a set time and place.’ This is sharp gag. Makes you laugh, makes a point. This is a comedian who is at the top of his game. He has his own voice. 

I produce comedy shows called Abnormally Funny People made up of disabled comedians. We have a show on at the Southbank Centre, although virtual, on Sunday January 17  at 7.30pm.

When Abnormally Funny People started in 2005 we were ground-breaking. There had always been individual comedians who were disabled but not as an ensemble. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where we started out, we created quite a buzz.

Ten years later we went back to the festival. Times had changed. I got to know what is was like for any regular comedian. No more special treatment. It was devastating. I mean, if I can’t manipulate the press by playing the disability card, well, that says this equality and inclusion has gone too far!

I think the juxtaposition of  disability with comedy is still difficult, more so for the punters. In one show, I sat with the audience as they came in, to talk with them to get a feel for the room. I spoke to a young couple as they sat down. 

I said: ‘It’s great that you’re seeing disabled comedians.’ The guy yelped ‘What? All the acts are disabled? We didn’t know that! No one told us that!’  The lights went down, it was too late to leave. I watched him relax and then he laughed. A lot.

He wouldn’t have come if he’d been told all the acts had a disability. After the show finished, he told me this was his favourite show!  For us, it would be lovely if we were promoting something that people knew they actually wanted.

One huge sign of the comedians progressing is that most of the disabled comedians I work with – and many I don’t work with –  perform mainstream gigs. They do their own shows or appear at  comedy clubs. Maybe the Abnormally Funny People ensemble is not needed so much now, but when we come together, we have a lot of fun. On stage as well as behind the scenes. It’s a safe place where people just get each other. 

I’m proud that young comedians ask to perform with us. I’m proud that some of our comedians are successful in their own right, and yet they’ll still do an Abnormally Funny People gig as it’s a special time. Progress says to me that we’re allowed to do both mainstream and disability-themed gigs.

When we started, I used to worry that doing comedy might undermine the standing of disabled people in society. What if we just looked silly or no one laughed? Would we lose years of hard-earned respect? We needed to be empowered, be funny and self-deprecating BUT not lower ourselves, sell out for a cheap laugh. I felt we were on a tightrope and we could fall at any moment. 

Today feels very different. We as comedians are more experienced, stronger. We are more mature and confident and enjoy looking silly or even incompetent. Everyone else does!

Comedy once avoided addressing disability – except maybe  non-disabled comedians making bad-taste jokes. Then some funny comedians who were disabled came along.

Audiences came to their shows, admittedly not always intentionally. Audiences began to relax, to enjoy the comedy. They judged it on its merit, not on anything else.

It’s not perfect. We know from studies that jokes sometimes have a victim, sometimes have a target, sometimes can be used to ridicule. What makes us laugh is subjective. There is an inherent risk and not everyone is comfortable.

But as a progressive movement, disability has to be mature enough to be able to allow laughter in. For it to be part of our lives and our interactions.

As comedians, we need to push boundaries, point out absurdity, hypocrisy and sometimes say things that others avoid.

I know comedians aren’t seen as the same way as professors or experts. However, I’d argue some have the finest minds and a better grasp of reality and a better way of explaining things than many intellectuals

I am proud that we have comedy as part of the disability rights landscape. I’m proud that audiences enjoy comedy from disabled performers.

To move away, to be humourless, would be a huge step backwards. It would show a lack of confidence and a lack of pride in ourselves.

Earlier I said the comedy can be like walking a tightrope. Over the years, others disabled comedians have arrived on their own tightropes. Now these many tightropes have intertwined and we now have a swing bridge. Not 100 per cent secure but much stronger.

So join us on the swing bridge! I’ll go first as I want to play the disability card one more time while I still can. Attend our virtual show and enjoy it as much as we do performing it.

Don’t worry, I won’t be in the audience asking you what you think as you sit down. It’ll be just you and you can laugh as loud as you like with us. That’s the point.

Click here for tickets to the next Abnormally Funny People online gig on January 17, headlined by Rosie Jones.

Published: 7 Jan 2021

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