Aaron Simmonds has a firm handshake, which takes “plenty of people” by surprise. The jolt that travels up my arm has been powered, he explains, by a past life as a personal trainer. “I used to do weight-lifting competitively,” he says in a matter-of-fact manner. “In the gym we said that if you had a soft handshake, you weren’t really in the gym.”
Simmonds, who was born with cerebral palsy, won’t let his disability define him. “One of the things my parents instilled in me from a young age was not to see my disability as something that would stop me from doing things. My attitude is to not use it as an excuse.”
That’s not to say that Simmonds thinks that dealing with a disability is easy – he can empathise with “the same daily challenges faced by many people in wheelchairs” regarding access and public perception – but he is determined to view it as a “positive aspect” of his life, rather than something that has held him back. “At the end of the day, if I wasn’t disabled, I wouldn’t be me.”
Simmonds, who also previously played wheelchair basketball for Britain’s under-23 team, studied the first year of a BSc in strength and conditioning at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, before dropping out. “It sounds interesting, but it really wasn’t,” he says with a sigh. “Personal training basically turned a hobby into a profession, but after a while, I wanted to do something different. And that was either going to be comedy or a bungee jump.”
So, what made the decision in comedy’s favour? “Logistics, mate.”
“I’d always been interested in comedy,” he continues. “I’d watch Live at the Apollo as a teenager and think ‘Hey, I’m funny, but not that funny’ without realising that a lot of the comics I was watching were doing their best sets after years and years of practice. I had this idea that you just had to be that good to begin with so I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t develop the confidence to try comedy myself until I got into my mid-20s. Now, I’d like to think I’m better than when I started, but I’m still thinking about ways to improve and evolve my act.”
Simmonds is keen that his disability doesn’t define his lifestyle or people’s opinions of him. But what role does it play in his work? The north London native stews on his answer. “When I decided to become a comedian, I didn’t come up with some great disabled manifesto. I didn’t go in with any agenda. I just set out to make jokes that I thought were funny, that hopefully other people thought were funny too.
“I think it’s natural that a lot of my material will draw on my disability, though, because that’s what I’ve got experience of. To what extent I use my disability as a crutch – sorry – in a show will really depend on the show… Sometimes I like to address my disability head on, if only to break the ice, because if I don’t then some people seem to think I’ve not realised that I’m in a wheelchair… as if that’s going to happen.”
While Simmonds doesn’t like to be viewed as “some sort of flag-bearer”, if his being a comic gives other disabled people the confidence to pursue a career in the performing arts, he says, then that’s a “welcome side effect”. “I can appreciate that it is important for people to have a precedent. If my being on stage encourages others to do the same, then great. But at the same time, I don’t want it to be the case that if I mess up, then that’s going to be taken as a mark against disabled comedians in general. I want to be judged on my performance for what it is; I guess the ideal scenario is that my disability is incidental to my career.”
Simmonds’s comedic style is story-based, with a few one-liners interspersed. This summer, his debut Edinburgh Fringe show, Disabled Coconut, detailed a complicated relationship alongside the absurdity of “competitive disability”. Some people have got the idea, he explains, that because of his upper body strength and background in sport, he is “not disabled enough”.
While disability did feature prominently in his first appearance at the Fringe, as 2017’s Jewish Comedian of the Year, he feels that he still covered enough “of the other stuff, like love, sex and politics” that he can avoid the criticism of being a single-issue act. At next year’s Fringe, he tells me, he is actually mulling over doing a set that does not refer to his disability at all.
“I’ve had an idea to do a show called ‘Don’t mention the chair’ or something to that effect… whether I go through with it, well, I’ve got some time to work that out. If I can come up with an hour’s worth of comedy that is genuinely funny and doesn’t refer back to the wheelchair, I think that would be a good achievement. That’s not me denying the fact I’m in a wheelchair, but it’d be nice if that wasn’t what people focused on.”
His hope for his disability to become incidental is not a suggestion that they are insignificant, of course, and Simmonds is still very passionate about improving access to venues. “The content of the comedy is an issue in itself, but let’s think about actually getting into a theatre or a pub or wherever in the first place. I’m not saying that if you make a venue wheelchair-accessible then you’re going to increase your ticket receipts overnight, but I am saying that if you don’t, then you’re actually missing out on potential customers off the bat. Even if I make my show less about disability, I still want disabled punters to still be able to get into the venue.”
Ultimately, Simmonds says, his ambition as a stand-up is simply to “do my best” and see where that takes him. He has “never viewed comedy as a coping mechanism”, he stresses, because “that would suggest that I feel sorry for myself” when, in reality, being disabled has, in many ways, been empowering.
“I can accept my limits,” Simmonds reflects, “but that doesn’t mean that I won’t push against them as much as I can. If I can’t do one thing, maybe I can do something else.”
Aaron Simmonds will be appearing at the Nottingham Comedy Festival on 1st November. You can follow him on Twitter @rollingcomedian.