The Joke journeys with Liz Carr
I escape Downstairs at the Kings Head, Crouch End, London, having spent time laughing with Liz Carr - the only comedian in this journey that I know. My safest starting point.
I tell her about the trip my joke has already taken. I swear she smiled at it. I am thankful for that. It’s got some merit after all. Liz later explains sometimes you need to work a joke, change lines, change context but most importantly if you think you have something you must try it out and beware of pitfalls. What one audience might laugh at another might not. Its not the fault of the joke. Anything can take it down.
I ask her if a joke can be inspired:
"A joke can absolutely be inspired. I don't know where my best jokes come from. My Paralympian stuff came from watching them. I was in a hotel in Manchester, just watching them, and thinking; my god!!! They make us look so lazy.
From that comes; where else can I take it. Most of my humour comes from the weirdest moments. You sit there and go, that's funny. I get lots of moments like that, but they don't always translate on stage.
You might think it’s hilarious. Your friends think it’s hilarious, because they know you, but will it translate on stage. That's why you put jokes out, try them. There were a couple of things I played with tonight but the crowd got a little bit unsure about it, so you go, 'I like that as an idea but I'm not sure.'
I want to do more on the queen's jubilee. I didn't go in hard enough. It’s funny we have no money yet she’s having a shindig. A new yacht. How do you put that in a way that's funny rather than dogmatic.
Sometimes you know what you want to say but you don't yet know how to say it, funnily. Some people get a theme and write about it. I've been criticised in the past that a lot of my jokes are about disability. I've come back and said, 'that's who I am. I don't do character on stage. That's me, that is my world, those are my relationships.'
Most of my stuff comes from that. Who and what I am. The key to open the world that I am talking about, to other people, so they don't feel alienated and go yeah but I'm not disabled, I can't get your humour".
I tell Liz she didn't seem to put any one off entering into her world.
"No, but it can. I did well in the Hackney Empire New Acts Competition. I was runner up in 2007. It was great. You get all these club owners at the Empire. Don Ward from the comedy store was there. He loved me. Put me on at the comedy store. One night I didn't do so well. I did three or four nights there. I contacted him for feedback. He said, I'm going to be honest with you. You can't talk about disability for more than 5 minutes. You have a broader audience. It doesn't work.
Every night I'd done 10-15 minutes about disability and it was fine. On this particular night it didn't work and every comedian will have nights when audiences don't get you. Bookers; if they have a reason to blame something they'll blame disability. They will blame black material or gay stuff but actually I was just shit that night and if you're shit as a disabled person they'll go it’s because you're doing disability."
I asked what made a bad night. Is it the audience? Is it Liz?
"Its a mixture of both. Whatever job you do you have bad days. Bad days as a comedian are very public. The audience will tell you it’s a bad day by not going with you and bookers, because it’s such a competitive world, won't book you again. Or if the audience don't like you, don't want you. That's a problem. Sometimes you don't relate.
The last time I was here, was a Saturday and I knew people at the back would struggle to see me so I said if you want to see me you will have to stand up because I can't. You do that in the wrong tone and it sounds whiney, I can't stand up. I’ve got a chip. I did that. It wasn't my intention. My attitude wasn't right and I didn't connect. That makes a bad night."
I went back to the difficulties of putting over a world that audiences might not have experience of and how this seems to be very valuable.
"You look at mainstream comedians. Look at Peter Kay, Billy Connolly, Michael McIntyre. What people love about them is they can relate to them. Peter Kay does a classic thing where he is at a wedding. Its a working class family wedding and we've all been there, kids skidding across the dance floor; and it works because you relate to it.
There is something about opening up a new world, but audiences want to sit there and want you to tell them about them. They might want you to tell them about you. I agree comedy is a great way of opening up new worlds, new ideas and saying new things. I could have mentioned anything tonight, something political that happened today. You're never going to get that on TV. It’s too risky. You won't get it in the press, You might get it on twitter.
Comedy is immediate. You can say anything. That's what I love about it. But a lot of audiences want familiarity and if they're not familiar with disability that can alienate people, so you have to find a way to say this is my world, but I'm still like you. You have relationships, so do I - we connect through shared experiences. You have to throw that in to assess whether people are relating to you."
But they laughed at your welfare rights stuff.
"They did. What’s interesting is there is always that risk. As an audience member, unless you go to comedy a lot, they think stuff has been dreamt up that night. All comedians churn out the same stuff. Maybe pepper it with different stuff but do the same thing because it works. We know what most people are comfortable with but tomorrow night at a different gig I will say the same stuff and it might not work. I think that's really interesting."
Do you have to be topical for a joke to work.
"I did a lot of stuff tonight about benefits and social workers. In some audiences that might not go down so well. If you have an audience with a lot of social workers they'd either go yeah or I'm not sure about that."
I remind Liz she did a dodgy impersonation in her act and asked what she calls it.
"I used to call it spazzing up which is a no no now. There's a lot of stuff discussed on Facebook about 'I'm Spasticus' the TV programme coming back. There's a big debate on DPAC on whether programmes should use that word. So I do that image. I think it's okay because I'm making a wider point about everybody being targeted unless you are at deaths door, about us all being expected to have the same values and being expected to get out there and be as competitive as everybody else. I can usually justify it, but I'm sure some people would come back and say 'I'm offended by that'."
I talk about another image Liz used about people in a coma getting a job as draught excluders.
"I've told that joke for a while now but a couple of weeks ago there was a letter from the DWP telling someone in a coma to get a job. You start off with something completely absurd and real life takes over the absurdity. We are in a very weird time in the world."
I wanted to get back to the idea of what is safe and what can go wrong. Can someone with one impairment talk about people with another impairment.
"Your joke is about someone who is visually impaired. I think there is a feeling that if you have not got that impairment you have no right to joke about it. If we take the view that non-disabled comedians cannot tell jokes about disability then we take a narrower view that you can only make a joke about yourself. I don't agree with that. I've heard some amazing jokes about disability from mainstream comedians.
I think if they're funny and political I don't mind who says them. If you take the view that everybody's a spastic, that's not funny. It’s just lazy. Absolutely, jokes go wrong. You put them out there to see if they work because what's funny on the side of your bed might be hilarious to the world, but it might not be. The joke might be almost right. A few words might have to change. It might be as subtle as that. It's why comedians keep telling the same joke because it takes a while to get it right.
We talk about mainstream comedians who have got it completely wrong.
"I'm often asked to comment on that. They are as guilty as anybody else whether you're new or experienced. I tend to think they know what they are doing. What gets me really angry about this: I remember the recent Ricky Gervais joke about 'mong gate'. The press gave it so much power; it was all over Twitter and Facebook. It really bothers me that nobody gives a shit about the real issues affecting disabled people’s lives.
I'm not on twitter. It's a personal choice. I'm a bit scared. I'm really opinionated. Some of the things I say about suicide, or whatever, its amazing how people find you and send you nasty emails. If I was on twitter they would have even more access to me. I'm quite quick to say things and I worry I might say something which might be construed as you know…
I say things which I think are funny but I'm not sure if I'm going to disseminate them or distribute them to the world. I would say them to my mates, people who know me. I'd say it at home to Jo. I'd write it down but there have been a million times when I've stopped myself from saying things on Facebook because you have to take responsibility. You can't just say anything."
I wonder again about topicality and how long something can stay in the culture and how stuff like assisted dying is a really hot issue.
"The paralympics is great. Comes round every four years. Assisted dying will always be funny. Or not. I like a mix of both. If it’s fresh the audience will love it and think you're on the ball. There's old stuff in there all the time but if I throw in welfare reform, that's topical, that's happening in the world today, they think you're on top of your game. You lure them in that way.
You can have jokes that are not topical. But the references you use have to be. Your joke about 'the bump' is something people will not remember. So work the joke to find an image that works. If I use 'disability living allowance' rather than 'benefits' will people follow me. There's a risk. I've been telling the swingers joke for a long time. I use the word 'Motability'. Who knows 'Motability?' You know it now because its always in the papers as a scandal, but you risk alienating the audience if they don't know what it is. But the punch line is about carers and that's something the audience recognises. As long as you make the joke work, it's fine."
Where do you draw the line. How do you know when to stop?
"The test for me is when my partner, Jo, says you can't say that. I don't have another filter. I'm good at knowing what's appropriate and when. Sometimes you have to go over the line. I did a disability gig last month. There were a lot crips of varying politics, a lot of DAN crips. It was 10 o'clock, they'd been at a conference all day. I was stunned to find something the audience wanted. It was totally wrong. But they were up for it. Maybe because they were knackered; had some alcohol.
The gloves were off and we enjoyed it. What's difficult at our events whilst we share a lot of the same politics, a lot of the same cultural references, disability is a large constituency, A lot of people won't know our references or be comfortable with them. I have as many disabled people not happy with my act as those who like it. Doing disability events can be the worst because unless everyone is on your wavelength, you alienate your own people. You can use the word 'crip' and have people going 'I'm sorry you can't use that', whereas a non-disabled audience hears it, they trust you and think its ok."
What makes something discriminatory? Is it when something is harsh, hostile? Liz used to be in the Nasty Girls and used nastiness for humour
"I have. I'm part of the group 'Abnormally Funny People.' I'm rarely the opening act. I'm better now because I’m quite good at judging an audience. For a long time I was never first. It was like; the stuff Liz says.... you know. Steve Day is very gentle and we have Tanyalee Davies. We all talk about disability in different ways. I'm known to be edgy, darker, the one who goes a bit further.
Or am I? Being called edgy, is it because you tell the truth? Do you talk about things that affect people. People go she's disabled, she’s talking about sex or politics. I think its about how I look and stuff coming from the mouth of a disabled person. It’s labelled extreme, because it came from me."
I asked Liz, at the risk of alienating people. who she likes working with. She bigged up Steve Day and Tanyalee Davies.
“We know each other quite well and we banter. It makes audiences comfortable when they see that. At the Dundee gig Tanyalee was coming on without her scooter. She was really slow so I said 'for fuck sake, come on.' There's an element of people going that's cruel, but she starts calling me a bitch and has a go back at me. She is my great friend. I'm not taking the piss out of her walking, but if you don't have the balance right, people will pick up on it. My favourite is Steve Day. I really trust him and I know if I'm a bit rubbish he can save me."
I tell Liz I’m going to see Abnormally Funny People quite soon:
"I think you'll find there's something for everyone. If you go to The Comedy Store, you might not like everyone. Not everyone likes me. Not everyone likes Michael McIntyre. Its subjective. If you're a crip comedian and some people don't like you, some say they don't like disabled people, but its not like that. There are a few of us out there. Give us a chance. Which is why it will be interesting to find out what you think of Abnormally Funny People. In the middle you have Penny Pepper doing spoken word and Sophie Wooley doing a monologue, so it's not just satire. Its really interesting. Stand up can be boring if you watch too much of it.
Is humour a way of dealing with life?
"It's probably a kind of therapy. I often say I do comedy because I'm insecure and an exhibitionist. The insecurity comes when you are performing in your dreams to an audience of 500 people and there's one person who doesn't laugh. You focus on that person. You want to win them over. Life’s like that. You forget about the other 499... "that was great but why doesn't she like me." Not everyone will.
But there's nothing better than creating an idea, and sharing it with people who agree with you. I hope when the idea comes from me that it helps people understand what I'm talking about - 'my world'. I don't know what it's like to be visually impaired, but I know what its like to be shaped by the benefits system. I'm not immune from being disablist. But its a rich world that I need to open out. A lot of things are happening in the world are hysterical and the only way to deal with it is to laugh. Making jokes about what is happening is a way of opening up the world to how things are."
You called it hysterical. How do you mean that.
"Both ways. A hysteria, a panic, Funny hysterical. A laugh in the face of madness. Jesus Christ!!!"