Comedy’s last unmentionable

Comedy is infectious. Once you start laughing it can be difficult to stop and this isn’t a bad thing. Laughter reduces stress, strengthens your immune system and releases endorphins leaving you feeling uplifted.

Over the years the spectrum of conventional comedy has widened. We now laugh openly about sex, race and
sexuality, but there is something missing. Disabilities. Running about 30 years behind the other comedy movements, you might expect disability to be on an equal standing with every other topic, but it seems to be lagging behind.


Disability in comedy is still a tough subject to talk about. Photo: Natasha Smith

There are several possible reasons for this, one of which being pity. Nobody feels sorry for women or gay men, but they do for those with disabilities and in a politically correct mindset it’s wrong to laugh at those we have sympathy for.

Simon Minty is the co-founder and producer of Abnormally Funny People, a group of stand up comedians with disabilities. He believes that disability has been missed in the evolution of comedy because of this pity aspect.

“With things like race or gender people have deep rooted bigotry… and they know not to say that, but you don’t feel sorry for them necessarily, it’s a different sort of exclusion or discrimination. It’s silly because there’s so much fun to be had with the subject.”

There are no reasons to exclude anyone from the comedy scene though. It’s how to break down barriers. Comedy can be seen as a standard currency around the world. Slapstick will get a chuckle from almost anyone from anywhere regardless of creed, gender or able-bodiedness.

Disability can be seen to have had a small role for many years, but it’s never grown to a mainstream subject with other topics. Peter Cook wrote a sketch called “One Leg Too Few” which he first performed with Dudley Moore in 1960.

The sketch takes place in a casting office searching for the star of a production of Tarzan. The casting agent, Peter Cook, mentions that Tarzan is: “A role which traditionally involves the use of a two-legged actor” and that the part is not suitable for a “unidexter”. Despite being 50 years old, this clever sketch is perhaps as good as disability gets in the comedy world.

The comedy is not necessarily about laughing at the individual with the disability, rather the reactions of others. In “The Office” Ricky Gervais stars as the politically incorrect office manager David Brent. During the second series he is confronted by wheelchair user Brenda, played by Julie Fernandez.

It’s David’s reactions to Brenda, such as leaving her on the stairs during a fire drill, that create that little chuckle. The laugh is at the expense of David not Brenda and Fernandez argues that’s the way it should be.

“Cases like my character in ‘The Office’ are quite funny though. I do have a lot of people that say ‘don’t you think that was taking the mickey out of disabled people’, which I don’t think it was,” says Fernandez. “I think the whole point was that it was showing David Brent being the idiot that his character is. I think it’s dependant on the type of programme or the way that it’s been written.”

Disability in comedy does need to be handled with care just as with any other minority group. Instead of insults, it’s all about the right language, the humour and the context. But whether anybody can throw around the same quick quips as they please is a tricky issue.

“One part of me thinks that either we can all tell that joke, or nobody can tell that joke. But maybe it’s about that
specific minority group taking control of their own minority status. But I can get away with telling ‘crip’ jokes if you like, disabled jokes, in a way that, and using language that, might not be acceptable coming from an able bodied person,” says Fernandez.

Fernandez is currently producing a show called “Crippled with Laughter” but is finding it tough to get commissioned, which she believes is “because it’s disability comedy and people are still finding it hard to know whether to laugh or not at it, which is quite a shame”.

The show is in a sketch format and isn’t aimed at a purely disabled audience. The aim is to appeal to the mainstream in order to break down these barriers that are holding comedy back. Not all attempts to get disability based comedy on television are unsuccessful though, with Channel 4 broadcasting a show that could be seen as a minor triumph.

In 2009 the station aired a mockumentary entitled “Cast Offs”. Its premise was a fictional reality show where six disabled people are left on a remote island to see how they cope and each actor had the same disability as the character they played.

Within just 20 minutes of watching you can pick up on the dark humour of the show, but also its hooks within
reality. Deaf Gabriella has trouble reading Carrie’s lips due to her dwarfism. Another character on the show, Dan, has difficulty using his wheelchair over sand dunes. The premise that disabled people only get sex when they pay for it is blown wide open.  

Although primarily a drama, and secondly a dark comedy, it’s the direction that comedy should be travelling. These characters have more depth than their disabilities. They have flaws and often joke between themselves. On this island everyone is equal and less defined by their disability, more so by their personality. It shakes up preconceptions, but manages to give the right balance of comedy and real life nuances that everyone has.

Of course, disability is not just a physical thing. There are also mental disabilities which are seemingly even more of a taboo subject. Although mental health has been explored and discussed openly by stars such as Stephen Fry, it too lacks the everyday conversation of physical disabilities.

In an ideal world there would be no discrimination, but the comedy scene has room to grow and expand to help
perception of minority groups. Clever language and word play such as that used by Peter Cook back in the ‘60s can be used to overcome rude jibes and inconsiderate abuse.

People like Simon Minty and Julie Fernandez show how those with disabilities can step forward into the limelight and take control of how they are portrayed, at the same time as making people laugh. If something is clever and funny it should be openly discussed and enjoyed, not kept at bay by barriers that we ourselves have built.

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