Comedy, Health and Disability

Brunel University and Terra Consultancy

Two of television’s most innovative programmes The Last Leg and Trollied were highlighted in a thought- provoking lecture considering comedy and disability. The lecture entitled ‘Beyond the Bell Jar’ was part of a series on the topic of disability planned and organised by the Centre for Comedy Research at Brunel University with British Sign Language (BSL) and media support being provided by Terra Consultancy.

The speaker, Dr. Margaret Montgomerie, a lecturer and researcher at Leicester’s De Montfort University, is currently researching and writing a book examining the somewhat sensitive, and perhaps controversial, relationship between comedy and various forms of disability; importantly, the lecture was attended by a number of people with various disabilities: Deaf, blind and impaired mobility.

Taking these two programmes as her launch point, Margaret examined how disability has traditionally been portrayed on television – usually by non-disabled actors and presenters, and she contrasted this with portrayals of disability in The Last Leg and Trollied, both of which include disabled performers. Interestingly, Margaret questioned whether we should actually use the term ‘able-bodied’ as it belies the huge range of varying disabilities that people might be experiencing . Linking in with this, she discussed the concepts of ‘visible’ disability and ‘invisible’ disability in which she opined it was the individual’s decision whether or not to ‘reveal’ their disability. As a case in point, she highlighted the situation of stand-up comedian Adam Hills, who is also a presenter on the chat-show format programme The Last Leg . Adam has chosen to reveal, quite physically, that he has a prosthetic leg. Yet, in episodes of Trollied, it is visibly clear that the comedian/actor Jack Carrol has difficulty walking, because of cerebral palsy, and yet, as Margaret demonstrated through a particular film clip when we see Jack in this clip seated behind a check-out counter, his disability is not so clear or obvious to the audience. Margaret showed how disabled people reserve the right to ‘make fun of themselves’ if they want to and she showed us a film to demonstrate this. Tanyalee Davis who deliberately provoked audience reaction by making edgy jokes about her own dwarfism.

The lecture/talk finished with a question/comment session. Interestingly, the many/several Deaf members of the audience offered some valuable feedback, of which video will be coming soon on Terra’s media channels.
“Dr Margaret Montgomery gave an informative lecture about comedy, politics and disability. I found it very interesting and appealing whilst Dr. Montgomery talked about films, TV and how the media dealt with or included disabled people. I was fascinated to find out about characters, films and TV shows involving or representing disabled and deaf people. I did not know about these films and TV shows before. The lecture was very educational and I learn some new jargon and terminology that I had not heard before! 
The lecture made me think about deaf people and films/TV/theatre. I think deaf people are somewhat underrepresented in the media and do not feature much in film/TV/theatre either as characters, actors or performers. It would be a positive step to increase the number and visibility of deaf people in the media as this would influence hearing people’s attitudes and ideas about deaf people in a constructive way.

I and the other deaf people were really surprised and happy to see all the different ways disabled people were being included and represented in the media. We were even told about a TV channel that is centered around disabled people/issues which I and the other deaf people did not know about before.”

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