I woke up this morning with the gloomy feeling you get from having undertaken some sort of needlessly self-destructive activity – a potent mix of unhappiness and guilt. This was compounded by knowing that I’d been warned about the risks, but that I’d done it anyway. I wasn’t horribly hung-over or crashing after a glorious sugar high, it was just that I was feeling incredibly miserable after a night of comedy.
We’re in Wales at Machynlleth Comedy Festival, and last night, after performing Backstage in Biscuit Land to a large, enthusiastic crowd in the (impossible to pronounce correctly) Y Plas, we were all keen to see some of the other comedians on the bill. So after a brief pause for some food we went to the late night ‘gala’, also taking place in Y Plas.
At the door, Leftwing Idiot reminded me that there might be some unpredictable reactions to my tics and that I risked becoming the running gag of the show, but I dismissed his worries and we headed in. I did speak to the front of house manager and asked him to let all the acts know I’d be in the audience and that they should expect some unusual noises. But I didn’t speak to them all directly – something I’ve previously promised myself I’ll always do.
With painful predictability my tics attracted attention from one performer after another in a way that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. By not talking to them all directly I hadn’t given them the opportunity to get it right. So here, better late than never, are the six things I should have said:
1. I’m always happy for you to explain that there’s someone with Tourettes in the audience so if they hear any unusual noises they’ll understand. This means everyone can concentrate on your cutting-edge material rather than craning round to see if there’s an industrial-strength heckler in their midst.
2. There’s a lot more to Tourettes than ‘hilarious’ bad language, so please don’t make jokes that reinforce the myth that it’s the ‘swearing disease’. As disappointing as it might be to learn, 90% of people with the condition don’t have any rude tics at all.
Imagine sitting in an audience while someone (a straight, white bloke in his thirties) struts about pedalling inaccurate stereotypes about you because you’re not ‘normal’ (like him). I thought we’d left this type of humour back in the Bernard Manning era of paedophile celebrities, paedophile politicians, and power cuts.
3. Tics are often funny and suggestible, and it’s quite likely they’ll be triggered by the content of your set. Just respond naturally – it’s fine to laugh and enjoy them (I do), but don’t forget they’re involuntary. Unlike hecklers I can’t choose what I say, nor can I choose when to stop, or when to sit anonymously in the audience hoping not to get picked on. I’m there because I want to see your material, not be it.
4. Tourettes is genuinely fascinating and you may well have lots of questions. But please don’t ask them during the show or expect me to give a potted history of my medical history. You probably wouldn’t ask someone why they’re blind, so please don’t ask why I make noise or use a wheelchair. It’s not rocket science.
5. Please don’t change your set because there’s someone ticcing in the audience, and don’t take it as your big opportunity to ‘Crip up’ and do your ‘hilarious’ Tourettes impression – you won’t get an Oscar for it. Not unless you’re Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis or Eddie Redmayne. OK, you might get an Oscar, but that won’t mean what you’re doing isn’t a rubbish. If it’s lived experience you’re after, why not start with your own?
6. Finally, it’s worth knowing that tics are often specific to an individual. That means if you quote mine on social media, or in an article, I’m as identifiable as if you’d given my full name and a vial of my DNA.
I’m sharing these thoughts because I love comedy and I want as many people as possible to enjoy it too. I also know from my own experience as a performer that having a diverse audience often leads to the best shows, and the deepest laughs – and that’s to everyone’s benefit.
It really shouldn’t be that unusual to find people with involuntary vocal tics in an audience. There are an estimated 300,000 people with Tourettes in the UK, and millions more with other conditions that result in uncontrollable noises or movements. If you’re a comedian and haven’t encountered this diversity in your audience before, the big question in my mind is ‘why not?’
I’m sure most people going to a comedy night are a bit nervous about being picked on for some reason. I’m not after a free pass, and I’m happy to share the same risk as everyone else, but last night, three out of the first five acts I stayed for singled me out. In an audience of two that wouldn’t be surprising but – while I’m no mathematician – with well over 300 people in the room this seems well over the odds.
Calling someone out for a protected characteristic (race, age, gender, sexual orientation, faith or disability) that they can’t do anything about is unfair, and is highly unlikely to make great comedy.
Just a couple of hours before, on the same stage, I’d shared my message of inclusivity and openness. Then, because I’d failed to speak up in the way I should have, I was back to being the ‘Tourettes girl’ again – unable to object to being mocked in a way that showed neither knowledge nor insight, for being the person I am.
I might not have given the performers or myself a fair chance last night evening. But annoyingly, I did prove Leftwing Idiot right – never a satisfactory way to end an evening.
I’ve learnt a valuable lesson (again) and I hope this post will be useful for comedians to get it right about Tourettes. Unlike a hangover, the discomfort I’m feeling can’t be helped by painkillers or a massive fry-up, but it can be cured by greater thoughtfulness and funnier comedy.
Boom, you’re welcome.