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TX: 14.04.06 - MS: Laughing at a serious illness

Comedian Richard Pryer died last year after enduring 20 years of multiple sclerosis, not to mention battles with drugs and alcohol, he also got through seven marriages. To many he's one of the chief pioneers of stand up comedy but his performances were cut short soon after he talked openly about the MS in 1991. British comedian Jim Sweeney has also had to cope with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, this was the focus of his comedy show My MS and Me - a version of which was hugely popular when it appeared on Radio 4 last year. So can comedy help educate and improve public perception of multiple sclerosis? Our disability reporter, Carolyn Atkinson, has been talking to Richard Pryer's daughter Rain Pryer, about her father, whose fame through stand up and films like Stir Crazy meant he became one of the world's most prominent figures to go public with MS.


The American comedian and actor Richard Pryer has died at the age of 65, he suffered a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles, after having been ill for many years with multiple sclerosis.

My dad was great. When he was a hands on dad he was a hands on dad, it's like you know he's the type of dad that would take us fishing and he'd come to all my school shows. If I dated a guy he - I remember once he stood at the top of the stairs with a shotgun, when I came home, just to scare the guy and he did because he never came back, so you know ...[LAUGHTER] "Thanks dad, you ruined that one."

So can you tell me what happened when your father was diagnosed?

My father was diagnosed with MS in 1986 and I was around - just about turning 17 years old. We didn't understand what it was, we had no clue on what it was going to do, we thought MS stood for More Stuff. And so it was a matter of really trying to learn what could we expect.

How did it affect both your father but also the immediate effect on family?

Well the fear sets in and for my father at the time, in 1986, at least in the United States, there weren't the therapies, the drug therapies, that there are available today. And his progression over the last several years was very quick and you learn not everyone's like that. For my father there was the period of denial, his belief was he's fine, it's okay, it's something that is going to go away. What I didn't understand was certain aspects of multiple sclerosis, I didn't understand the depression and the fatigue. So there were times I would cheer him on and be like - Come on dad, you can do it - not realising maybe physically he just can't do it. The first time I ever walked in and saw that my dad was in need of my assistance is when it hit me that this was something that's very serious and that I needed to learn how to understand that there is depression, there is fatigue, there is spasticity, there is - you know all these different things that come with the MS and educate myself.

He actually had a number of crises in his life, so when the MS came along how did he cope with yet another bad situation?

Here's a man who survived quadruple bypass, survived trying to commit suicide by setting himself on fire, survived ex-wives, he thought this is something he'll survive. He used to say: MF MS.

SWEENEY My arms can't stay in one position for too long because they get very, very tired, especially my left arm because whilst the right side of my body fought a spirited campaign against the MS and its marauding hordes, the left side capitulated immediately and has embraced the MS as one of its own. My left eye, arm, hand, leg, foot they're all barely under my control. I realised that the left hand was no longer playing as part of the team during an improvisation gig with the Comedy Store Players. I've improvised with the Comedy Store Players for years, every Wednesday and Sunday, doors 6.30, show at 8.00, bar and food - it's my job, it's what I do, it's how I earn a living. And improvisation has absolutely no problem with the MS, there's no script to learn, so the blur doesn't matter, there's always a wall or a chair or another performer to grab hold of if your balance goes a bit off and there's no running around required, if you let others do all the physical palaver and you adopt the sort of John Le Mesurier cocktail party style of performing. Stand at the back looking bemused, smile nervously and say: Do you think that's wise?

Is comedy a good way of raising an issue?

For me it's an excellent way to raise the issue. It demystifies the shock and awe of a disability and when you can approach it with humour it sort of let's everyone settle down and their ears become open and then the education process is much easier. And it's such an undiscussed disease, it's very kept quiet, it's not they're cancers, it's not like anything else, people sort of like MS? I thought they took care of that. People don't understand the slow progression, they don't understand that it affects every individual individually.

SWEENEY "Are you alright?"
"Yeah I'm fine, thanks."
"You fell over."
"Well spotted."
"What's with the stick?"
"Oh I've got MS."
"Ooh urgh MS, urgh, yeah like David Puttnam and that chap from Bros."
"No, that's ME, this is multiple sclerosis."
"Oh yeah, oh dear, dear, yeah Mohammed Ali, Michael J. Fox urgh."
"No, that's Parkinson's Disease."
"Oh. Stephen Hawking?"
Or worse they know someone who's got MS. The unjust tragedy of it all, how their lives have been ruined - one minute they were mountain climbing and cross channel swimming, the next they're bed bound and they need somebody else to go to the toilet for them.

Did your dad use his comedy to help him cope with the MS do you think?

Most definitely. There were times when he'd be on stage and all of a sudden he would say: "Is there a doctor in the house?" And then someone might say yes and he'll be like what the - it's MS, you know? His whole was about truth telling and storytelling and so for him he was very open about exposing sort of those parts of him on the stage. The only time it ever became difficult is when his ability to be able to speak was diminished and taken away. The voice and the body was his tool. Over the years it started to diminish and get worse and worse and you sort of watched that progression and when my dad was on that stage he was his authentic self and so the one thing where he could just be him and do what he loved to do was taken away. I almost think later on for him it was more of a frustration because that's how he lets himself go and out and he couldn't do it.

SWEENEY Before the walking stick appeared I walked a little bit like a music hall drunk, you know I was like one step forward, two to the side, tightrope walking along the street using lampposts to keep my balance. In fact the MS Society, I think, produce a badge that says 'I am not drunk, I have MS'. And alcohol exacerbates all the symptoms of MS, you become even unsteadier on your feet. And for those occasions I think they should produce a badge that says: 'What you looking at!'. So I'd only been using the stick for a couple of days and I passed two of our neighbours outside our house having a chat and we nodded good morning as I hobbled by. But before they were out of earshot I heard one say to the other: "What's he doing with a stick?" And the other one said: "Well, he's an actor." That's how my neighbours see me - an actor. How hurtful is that.

He told everyone because everyone thought my dad was drunk anyway and I think he was tired of it and just was like: "Today I'm not drunk, today it's MS." [LAUGHTER AND INDISTINCT WORDS] He talked about his MS on Johnny Carson. He did a show that was at the Comedy Store and he talked about it there as well. And that was in sort of the later stages of the MS, which I think was very brave and beautiful of him to be able to do. But it's such a testament too to who my dad was, I mean his comedy was brave - he was on the cutting edge of comedy and just spoke his mind and spoke the truth and not very many people are willing to do that and my dad definitely did and I think it was very apropos that he should then discuss MS so openly.

Who did he think he could pass the baton on to, as it were? Maybe it was you.

You know - no ...

No but his skills.

His skills definitely, I think - you know my dad always wanted me to be a performer, I'm the one in the family with that rainbow coloured Afro wig, everyone else got a trust fund. So he knew this is what I was going to be. It's very funny because my dad - and I hate to say this about him - but he was selfish enough to not want to pass it on to anybody. He was going to be Richard Pryer for life. It doesn't matter. Even as his daughter I'm like there's no one that's like my dad.

What would you say the worst thing is about MS and if there is a good thing about it what would you say the best thing about MS is?

The gift which isn't necessarily - you know I would never wish MS on someone - but for my father MS slowed his life down enough to allow his children back into his life and it was like this disguised blessing for us. I think the worst thing about MS is the deterioration - I think that's the worst part, the slow deterioration. The best thing about MS is that there's hope.

Rain Pryer talking about her father, the comedian and actor Richard Pryer, with comedy from Jim Sweeney's show My MS and Me . And Rain Pryer is due to perform at Manchester's Comedy Store as part of the MS Life Event in the city next weekend - that's the 22nd and 23rd April.

And Heather Walker from Bristol has e-mailed us at about our reports on multiple sclerosis this week:

E-MAIL FROM HEATHER WALKER Please do not refer to MS as the most common neurological condition but as one of the most common. ME affects almost a quarter of a million people in the UK, with 25% of sufferers so severely affected they're either house or bed bound and unable to feed or look after themselves.

Well over to Professor Alan Thompson of the Institute of Neurology in London.

I think the point that one would wish to make is that MS affects young people and then carries on affecting them for the next 30, 40 or 50 years, causing them disability and affecting all those around them. So I think it is quite reasonable to say that it is the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young people in the UK.

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