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  1. Culture
30 January 2009

Who has special needs?

It was one of those gigs where I decided to leave behind the safety net and just launch into stuff a

By Richard Herring

I had a gig in Barking last week. I couldn’t work out if I’d been there before or if it just reminded me of the 1970s. Is the whole place a Heritage site where it’s illegal to update the shopping centre? And, if so, do they insist that all the people who live there are forbidden to update their hairstyles too? I felt like I was in “Life on Mars”.

When I got to the theatre the guy showing me to the dressing room said the gig was going well, though explained that there was a large group of people with “special needs” in the audience.

I don’t think I like that term and am not sure in current times whether it is politically acceptable or not. But it seems to me patronising and inappropriate. We all have special needs. I certainly do, as you’d find out if you ever went out with me.

Despite my work with SCOPE I am still largely unsure of the correct terminology to use in order not to offend anyone (which is probably impossible anyway) and to be honest I was unable to really see many people in the audience so I can’t be exactly sure of what the exact special needs of the party were, but although it gave the gig a different dynamic, it actually made it … well, a bit special.

Because these two tables of people were really enjoying themselves, whooping at the rude words, laughing and shouting out. As I did my joke about meeting a girl in a bar and me being interested in her and her not being interested in me, a young man who I could see had Down’s Syndrome shouted out “Shame!” and laughed with his friends. I agreed that it was a shame and said I appreciated that he cared so much, explaining it was nice to get empathy, especially given the fact that it was just a joke and the situation had never occurred. It was kind of fun, but also interesting for me, because had a drunken man been interrupting quite so persistently I would have had to go a different way.

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The reactions though were making me laugh and a few minutes in I stepped back and said, “This is quite an unusual gig isn’t it?” The audience laughed along. “I mean, I like it,” I said, “It’s fun and I’m really glad you’re all joining in, but I can’t deal with this in the way that I usually would. It would be a different dynamic. I’d just look bad. But I’m actually quite enjoying this new approach to heckling, just being polite and thanking the hecklers.” So I found a way round the problem and said to the most excited heckler, “You are the opposite of a twat.” It got a good laugh from everyone, the young man included.

It was good to have addressed it and good also that everyone understood where I was coming from and it really made me happy to be making this particular group laugh. One suspects that for them, a night out like this takes on more importance than it would for the other people in the crowd, with their ordinary needs.

Later a woman at the back was talking in a loud voice to a friend – loud enough to be disruptive, but not loud enough to hear what she was saying. I pointed this out and then said, “See the problem is I can’t see you because you’re too far back and so I don’t know if I’m allowed to call you a twat or not.”

I could see a man at her table, who was in a little patch of half light. “Can I call her a twat?” I asked him. He laughed and nodded vociferously. And so I did. There was no taboo about laying into her. She was just rude and/or drunk and too inconsiderate to understand that her chatting was spoiling the show for the people around her.

Who really had the special needs here?

It was one of those gigs where I decided to leave behind the safety net and just launch into stuff and see where it went. I love the excitement of leaving the script behind and sometimes digging myself in deeper to see if I can get out of it. It becomes a bit more like theatre than comedy.

But with these more theatrical tangents it is hard to judge if the audience are having as much fun as you are. So I asked if people were enjoying this oddness. One man gave a cheer, which turned a bit half-hearted when he realised he was alone. Luckily everyone else was laughing – they were enjoying it too.

But I discussed something that I often think about, but rarely talk about on stage – the question of whether it is better to make everyone laugh a bit all the way through or to have one person for whom a gig is the funniest they’ve ever seen, or if they see something in the performance that everyone else misses. “I don’t want to be like Peter Kay, with everyone in the audience having laughed all the way through and had a good time – that’s not what comedy is about” I joked, “I want one person to have enjoyed it more than anything they’ve ever seen and I don’t care if the rest of you hate it!” Because as I was freewheeling there was something properly special going on here. Whether it was good or bad, it was unique. The stuff I was saying would never be heard again, it was a live experience, and maybe that one person would recognise that and remember what they’d seen forever. And wouldn’t that be better than making everyone laugh, but then the next day none of them could really remember anything I said?


I was just talking rubbish and seeing what would come out, but there was something interesting in it all. I let the mask slip and explained that I was different to the persona on stage. I explained to a young woman that I had been flirting with that I actually had a girlfriend and so the offers and suggestions I had made to her were bogus – “I mean, not entirely obviously, I’d still like to do all those things. But I can’t because I’m already spoken for. Unless we kept it really secret. No! I’m merely satirising old men who chase after young women. They’re disgusting.”

I gave a sardonic laugh before I explained that I was unsure where the persona ended and the real me began and how that made it even more theatrical and unpredictable and visceral. I was on a roll. Some of the stuff was great, some of it not so good, but it was certainly interesting.

But I was playing with the tragedy and the comedy and it was at least interesting and often funny. A bit of a lull came as I struggled to work out whether I should do a joke or carry on and one person started to applaud. Coming at this exact moment it could only sound sarcastic and I laughed and said, “One person applauding a silence, that can only be a sign that it’s time for me to get off.”

But the person who had clapped was a woman from the party of disabled people. “No!” she protested, “I’m really enjoying it. That’s why I clapped.”

“Oh thanks very much,” I replied.

“You’re really funny,” she added, beaming from ear to ear.

“Now this is the kind of heckling I can cope with,” I told her, complimenting her on her excellent taste.

“Would you say I’m the greatest comedian you have ever seen?” I inquired.

“Yes!” she shouted back.

Her enthusiasm and joy was infectious. “There you go ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “She’s the one person. She’s the one person in the audience for whom this gig means everything. I don’t care what the rest of you think.”

I was joking around, but it was genuinely heart-warming to have touched someone in this way, even though I knew it wasn’t really me that had made this night great for this women, it was just the fact she was here.

She understood the magic, that the woman chatting at the back had completely missed. The magic of being here, in the moment, of being a part of something that you might not always be a part of.

None of us are that special. We all like to laugh. It’s great if it happens.

But any pride I might have felt at being a part of this woman’s night was pricked a little, when another woman near the front commented, “You don’t half talk a load of shit.”

Yes, that’s my job.

Travelling back on the tube I was struck by the numbers of drunk people around me – the man next to me was falling asleep on my shoulder, the man opposite me’s eyes were rolling around. When I got to Shepherd’s Bush a man rushing up the escalator beside me stumbled as he tried to pass me. He looked like a zombie as he staggered drunkenly around. In fact he was so affected by booze that I wondered if he actually had cerebral palsy. It was a possibility, but I am pretty sure it was all down to the booze. It’s possible he had cerebral palsy and was also drunk. But as he got through the barriers he started to run, lolloping like a giraffe. Some of the underground staff looked at him concerned and followed him at a distance to check that he was all right.

I honestly can’t be sure that he wasn’t disabled, but I am 90 per cent certain he wasn’t (he didn’t have the coordination of someone who had lived with this condition) and if so then to get that drunk that you become disabled…. it’s kind of an odd world we’re living in. Where if we don’t have special needs we have ridiculous needs. Maybe I’m struggling to connect two unconnected events and maybe I was just a little high on that post gig intoxicated clarity. The world is an odd and beautiful and ugly and ridiculous place and it’s sometimes surprising where the ugliness and the beauty displays itself.
Isn’t the world special?

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