bbc.co.uk
Home
Explore the BBC
You and Yours - Transcript
BBC Radio 4
Print This Page
TX: 17.04.06 - Disability and Humour

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE
WAITE
Shakespeare probably started it - making people with disabilities the butt of jokes. And from the fool character of his plays to the stuttering shopkeeper Arkwright or the slow witted Jim Trott in the Vicar of the Dibley, portrayals of people with learning or physical disabilities have been something of a British comic constant. And now, perhaps on the principle if you can't beat them join them, a duo of disabled presenters is hosting a new monthly podcast programme on the BBC's disability website Ouch!

Actor Mat Fraser, self styled thalidomide survivor and comedienne Liz Carr, who uses a wheelchair, poke very un-PC fun at the full gamut of disability clichés in what the Guardian's reviewer has called "cutting edge new comedy". But will its edge be too cutting for some, including disabled people themselves? Well in a moment we'll have a review of that debut podcast but first I've been hearing from co-presenter Liz Carr about the idea behind the series.

CARR
I think you know the idea of the podcast is that it blows the cobwebs off disability, around the preciousness around disability, that it's funny, that it actually reflects disabled people as we really are - as a lot of us really are. And that might be funny, witty, intelligent individuals and not just stereotypes that I think a lot of people have around disabled people and about our lives. So I think the aim is that it's quite a feisty programme, it's meant to be fun but it's also meant to show our lives and allow us the space to talk about what happens to disabled people and just have some fun with it I think.

WAITE
Some of the fun is rather dark isn't it.

CARR
It is absolutely, but you know life is dark. Comedy and tragedy - there's that fine line isn't there. You know I think disability comedy's had many phases and I think in recent times we've laughed at the ridiculousness of the way that disabled people are treated and the way that society treats us - discrimination and that kind of thing. But I think now with the podcast we're talking about that but we're also taking the whatever out of each other and out of disabled people ourselves. And I think that's what's pioneering about it - is that it's kind of like the last bastion of PC - can we laugh at disabled people? And I would say that yes we can.

WAITE
Well to get a flavour of what the podcast sounds like and to see how it fits with the way disability matters have been treated in the past we asked Dr Paul Dark, who writes on what you might call disability culture, to give it a listen.

CLIP - PODCAST
SONG

DARK
Disability on the BBC has finally entered the 21st Century with the disability website Ouch's first podcast.

This innovation is much more than just a technical innovation, it takes the BBC as far from the tradition of Does He Take Sugar as it has ever been.

CLIP - PODCAST FRASER Well I'm just like the listeners out there in that I have things wrong with me.

CARR Oh go on do tell us what's wrong with you - let's share, we're amongst friends.

FRASER Well I am a thalidomide survivor, as they call it, a thalidomide victim, if you will...

CARR
A sufferer?

FRASER
A sufferer. A person whose body has been affected through their mother taking the drug called thalidomide...

CARR
Okay, we've all heard that Mat, we know about that - you've got little flippers and long legs - that's about it. I'm far more interesting - I'm a wheelchair user, I can't [MAT YAWNING] be bothered telling the Latin term, yes you were about to say Mat?

FRASER
No go on please, tell us more about your interesting wheelchair.

CARR
I know because if you're not talking about yourself then you're not interested - that's what happens to disabled people - they become totally self obsessed.

JINGLE - THE OUCH PODCAST

DARK
The podcast, like Ouch itself, has its successful and less successful parts. The presenters are excellent, especially Liz Carr with her gentler sardonic wit, although Mat Fraser is a little worthy at times.

CLIP - PODCAST FRASER I hate homophobia.

CARR That's a good one.

FRASER I can't stand intolerance of homosexuals.

CARR You see I have nothing as sensible as that. Do you know what I hate?

FRASER What?

CARR I hate when your knickers are too tight and they leave a bit of a mark on your side.

DARK
But the podcast encapsulates a serious dilemma for comedy and disability. When is it okay to laugh at disability and who can laugh at disability?

CLIP - PODCAST FRASER Vegetable, vegetable or vegetable is a clever disability interpretation of the parlour game - Animal, vegetable or mineral - in case you hadn't figured it out. In the game the two hosts of the Ouch podcast - that's you, Liz, and me Mat - have just 90 seconds to guess what is wrong with the disabled caller on the line by asking a series of fiendishly intelligent questions. The caller must only answer "Yes" or "No", it is both classic and therapeutic.

DARK
The podcast's Vegetable, vegetable, vegetable game where the disabled presenters try to guess the impairment of a guest telephone caller though funny will offend some.

CLIP - PODCAST CARR Are you like Mat Fraser?

CALLER No.

CARR Have you got your legs?

CALLER Yes.

FRASER Do they work?

CALLER Yes.

CARR Um yes.

DARK
And on the surface it seems to be in contradiction to the subsequent interview exploring the trauma of people laughing at someone with Tourettes. Ouch is clearly positioning itself within the idea that I can call myself a cripple or a spas but you ordinary people cannot. For you to call me it is offensive.

CLIP - PODCAST FRASER I used to hate thald gags when I was a kid. Is it the same with you and the old Tourette's gags or ...

CALLER Yes, what really gets me going is a lot of comedians that come on the TV and have mentioned Tourette's in the script and it really annoys me because those people they've never stopped to think what that's going to do to someone who actually suffers with the condition who can't accept that's life, you know, comedians do this.

DARK
It is a dilemma with no conclusive answer, other than to accept, as I do, that disabled people, like any other minority, can laugh and make jokes about themselves but ordinary folk, as it stands, cannot and should not. Why? Well because only disabled people truly know the nuances of the discrimination and marginalisation they experience. If done by an expert comedian, like Liz Carr, a joke can have a resonance, a truth, that a non disabled person could never give it. Ouch have the balance of laughing with and not at disabled people just right. 'Goodness Gracious Me' did the same in relation to Asian culture and attitudes, by making jokes about themselves and their culture they revealed the absurdity of prejudice and discrimination. Whether or not disability, issues or comedy, should be ghettoised in specific arenas such as Ouch or mainstreamed, as in You and Yours, is a serious issue. I would argue that it should be both, it is not a case of either/or. 'Goodness Gracious Me' is a good example of how a single show done well brought a minority out of the closet and into the mainstream, changing the way Asian culture is seen. Any ghettoised programme runs the risk of being tokenistic. Its success is often more about the will and desire behind such an idea, rather than the strength of the idea of itself. It was there for 'Goodness Gracious Me'. Ouch by allowing the nurturing of disabled talent in a disability specific show can do the same for disabled people in the mainstream. Will it? That is up for other people to decide.

CLIP - PODCAST JINGLE
FRASER And next in the leg impaired long jump here comes Bidet the Frenchman, he's running - well sort of - yes running towards the line, going really fast now, hell for leather, yeah still going, almost there, a little bit more - and my word that was a long distance. And I think that could be big, they're checking the length now, it's 15 centimetres and yes that is a new world record.

WAITE
Mat Fraser taking the proverbial out of the Paralympics there and bringing to end Dr Paul Dark's review of the new Ouch podcast. And making the point, Paul, that in your view only the disabled can make fun of the disabled.

DARK
It's a complex issue but yes I am saying that in the short term but ideally no. What I mean is Jonathan Ross can make as many jokes about the disabled as he likes but only when the disabled have the same kind of opportunity to make jokes about him on the mainstream broadcast and in their own shows. Not as an issue of right of reply or access but as an equal and valid voice within the broadcast and cultural community.

CARR
I don't agree, I actually don't think that we should limit who jokes about disability, as much as I don't want to censure other people, I don't want to be censured as an individual, as a comedian, as a writer. And I think anyone can laugh at disability. I think the thing is it needs to be funny, it needs to be clever, it needs to be truthful and I think that they're really key. But I've heard some disabled people make some dreadful jokes about disability, I've heard some non disabled people make some really good incisive comments on disability and it's the same with race, it's the same with gender, I believe. I think the problem is that on the whole we haven't been making jokes about ourselves, it's been other people laughing at us. Podcast is rare and pioneering because at last we're saying the conversations we've been having around the table in the pub with friends when I'm making them in public, this is what we're like, this is some of the comedy that makes us laugh.

WAITE
Yet in the podcast we hear an interview with John Davidson, that's the boy, as he was then, with Tourette's Syndrome who appeared in a famous documentary in the 1980s and who shocked television audiences by his inability to stop swearing. And in the interview on your podcast he said how he hated jokes about his disability and that comedians never stop to think of the harm they can do to someone - that's what you have been doing in this podcast for 40 minutes.

CARR
Well I'd agree and I'd disagree. Actually what John says is that yes he gets hurt by people laughing at him and teasing him, of course he does, I think actually most of us do. But he also says that the people laughing at him, the comedians, have no experience of disability or of difference and I think that's the crucial thing now. A lot of people who make jokes about disability doing it in a hurtful way they're actually laughing at the medical condition, they're not laughing at the ridiculousness of the world that we live in, because I think that has universal truth and I think that's something that we can all share, whether we're disabled or not.

WAITE
Well let me bring in an Iranian comedienne now, my third guest Shappi Khorsandi. How did you feel listening to it, did you feel at all uncomfortable?

KHORSANDI
I found it very funny, especially because on the stand up circuit I do hear a lot of non disabled - oh I nearly said male comedians, but they're always male - and they throw in words - derogatory words - towards disabled people and I feel that sometimes it's a shock value thing. We've been talking today about truth and I think that is the key thing because I hear a lot of white comedians saying this - Why is it if a black comedian can use the N word how come I can't? And my answer is like yeah but you've got to ask yourself why do you want to, in what context are you going to use that word? If you want to talk about people who have cerebral palsy and you go - How come they can say spastic I can't ... Why do you want to say it, that's what you have to question, what part of your job description says to shock other than to entertain?

WAITE
Well I've got to sprinkle a few words in here Liz, words I wouldn't use in private and I certainly never would have thought I'd be saying on Radio 4.

CARR
Come on, come on.

WAITE
Words that are on the podcast, I mean you talk about cripple sport and normal cripples and crip pride and some spasa you refer to. You say all this, it's meant to be humorous, I found it so and yet last week Tiger Woods says he's playing golf a bit spasa one day and the world goes into meltdown because he uses the word once. It's confusing isn't it?

CARR
Of course - I mean yes of course it is. And words like PC are bandied around and people get absolutely terrified of what to say and what to do. The podcast breaks down some of the fear of what to say by using these words. That's not why we're doing it incidentally, we're just doing it because we're two disabled people having a chat about what interests us, it's the words, it's our culture, it's the language that we'd use and we're allowing other people to listen to that.

WAITE
And are you being a bit daring because it's only a podcast?

CARR
No, I don't - no because I mean I'm also a stand up comedian and Mat does comedy and cabaret and I use these words in my stand up set and all I can say is that I know that when I turn up for a gig I get the usual people really don't know - here's a strange looking disabled woman in a wheelchair, they're a little bit uncomfortable, then I get on stage, then I kind of blast them with my stuff and it's got crip in there and spas and spastic and whatever and by the end of it people are so much more relaxed around me and around the issues and people will come up and talk to me at the end and there's just a whole different feeling, I think, to the gig then, that I think it breaks down more barriers than it puts up by people seeing real disabled people doing comedy and not being so precious about it. And what it does do - I had a gig the other night and a guy - another comedian - said you know what Liz, he said, my end joke you ruined it, he said, I was going to laugh about my partner who's a wheelchair user, he said, and I didn't do it because you were here. And I thought good, yeah because it wouldn't be as funny as my jokes, that's why, not because he shouldn't but because probably it would have left him in the shadows.

DARK
But I think Liz doing it is very different to a non disabled person doing it. In the sense that I think Liz highlights that it's a disabled person doing it and it is a visual embodiment of the history of disabled people. So, for example, when Tiger Woods said it last week he has no history of that, interestingly he wouldn't have used the N word or a word about his history...

KHORSANDI
Exactly.

DARK
And that's what I think is very important about what Tiger Woods did. And what he did was wrong because he is giving a name to something bad that other people give to a group of people, by extension making that group of people bad.

KHORSANDI
And he should know better ...

WAITE
We're putting a kind of ring fence aren't we around, and maybe we should, around this group - the disabled. I mean if you look at Jewish humour, Jewish people tell Jewish jokes the best but lots of people tell Jewish jokes. Dave Allen told Irish jokes the best but lots of people tell Irish jokes. What I'm saying Paul is - what you seem to be suggesting - ah but no one else should tell disabled jokes.

DARK
No what I'm saying is it's because there are no disabled people on the mainstream media doing that. There are lots of Jewish comedians who are well known, in the media, on the television, telling Jewish jokes, so everybody else can. There are no disabled people doing it in the media. And I go back to the point about 'Goodness Gracious Me', why I think it was a seminal programme, not for the stand up comedian but it enabled broadcasters to say oh look we can have an ethnic comedian, we can have an Asian comedian, we can have an Iranian comedian and they're now there as well. So they're making the jokes and everybody else can. While we're invisible we have the right to talk about ourselves and when we're not invisible then everybody can make jokes about us.

KHORSANDI
And also I think it's something to bear in mind, Liz, we've talked about people getting offended and I know that a lot of people were offended by 'Goodness Gracious Me' in their own community and perhaps I imagine some disabled people will listen to your programme and get offended. I've had Iranian people take issue with a couple of things I've said because when people are of a minority group they do get very sensitive on how they're portrayed and I've now come to the realisation that I have to actually go - do you know what, I'm not a representative of an entire people, I only represent myself. And it's taken me a long time to actually come to that conclusion because you do feel a sense of responsibility, you don't want to offend your own group and also you understand because I too am sensitive about how Iranians are portrayed.

DARK
But that only matters if you're the only one because often you are held up in the media as representing your people, the disabled are and everybody else's - Lenny Henry is of Afro Caribbeans - I mean that's ridiculous, that's a delusional idea. But if you are the only one there it's quite understandable that you have that sense of responsibility and that other people give it to you and you shouldn't have that responsibility.

WAITE
And how far Paul would you take the definition, as it were, of disability? I mean we talked earlier in the programme - Jim Trott, the stuttering villager in the Vicar of Dibley, or you've got Ronnie Barker, the visually challenged Clarence or Basil Fawlty who's clearly got mental problems, he's repressed and ultra English - these are staple British comedy characters but they're all, in a sense, disabled, so are we wrong to find this humour so funny?

DARK
No there's nothing wrong in finding anything funny. It comes back to that point if, you know, there is nothing else by the people who are themselves like that, that's what makes it unfair and liable to be misinterpreted by those who will laugh at disabled people in the street. If you get a disabled person up who's hideously deformed, such as myself, then that undermines the whole nature of doing it to people in the street, because people will find the podcast offensive and they will take that as an opportunity to call people in the street names.

WAITE
Liz, what do you hope your podcast will achieve?

CARR
I would love to see this as the beginning of crip radio. We're not going to be representative of all disabled people, some people will love it, some people will hate it but you can say that of any comedy. I think what's unfair is that people will label this - oh well you know it's a bit - it's a bit too radical or it goes too far - well actually fine, but there's a lot of disabled people that love that and have waited years to hear this.

WAITE
So to use, finally, one of your own phrases from the podcast, what you're saying is listen into it, make up your mind, but relax, don't get your incontinence pants in a twist?

CARR
Absolutely.

WAITE
Liz Carr and Shappi Khorsandi and Dr Paul Dark, thank you all very much indeed. And details of how you can listen to that podcast will be on our website.


Back to the You and Yours homepage

The BBC is not responsible for external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy