Why comedy is a serious business

A group of people are sitting around a table in a studio theatre. In front of them are bottles of water and pieces of paper. One man is reading to the rest.

Clare Summerskill leads a Comedy Writing workshop at Stratford Circus on 24 November 2013.

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: I’m writing this during our free Comedy Writing workshop with Clare Summerskill at Stratford Circus on Sunday afternoon (24 November). A sense of humour is probably more important to disabled people than to any other group. We rely on our ability to laugh at the barriers we face and the treatment we receive, in order to survive them and rise above them.

The eight participants in the group all have different comedy likes and loathes. What they agree on, though, is that comedy can also be a weapon that is used by us, or against us.

When we are able to use comedy as a weapon, we can use it to highlight the issues that are important to us and to raise awareness of our lived experiences of daily life. We can also use comedy to enable other disabled people to realize that their experiences are shared with others, and are not due to anything that is personally lacking in them.

When comedy is used as a weapon against us, though, it can be very dangerous indeed. So-called jokes about disabled people feed into stereotypes of disability, and fuel discrimination and prejudice.

The recent rise in disability hate crime is not simply due to news reports and government pronouncements about disabled people being scroungers and benefit cheats. For some reason, disabled people seem to be the only group for whom it is still acceptable to make ‘jokes’ based on age-old stereotypes, and this has led to a growth in broadcast ‘humour’ that is targeted at us.

Disabled comedians like Clare Summerskill – and Don Biswas, who will be compering our International Day of Disabled People event on 3 December at the Ascension Church Centre – therefore have an importance beyond the obvious one of making us laugh. I’m delighted that, with the support of Arts Council England, we have been able to use the festival as an opportunity to develop a whole new set of disabled comedy writers. I hope we will all have the chance to hear their work for ourselves in the coming months, both at future Together! events and others.