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When disability just isn't funny.

by Laurence Clark

18th October 2010

When Laurence was invited to perform at the opening ceremony of a large disability conference in America a few months ago, he was very excited at the prospect of his first US gig. Here, he thought, was a chance to engage with new audiences and possibly get more work. Little did he realise what a traumatic experience it would turn out to be...
Laurence Clark
Many different factors contribute towards the making of a successful comedy performance and, on the occasion of my first American gig, pretty much every single one of these was actively working against me. But I still tried to remain optimistic in the face of mounting evidence that I was about to spectacularly die on stage.

Firstly the layout of the theatre can have a big impact on how well a gig goes down. Nobody wants to sit on their own for fear of being singled out by the comedian. People never like to get seated on the front row for similar reasons.

It’s often said that laughter is infectious and an audience member will be more inclined to join in if they are surrounded by other people who are also laughing. Ergo, an audience spread out thinly across a large room will generally laugh less than the same-sized audience packed tightly together into a smaller space.

This theatre seated 900 people and, at best, was around 15% full. Moreover, as the auditorium wasn’t particularly accessible, and most of the audience consisted of wheelchair users, the majority were forced to sit around the rim, miles from the stage. I had to play to a vast array of empty seats stretching off as far as the eye could see.

Far from being able to maintain eye contact and bond with my audience, I could barely make them out in the distance.

“Never mind,” I thought to myself hopefully, “I think I can still make this work.”

Religion has been a staple ingredient of many a comedy gig, usually on the receiving end of jokes.
However, unbeknownst to me, the focus of the event had become a tribute to a recently deceased local gospel singer.

The evening began with a preacher setting the tone by saying some prayers. He was closely followed by a full-on Baptist gospel choir. Immediately after this, a friend of the deceased managed to work the word "handicapped" into every single sentence of her sermon. Her closing message, “If you help the handicapped then God will save you” made the radical crips in the audience visibly bristle with suppressed rage.
Laurence on stage
Hecklers can notoriously make or break your gig. This particular evening had its own unique brand of ‘heckler’ who randomly shouted out phrases like “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lord” every couple of minutes.

For the first half I sat in the audience wondering who the hell had thought that a radical British crip comic act would fit into this line-up, not to mention worrying whether these interruptions would carry on during my set. I even tried to come up with some culturally sensitive put-downs to use, but drew a blank.

Years of performing at disability events has taught me that, very often, less can be a whole lot more. Organisers will commonly try to persuade comics to go on for as long as possible, thinking they’re getting more for their money, when often shorter sets have the greater impact.

This event was a mammoth four hours long with only one interval and lucky old me was last on the bill. To make things worse, a half-hour academic panel discussion on 'cultural brokerage’ was scheduled immediately before my set ... just to put to rest any remaining ideas that this evening was about entertainment.

To this day, I’m still none the wiser about what on earth 'cultural brokerage’ actually is. Whilst I understand what the individual words mean, they just don’t seem to make sense when placed next to each other.

The final remnants of my optimism evaporated into thin air when the moment eventually arrived for me to wheel onto the stage. It was only then that I discovered, three and a half hours into the proceedings, that only thirty audience members had stuck it out. Apparently most of them had made a break for the nearest bar during the interval. I found myself instantly regretting not having had the same idea.

It was at this point that I finally, grudgingly, had to concede that there was absolutely nothing I could do to save this gig now.

The only available option was to put my head down, power through my bog-standard set faster than I’d ever done before, get off stage as quickly as possible and then drown my sorrows with copious amounts of alcohol.

The final nail in the coffin came the next morning when I was accosted on my way to breakfast by one of the very few conference participants who’d actually seen my gig. She very excitedly exclaimed:

“Half way through your act I suddenly realised who you are. I listen every month to the Ouch podcast and... You’re the Vegetable, Vegetable or Vegetable guy!”

A fitting epitaph for my worst gig if ever I heard one!

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