Do comedians have a duty to talk about political issues?
I think every comedian’s artistic journey is to find his or her own voice. Who you are as a comedian reflects who you are as a person, what you think and how you see the world. Good, strong comedy is part of a healthy democracy – it’s where free speech still exists, where the status quo can be challenged and where difficult subjects are discussed.
Have experiences from your early life shaped you as a person?
There’s a real paradox growing up with a disability. On the one hand we’re told ‘everyone’s equal’; on the other we’re burdened with these long scary labels by a medical world that views us as mistakes. I struggled long and hard not to be viewed as a pity object and that was a big factor in me developing a sense of humour. I wanted people to see me as funny and capable. It took me years to rid myself of the deep sense that there was something ‘wrong’ with me, that I was faulty. I found that belief disempowering and it had a very negative effect. Now I think that everyone is different and has things they can and can’t do – and that I’m just me. It was very important for me to realize that nobody is normal, that ‘normality’ is a myth, a made-up idea.
As a kid were you aware of having a disability?
I grew up in London and I was a very happy and cheeky child, largely because my family made me feel loved. I never felt abnormal and I was always playing and performing.
‘Take note, folks: 83 per cent of disabilities are acquired!’
When I went to high school, my life changed dramatically because I felt judged on my physical differences which until then hadn’t been important to me or ‘defined’ me. I became ashamed of myself and very insecure, and I remember not wanting to go out anywhere, turning down party invites and being afraid even to go for a walk because I hated people staring at me. I had to reject the mainstream value system that strips so many of us of our confidence and happiness, and make up my own one. It was a political as well as a personal awakening.
How did you make your way in the comedy world and get to where you are today? If a young, disabled person were aspiring to be a comedian, what advice would you give them?
I never planned to be a comedian. My love was acting so I felt very lucky to land a part in BBC’s ‘Grange Hill’ when I was 14. It was an amazing experience: I did the show for five years before hitting unemployment due to the lack of parts for wobbly girls!
Luckily, my dad, Alex, who’s a writer, wrote me a film script in 1998, and he made my character a comedian. I loved the part but found the idea of doing stand-up utterly terrifying. To my delight (and horror) the script was soon picked up by a film company and, very reluctantly, I joined a comedy workshop – purely for research purposes. I didn’t say a word for six weeks! I was so scared. But somehow my class persuaded me to do a five-minute routine at the end-of-term show and, even though I was petrified, I thought, ‘Wow! This is it! This is what I’m meant to do!’ So it’s all down to my dad, really.
When I started out as a comedian 14 years ago, there were hardly any other comics with disabilities, but now we’re seeing a lot more performers with different abilities. In some ways, I think comedy’s the perfect match for performers with disabilities because it can be an advantage to have a unique perspective on life and for the audience to feel curious about you. One of the reasons I fell in love with stand-up was that it made me realize that my disability was actually a bonus, and I’d never felt that before.
My advice to someone with a disability who wants to be a comic would be the same advice I’d give to anyone who wanted to be a comic – get stage-time, keep writing, don’t rush, discover what you want to say and be prepared for a long journey. Stand-up is fantastic but it is all-consuming, so you really need to want to give yourself over to it. Although there may be politics in the comedy industry, your disability isn’t a factor on stage.
In your lifetime, do you think things have got better or worse for disabled people in Britain?
I think media representation is slowly increasing and events like the Paralympics showed that, instead of switching off, mainstream audiences are open to difference. The more disabled people can be recognized as people with talents and emotions and goals, the more ‘normal’ disability will become. Politically, we are faced with the very scary prospect that many of the hard-won rights for disabled people are being eroded by our backward-pointing government. The vital support network that allowed many of those celebrated Paralympians to achieve their goals is being stripped away because of the constant cuts.
A third of disabled people already live in poverty and that figure will rise dramatically when the cuts are fully implemented. Far from saving money, these cuts are an attack on a section of society deemed too vulnerable to fight back.
This is about ideology, not money. Take the Disability Living Allowance reforms. They are costing $1.2 billion to implement, while companies like Atos are being paid $1.5 billion to carry out reassessments, and this is all to reduce a fraud rate that amounts to only $94 million annually. Meanwhile, the real ‘drains on society’ – the bankers, the CEOs who pay no tax, the politicians who fiddle their expenses, the companies who keep all their profits – are left untouched, free to continue lining their pockets. It’s shocking that disabled people have to fight for their basic human rights in the seventh richest country in the world. Unless we all join together, the future for disabled people in Britain looks very bleak. Take note, folks: 83 per cent of disabilities are acquired!
In a recent speech, you said you were ashamed of funding illegal wars that make people disabled in other countries…
The value of human life depends on where you are born. It saddens me that instead of viewing the human race as one community who share this planet, the power élite dehumanizes huge numbers of people who are seen instead as an economic ‘resource’, ripe for exploitation.
You say that in our system of power, ‘we’re made to feel helpless, disempowered’. How do you stay hopeful?
I keep positive by living by my own value system. I don’t think of success in terms of money or possessions or status. To me success is getting up each day, doing something I believe in and having the health to do it. If it’s a sunny day, I can walk in the park and I feel lucky to have that freedom. I was given the confidence to choose a vocation that I love, rather than a ‘sensible’ one. I think that encouraging anyone to pursue happiness is a precious thing and that is what I want to do when I have kids!
I think every day is a gift. We don’t know how long life is going to last so I try to appreciate just being alive. It’s easy to forget that life is temporary but I try to remember that it will be gone one day. That perspective helps me feel very happy to be here.