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Back to Stephen Brookes Column Index



'I've got a funny wheelchair'

By: Stephen Brookes MBE

'What's the difference between the Labour Party and a group of disabled people? Answer: There are no Socialists in the Labour Party.'

There were plenty of Socialists present when, a couple of years ago at the Edinburgh Festival I saw Dr Laurence Clarke who wowed the Fringe with his show ‘The Jim Davidson Guide to Equality’. (If it crops up, go and see it!). Laurence is a wheelchair comic and laughs at himself and all disabled people. A friend with me was mortified because of a small comment about one aspect of disability in the show.

The line was ‘She’s a real raver. Stays up 'til half past nine, every night'!

But we knew the joke - many of the audience laughed (including him). The fact of people with disabilities who have to be helped to bed by a district nurse and are given no choice about time. People whose levels of pain mean that they have to go to bed early because of sheer fatigue, but actually don’t sleep when they get there. It's the kind of joke that could only be made by one disabled person about others because in the delivery there is no malice or mockery.

What is the collective term for a noisy group of disabled people? Answer – A Day Centre. It’s the kind of humour that belongs to minority groups only. Those groups have made sense of the irrational world in their own way.

But many people, including a large proportion of disabled people do not think disability should be a target for humour. I think the reasons are two fold and deep rooted. Firstly, disability humour is essentially non-mainstream, and at the very best is seen at Arts Festivals. And it is performed by alternative' artists who would shudder at the very notion of being sexist, racist or heterosexist, but who suddenly lose all their politics on the subject of disability. Finally, the reason they can't be humorous about disability is because they don’t know about it and actually fear it.

Much alternative comedy is based on people's previously taboo experiences. So, particularly on Channel 4 and the digital channel comedy shows we get a lot of stuff about willies, sexual inadequacy, drink and vomiting – you know, the stuff Saturday nights are made of. To much of that still persists and is not funny any more - at least the content could be when well written, but the form definitely isn't.

The trouble is though that disability humour is normally seen in ‘safe houses’. The audience predominantly people with disabilities and a lot of friends, (some non-disabled) and very few of our journalist colleagues – arts critics! Might be worth taking note!

What is funny to a disabled audience, however, may leave a non-disabled audience cold. But, only because people are often embarrassed to laugh.

This frustrates me, not because I think they should laugh - if they don't find it funny - but because what enables them to laugh at schoolboy type nonsense, is also the mechanism that prevents them from finding disability funny from a disabled person's perspective. So writers and artists who create silly pointless stories on disability can no longer assume that they have an audience who will collude with them won't have any 'cripples' there. And only I can use the word cripple ‘properly’ (because I am still called that frequently, mainly with the best of possible intentions) because that language on able-bodied lips is part of the problem. From mine, coming from the disability movement, it's part of the solution.

By the way, Laurence Clarke says in his act that he knows what it is like to be a Virgin Airline duty free trolley, because he does use his wheelchair on Virgin Trains.

Steve Brookes, mbe
NUJ.
DMC.
Copyright © - Stephen Brookes MBE 2005 - All rights reserved


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