by Laurence Clark
BBC Ouch 21st November 2004
Three years ago, I went to the Stonewall Gala at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is an annual event where a series of stand-up comedians do an eight-minute turn, with the proceeds going to the charity of the same name. As I watched, a familiar pattern began to emerge: at least two-thirds of the comedians on the bill made disabled people the butt of their jokes.
Stand-up comedian Jimmy Carr found humour in a road sign outside a special school saying ‘Go slow!’ Craig Hill was similarly amused by a sign reading ‘Wheelchair pickup’ at a train station, as the idea of a partner who is a wheelchair user is clearly ludicrous to him. Even the presence of a sign language interpreter did not deter jokes about deaf people.
It seemed that in our ultra-PC age where prejudice is socially unacceptable, the only minority that comedians can still get away with picking on are disabled people.
It was this experience that made me want to become a stand-up comedian myself.
On the whole, the comedy industry is pretty inaccessible. A large proportion of clubs tend to be located in pub cellars or lofts, invariably involving long flights of stairs. On the couple of occasions when I’ve auditioned for some of the big comedy agencies, my performance has been irrevocably impaired by being required to climb such staircases. Even journalists struggle to describe my act, almost always using some variation of the well-worn phrase “the stand-up comedian who sits down…”
But when you think about it, comedy ultimately derives from presenting familiar yet slightly different perspectives on the world. Every comic, including myself, is trying to sell their own quirky outlook. Since there are so many myths and stereotypes about disabled people around, it’s not really surprising that this sort of crap gets reflected in our mainstream comedy.
Last year, however, Jim Davidson took this one step further when he refused to perform because thirteen people in wheelchairs were sat on the front row of a show in Plymouth. Apparently, although we’re valid targets for what can loosely be described as his ‘humour’, we’re not valid audience members with a right to hear what he’s got to say about us. As someone brought up to believe that anything you’ve got to say to someone should be said to their face, this does seem a little cowardly.
My theory of cowardice was borne out a few months later when Jim declined to take part in a discussion with myself and others for You and Yours on BBC Radio 4.
The day after he cancelled his show, Jim remarked that he hates people “playing the handicapped card”. I find this quite ironic, as I can’t stand people who play the nationalist, white supremacist, ageist, homophobic, disablist, sexist, right-wing bigot card!
According to Jim, the wheelchair users on the front row “could have been sensible and 2,000 people would have had a great night…” Clearly his idea of a “great night” is very different from mine!
It was this incident that inspired me to write my new show for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – The Jim Davidson Guide to Equality. I thought that the best way to tackle the discrimination of someone like Jim would be to take them on in their own arena: stand-up comedy. The show is targeted at both disabled and mainstream audiences; in fact, pretty much everyone except Jim!
The original title was to have been The Jim Davidson Retirement Bash. I envisaged the show as a kind of party for everyone he’s ever pissed off. My best friend Steve, who’s training to be a barrister, recommended against this as it could possibly be legally construed as implying that Jim was ending his career. However, shortly after submitting the show to the Fringe, Jim announced that he was actually retiring to Dubai, so I could have used the title after all! Sod’s law!
I suppose our gain is Dubai’s loss!
In preparation for doing the show, I sat down with my director, Rikki, and my personal assistant, Imma, to watch a DVD of Jim’s infamous last gig – the one that wheelchair users were excluded from watching. Our tiny audience of three contained a disabled person, a gay black man and a woman – thus covering a wide range of Jim’s prejudices. At any one time in his routine, it seemed like he was having a go at one or more of us!
This 67-minute recording seemed to last for hours – Imma walked out half way through. But it certainly wasn’t hard to see why Jim had such a problem with the wheelchair users in the audience, since a good ten minutes of the show is aimed at us.
Jim says that if he was Prime Minister, he’d tear out ramps and make us all walk up and down flights of stairs. Sounds pretty similar to New Labour’s stance, if you ask me!
Anyway, by doing a show partially about disablist comedy, I’m not seeking to police comedians, nor dictate what audiences should or shouldn’t find funny. No, I’m simply trying to level the playing field a little and present the world from our perspective. And in this way, I think that audiences will be in a position to make up their own minds about us.