AB Silvera talks all things funny, with input from other Scotland-based comedians. Weaving personal experiences with examples from both mainstream and alternative arts, Silvera tackles important issues facing LGBTQIA+ performers who are disabled, neurodivergent, and/or have mental ill-health.
It’s Argentina in the mid ’90s, and our market is fully opened to U.S. pop culture. As the neoliberal Menem government sells off national utilities to the bidders most willing to line politicians’ pockets, Seinfeld hits our screens. I’m in love.
Not with Seinfeld himself, you understand. Especially now, Christ, have you seen his stand-up? I tried re-watching a special I loved as a teen, and within the first five minutes he made two racist jokes. I was enamored, rather, with the idea of stand-up comedy.
I started off reasonably disastrously, mostly replicating routines of famous comedians for my family. Moving to Dublin in early adulthood, I was too terrified to even try an open mic. Then coming out happened, followed by a breakdown from the resulting discrimination. With nothing to lose, I offered to emcee a cabaret for my local anarchist feminist collective. It was at Dublin’s old social centre, the wholesome lair of us well-meaning miscreants intent on saving the world. How hard could it be?
Six hours, 17 acts, and just one person to keep the crowd warm: me. I had to make sure my commentary showed I paid attention to every act while not offending them with my jokes. Yes, this was a ludicrous fucking idea, and possibly an early sign of my then-undiscovered ADHD. Lacking an actual baptism on account of my liberal parents, it was a substitute of the fiery variety.
Since moving to Glasgow, I’ve played more venues than I can remember, had my name on posters, and even poked my head in at the Edinburgh Fringe. I learned a lot. That you can gig for years in gay venues and the mainstream comedy scene will still not have heard of you. That almost no gigs in Scotland are held in accessible venues. That comedians can be both wonderful and twisted, and come from all walks of life. Perhaps most importantly, I learned there are comedians who, like myself, have mental ill-health and/or are neurodivergent. And some, such as Aparna Nancherla, even discuss this openly.
I always tell friends that I love how comedy can swing an audience to your point of view by tricking them with jokes. Sadly, that’s only partially true. Otherwise, a concerted effort by anarchist and feminist laugh-peddlers would’ve netted us a money-free, sexual harassment-free utopia by simply doing a blitz of their local joking joints. What does remain true, however, is how laughter can reaffirm shared values.
In their imperfect (and riddled with ableist jokes) book, Only Joking, Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves examine how humour operates. I was intrigued by their theory that laughter is often social, rather than individual. Carr and Greeves let us in on the secret origin of TV canned laughter: early comedies that did well with test audiences fell flat with general viewers. Live audiences laughed together, thereby giving each other permission, something a viewer at home wouldn’t experience.
What audiences laugh about, however, is another matter. Carr and Greeves observe the rise of offensive material in both mainstream and alternative UK comedy. They describe how certain venues resemble Fight Club, spaces ‘where the deeply unfashionable and unpleasant opinions of embattled but defiant men are aired under a paper-thin veneer of humour’.
Many mainstream comedians decry getting political, believing that ‘preachiness’ kills humour. Personally, I feel some are cowards trying to safeguard their paycheque by only being controversial in permitted ways. They’re fine making fun of poverty and disability. But they seldom critique the existence of billionaires in a world where some people lose their livelihoods over a car accident. As Carr and Greeves put it: ‘…most stand-up comics, and most “offensive” jokes, are not taboo-busting at all: they are inherently conservative.’
Comedians often joke that we’re all depressed. I’ve observed that for a lot of us, mental health issues and neurodivergence are indeed common. After all, when your brain is outside societal norms, marginalisation can provide a good vantage point to observe that we’re all deeply fucked. I write a lot of my humour to vent the deep sorrow I feel about the current political climate, and the suffering visited upon my friends. And to take myself a little less seriously.
Knowing I wasn’t alone, I decided to conduct rigorous peer-reviewed research. Unfortunately, my dog ate it, ran straight into Queen’s Park, went feral, and was last seen roaming the forested hill where teenagers smoke spliffs with a pack of squirrels that look tougher than Deliveroo drivers on a Saturday night.
So, I instead asked my fellow comedians what it’s like for them in Scotland. Two interviewees, who I will call X and Y, chose to remain anonymous, while two others (Emily Benita and Eliott Simpson) were happy to be ‘nonymous’.
Many acts speak onstage about their mental health issues, primarily anxiety and depression. X, a queer woman, explains how comedians create an illusion of openness onstage, where they control the narrative. But off the clock, it’s another matter. She frequently finds other acts uninterested in discussing the topic because of legitimate fears of stigma.
Eliott Simpson, an asexual and autistic comic, goes further. They posit that the desire to discuss mental health openly is appealing to a comedian: it’s an easy source to mine for material, and it feels relieving to speak out. But cracks start to show when comedians bring greater sincerity into their act, and find themselves having to repeatedly perform this openness night after night.
Indeed, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette made a splash precisely by detailing the ways in which comedy has been destructive to her well-being. In the end, it can be harmful not having respite from continuously re-enacting one’s trauma for crowds of strangers to laugh at. But the act of shaping these stories into traditional stand-up sets can, in fact, stop us from facing them head-on. Writer and theatre-maker Nicole Henriksen felt unable to express herself honestly in comedy as a queer autistic non-binary person of colour. She moved on to theatre, where a newfound openness allowed her to not only ‘figure out’ her autism, but also speak at length on it.
Watching Henriksen reminds me of Gadsby’s now-famous quote: ‘Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore.’ As Y, a queer woman with mental ill-health, puts it: ‘At which point are we self-enabling?’
Y is also fed up with the way mental health is discussed in the mainstream: ‘Comedians have been talking about mental health for a long time, and mainstream culture still just says “we should talk”. We’ve been at “we should talk” for eight years. It’s not enough.’ My interviewees agreed that there are no resources in the comedy world, and acts don’t discuss support for fear of not getting booked. Emily, who organises regular Glasgow comedy night The Salon, says she’s unaware of anything in the industry, such as unions, which could provide needed services.
All of this translates into a less accessible artistic environment. Y points out that comedy ‘is a scene where socialising is largely based on who can be funny in certain ways, which can be difficult for some neurodivergent people’. While there are many neurodivergent comedians, there’s little understanding of neurodiverse experiences and needs. This can result in exclusion of those framed as ‘odd’, especially if they’re considered unequal for additional reasons. While Y speaks about mental health in her act, X is not open about her anxiety: ‘In my experience it’s difficult enough trying to be considered equal to your peers as a slightly weird queer woman, so to add mental health stuff on top of that just scares me too much’. Both X and Y asked to remain anonymous because of these fears.
All four Scotland-based comedians agree that unexamined prejudice from mainstream society seeps in. Disabled acts often don’t get booked as a result, when they can get in the room that is. Lack of access at even the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe resulted in the creation, in 2005, of Abnormally Funny People, whose accessible and disabled-focused events have included ‘sit-down stand-up’ by queer performer Liz Carr.
Emily describes the lack of physical access in Glasgow as equally ‘shocking’. Finding affordable, reliable and accessible venues seems almost impossible. Eliott adds, ‘There’s definitely a wilful and sometimes shameful ignorance by a lot of comics as to how inaccessible comedy is to disabled acts, with very little proactive effort to change this.’ They continue, ‘Around 95% of comedy nights are in venues that are not wheelchair-accessible. Most comics I see don’t even consider this when setting up a new night or event, and don’t attempt to make changes to accommodate disabled acts. Nor do they even mention the non-accessibility of the venue in event descriptions.’
Yet Eliott knows there are suitable existing venues, it’s just those spaces aren’t yet comedy venues. When they co-founded their monthly night, Diversity Quota, with Craig Thomson-Gold, the duo decided that the only way to ensure diversity was to use level-access spaces. Diversity Quota’s current home isn’t exactly known in the scene: the Gilchrist Postgraduate Club in University of Glasgow. But it’s accessible and charming, easy to get to, and not far from The Stand, one of the most important joints in the Glasgow scene.
Being openly ableist in your act is slowly becoming a bad look, say both Emily and X. Eliott explains, ‘These incidents have been limited to the lowest open mic level (…) and thankfully aren’t usually seen at recurring or higher-level gigs, due to most hosts having the decency to not allow or reward discriminatory material.’ All is not well, however. Eliott continues, ‘Neurodivergent and disabled people are still minorities, and as such are often othered in comedy, used as an example to make a joke involving someone who is made to be “obviously” different to what society perceives as the norm’.
My charming cadre of comics is well aware of the excesses in the mainstream comedy industry (transphobia being a popular one, although distressing jokes at the expense of heroin addicts are never far behind). It’s pretty grim out there, and the Scottish comedy scene is also in urgent need of addressing its sheer inaccessibility. But there’s room for hope, starting with comedy’s subversive potential. It can help us speak truth to power, and assist us in understanding precisely how to be less disappointingly shitty to our fellow humans.
But comedy, on its own, doesn’t change the world. We can speak about disability and mental health for entire Fringe runs, and still be faced with no community support, and no improvements in access. To intentionally misquote a German economist of note, ‘The comedians have only joked about the lack of support for ill and disabled people, in various ways. The point, however, is to change this.’
AB Silvera bio audio:
Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.