A disabled journalist has gone from novice stand-up to performing at London’s renowned Comedy Store in just two weeks, in a bid to find out whether preconceptions about disabled people affect how funny an audience finds their material.
Paul Carter had never performed stand-up before he began the fortnight of frantic preparation for appearing in front of 400 people at the Comedy Store.
The resulting television documentary, Half Man Standing, produced by his company Little Man Media, will be aired on Sunday (1 June) on the new London Live channel.
The moment he came off stage at the Comedy Store, says Carter, he was “buzzing” from the adrenaline and wanted to jump back onto the stage and do it all again. Even in “the cold light of day”, he says he would certainly consider doing it again.
Oddly, he says, the most terrifying part of the experience was appearing in his own lounge in front of eight or so close friends, who had gathered to test out his material a few days before his gig at the Comedy Store.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life,” he says. “It was hellish. I hated every single second. I wanted to be sick just beforehand and I wanted to be sick afterwards.
“It was terrifying. I wasn’t confident in my material at that point and you want your friends to like you, you want them to be proud of what you’re doing.
“I just thought, ‘I am going to die on my arse in front of people who are closest to me. This is hideous.’ I was much more nervous about the one in my lounge than I was in the Comedy Store.”
Part of the reason he wanted to try to become a stand-up was to do something that would be a challenge for anyone, whether they were disabled or not.
“We wanted to do something that was completely unrelated to disability,” he says. “We wanted to avoid all that ‘triumph over tragedy’ guff.
“We also wanted to dig below the surface a bit and explore whether being disabled is a challenge to a comedian.”
As if the challenge wasn’t tough enough, he also banned himself from delivering any gags about disability.
“Are disabled people able to be funny if they don’t do jokes about being disabled?” he asks.
“And when I or any other visibly disabled comedian walks onto a stage, are the audience expecting them to do that kind of material and will their preconceptions affect whether they find that person funny without doing the obvious gags?”
He adds: “I think we achieved it. I got laughs. I wasn’t booed off or heckled. The feedback from punters seemed very positive… My impression is that they found it funny for what it was, and not who I was.”
One member of the audience said afterwards that anyone who stood up on stage in front of 400 people – having never performed stand-up before – was “very gutsy”.
“That’s kind of the point I wanted to make,” says Carter.
But another admitted that seeing Carter – who has short arms and legs – walk on stage had left him thinking, “What’s going on here? He’s a bit short…! But he was still funny, though.”
“It’s my favourite line of the film,” says Carter, “because it indicated the kind of thing we were trying to avoid. It was like, ‘People without legs can’t be funny.'”
He says that educating members of the public about disability is largely about visibility. During and immediately after the Paralympics, when disabled people seemed to be everywhere you looked, disability became more “normalised”.
“It does seem to me in the 18 months or two years since then that we have regressed slightly because we see less disabled people in the media.
“The more people like me who are making programmes like this – and doing stuff that is not necessarily related to disability, but isn’t ashamed of it either – the better.”
He says he hasn’t ruled out a return to the comedy stage, if asked, but is not actively looking for bookings.
But if he does perform again, he will probably introduce a few disability-related gags.
“I wouldn’t want to make disability the focus of my material, but not doing it at all was hugely limiting. To not be able to talk about yourself and the things you know most about and are relevant to every minute of your life is really, really difficult.
“It was quite frustrating. I think I could be a lot funnier if I was given free rein in future, but I wouldn’t want to be a comic who just used disability as the main crux of their gag. I wouldn’t want to be a one-trick pony.”
As for whether the experiment was a success, he is not certain. “I can’t categorically say, ‘Yes, we proved what we set out to do,’ but it was an experiment that worked to a degree.
“If anything, it posed more questions than it answered because I now see that from not wanting to do anything about disability, I know that doing that is incredibly limiting.
“I like to think we certainly changed the perceptions of some of the people in the room that night at least.”
He also ensured that many of those in the audience – even if not all of them – were laughing with him, and not at him.
After the documentary is aired on Sunday, there will be a live studio discussion, featuring Carter, presenter and artist Sophie Morgan, Graeae associate director Amit Sharma, and Scope’s Daniel Mazliah. They will be discussing disability and the arts, and wider disability issues. Half Man Standing is on London Live (Freeview channel 8, Sky 117, Virgin 159 and YouView 8) on Sunday 1 June at 7pm, followed by the studio discussion at 8pm.
28 May 2014