Funny peculiar

A new wave of disabled comedians is winning over mainstream audiences

When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, disability humour came in the form of "spastic", "flid" and "mong" jokes from the toughies, and whatever tired old stuff the old guard of comedians deemed an easy laugh. Then came the alternative comedy of the 1980s - which was a welcome alternative to Jim Davidson et al at the time. But it was po-faced and politically correct, and in effect declared disabled jokes a no-go zone.

In neither scenario were disabled people involved in creating the comedy themselves. Yet even while The Comic Strip and The Young Ones were changing the comedy landscape during the 1980s, that is exactly what we began to do. At the beginning, the disabled comedy scene was very much tied to the rights movement, with political and often separatist leanings. I loved it, but soon realised it was uninteresting for mainstream comedy audiences and, eventually, for everyone. "Aren't normal people shit!" and "Haven't we got it the worst!" don't sustain an audience's interest. But now, having established disability as a social construct, many disabled (and some of the brighter non-disabled) performers have tapped in to a rich comic seam. These days, when someone like Ricky Gervais uses disability as a subject matter, he produces well-informed social commentary, unlike Jim Davidson saying the word "cripple" to get a laugh.

Slowly, disabled comedians are entering the mainstream comedy consciousness, getting club bookings, selling out Edinburgh shows and winning comedy competitions. The last show from the excellent Laurence Clark, who has cerebral palsy, was based around his reluctant appearance on Jim'll Fix It as a child. It's a great idea, as the whole audience can relate to it - they will all have known the programme - but he approaches the story from a point of view that spectators may never have come across. Steve Day is Britain's only deaf stand-up comedian (catchphrase: "If there are any others, I haven't heard them"). Another stand-up with cerebral palsy, Francesca Martinez, invites a member of the audience to come up on stage for a haircut during her act. As she approaches them, wielding the scissors, hands wobbling frantically, there is a sudden blast of the song "Stuck in the Middle With You". Audiences instantly recognise the reference to the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs - and Martinez goes on to lacerate the hair of her volunteer. With crossover appeal like this, it can only be a matter of time before the first disabled comedian appears on television.

Sadly, disability has not fared well on the small screen thus far. There have been a couple of attempts at sitcoms: the hideous All About Me, starring Jasper Carrott and Meera Syal, a sentimental and idealised drama about a mixed-race family with a cerebral palsy child, and I'm With Stupid, about a friendship between a homeless man and a wheelchair user, which was slightly better. But don't get me started on the terrible "reality-TV" series Beyond Boundaries (BBC2), in which a group of disabled people try to trek across the wilderness. I'd be more interested in seeing them trying to cross London. Or if someone actually died on the trip. That would be funny.

No doubt non-disabled producers are scared of complaints or causing offence, but why isn't anyone prepared to put on the sort of material that Liz Carr and I are using in podcasts for Ouch!, the BBC's disability website? Take our phone-in game Vegetable, Vegetable, Vegetable, in which we try to guess the caller's impairment by asking yes/no questions ("Can you walk? Can you feed yourself?" and so on). The game is apparently offensive enough to warrant frowning discussions on Radio 4 arts programmes, but I bet it would make you laugh. We're now writing a sitcom, but no doubt it will be "too provocative" to get made.

You can, however, see us in Mat Fraser's Sex Variety Cabaret at the Leicester Comedy Festival in February. I guess I should warn you that it's not for those who are easily offended. There will be strippers (of both sexes). It won't be me stripping - that would take for ever - but one has MS and other is a mentalist. I think comedy which shocks can be good. Not only that; with a disability, you desperately need a bit of shock to counterbalance all the walking on eggshells that most people do around us. For me, though, it's funniest when there is some kind of social comment involved. Spastic jokes have their place, but the best comedy has a bit more to it. And anything is better than separatist hectoring.

Comedy should highlight people's prejudices, rather than just reinforce them, and should lampoon embarrassed social behaviour, rather than encourage it. People should be able to laugh with us and at what we experience, including my inability to hold a cup with one hand (no thumbs). There's comedy gold in them there hills. Actually, Adam Hills is one of my favourites. He's one of us - wooden leg.

The Leicester Comedy Festival runs from 9 February at various venues (log on to http://www.comedy-festival.co.uk).

For more coverage of disability issues, see: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/crips-column