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> > > Liz Carr -The Benefits Downstairs

Richard Downes enjoys a frosty February night, keeping faith in friends. He caught Liz Carr do a sit-down comedy routine 'Downstairs at the Kings Head' in Crouch End, London N8

photo of comedian and actress liz carr

Photo of Liz Carr in performance mode

Downstairs At the Kings Head is, or more accurately was, my home for alternative comedy. On a cold February night I have to take the car - wife in tow, just in case I break down or need de-icing but much more; so, we can share some time together.

Liz Carr, Comedian, is a friend on the political barricades of the Disabled People's Movement. We have sat together on picket lines, chained, in doorways, to buses, to each other - sharing chat and humour. We have been funny together and have talked without fear, without concern for putting barriers around our humour. Sometimes a situation is more dangerous than what you say and we both let our guards down in a trusting way.

Trust is a big issue for Liz Carr; Comedian and friend, who is Downstairs at the Kings Head tonight rapping to a non disabled audience. She is noted to be extreme - at the cutting edge, full of lacerating humour. It is not for nothing that she used to be a 'Nasty Girl' though nastiness is but one tool of her topical tirades and trade. I am here for a master class. I have a joke and I don't know what to do with it. I'm hoping Liz and other comedians will be able to help me in the fullness of time. We will discuss this later. But first. The show.

Wheeling onto the flat floor stage, the compere misses the mike handover, leaving the equipment too far overhead. I wonder if this is a set up. Is Liz going to take us down another access alley. Is the compere a willing stooge.

No. Liz goes straight into a rap on benefits, checking out the audience for DWP spies and worse (if there can be worse), Social Workers. How extreme is welfare reform, how much of our truth in making claims is about discussing the very worst of our times. Liz feigns complete incapacity for the audience. It is the first horror of the night. What if a comedian can't talk? What do you do with silence? The audience laughs at the impression that Liz has given. She has her own word for this, but this critic working for Disability Arts Online cannot currently conspire with the routine by calling it what she calls it. I need more faith from the loyal readership first. Liz gets away with it. But did she engage with a stereotype or bust a taboo in that comic moment. Whatever, it worked. The laughs came and something of the richness of our world is revealed.

How far can she go? She is dissing the DWP and the government for its promotion of employment for everyone. She is beating up those heroic paralympians. She switches and decides she too can be a benefits spy; support the other side and dub in those wheelchair racers. Natalie from Tottenham is in the audience. She is aghast. You can hear her gasp. She utters a you can't say that, it's too much. It's cruel. Somehow, Liz overturns the horror, somewhere in the gap between tragic but brave, for someone so unrelenting Liz is kind and gentle too.

In offering her hand of friendship Liz reminds the crowd of what we share in common; the news, expectations for the future, birthdays, family. Our only real difference is between audience and performer. Liz Carr  turns out to be a giver. She sits in her chair and we sit on ours - in between there is common ground, a level playing field. Liz knows her way around it. She navigates the gaps with skill, investigating detours and down turns, coming back to give and give again.

Liz Carr the comedian makes me forget that she is my friend and that we have been chained together. Liz Carr, the comedian makes me laugh. You should go see her on the stage. But, if you really want to see her spill blood on the page - get down to the barricades û and hear her take on insider humour too.

Later we retired to the bar for an interview on the joke i am researching. Once m ore Liz was convivial, open and willing to share. She has given me email addresses for another couple of comedians who i hope to catch up with soon. Any other comedians wanting to share in this research for or just for a mention in dispatches can contact me at r.downes[at]

Downstairs at the Kings Head, 2 Crouch End Hill, London, N8 8AA says on its website: "We are perhaps best known as one of the oldest Comedy Clubs in Britain specialising in presenting great entertainment in a friendly and intimate environment. Founded in 1981 by Peter Grahame and Huw Thomas, we now present shows throughout the week that champion the Best of the New, be it Comedy, Music of all persuasions, Spoken Word, Magic and Dance. A favourite of Audiences and Performers, the venue prides itself on creating the right ambience for each event and providing unbeatable value for money."

With a capacity of 120 persons, the club boasts an excellent live PA system, fully stocked bar, new air conditioning (!) and comfortable seating!" It does not say that it is really down a flight of stairs and there is no alternative access!