For many of us, the idea of telling jokes on stage is an utterly terrifying prospect. Not so for Mabel Slattery, who here gives an insight into what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian with a stammer.
A microphone on a stage is the most exciting and yet most terrifying sight known to man...or at least to comedian. It’s often hard to tell whether that shiver down your spine is anticipation at getting up and making people laugh, or the fear that it could all go horribly, horribly wrong. When other comedians ask me how a girl with a stammer can even dare to get up on stage and tell jokes, I just remind them that I get the same feeling they get going on stage when I get on a bus. Having a stammer teaches you nothing if not that fear is relative.
I’ve been stammering since I was six, and attempting to hide it never did any good whatsoever. I’ve wanted to be a comedian for about as long, with much the same result – no matter how much I, or anyone else, tried to convince me that it was a silly idea, still the dream persisted, only to be beaten back down by anxiety and fear. When I got to university however, I started writing and performing for a sketch group, where my stammer wasn’t a problem and was just treated as some kind of badly-behaved pet. A few members from that group persuaded me to go with them to a new comedy night that had started locally to try out our respective sets…which we hadn’t yet written (cue a week or two of frantic writing!)
Despite all the reassurances I received from everyone, all the “It’ll be alright, you’re really funny”s in the world couldn’t have prepared me for how terrifying it was that first night when I got on stage; but I knew I just had to trust my material and get out there, because otherwise I never would. And a year later that’s still the way it works. It’s still terrifying and I always have what I think must be every stammerer’s fear: going out there and not being able to say anything. But the pleasure I get from making people laugh is, to my mind, unbeatable.
Of course there are the occasional problems. I have blocked on stage more than once, and it can be horribly embarrassing; but I’d rather I ‘died’ (as comedians morbidly put it) because of something I had no control over than because I was just a bad comedian. And sometimes, yes, the secret is in the delivery, and a joke has had to be cut – for example, no amount of practising with my speech therapist would get the word ‘concomitant’ sounding nonchalant enough for one joke, which was a shame because it was an awesome joke, despite the fact that it had the word ‘concomitant’ in it. However, these problems are rendered insignificant by the support I get from the other comedians on my circuit who, despite the terrible jokes they make (“Oh come on Mabes,” one said, “making jokes about you is like shooting fish in a b-b-b-barrel”), give me a lot of respect for getting up there and being funny. Another perk is that I get more time on stage than everyone else! I just tell my audiences to consider it “10% extra free…even if the majority of it is the repetition of a single syllable.”
Having said that, I generally don’t talk about my stammer much when I’m on stage. I mention it at the start to dispel any lurking awkwardness and then get on with it. Not that I don’t ever talk about it – it’s part of my life and that’s what my comedy tends to be about – but I have lots of other things that I want to talk about (like my sister being gullible, or drunken medieval monks, or why the Cornish language has a slightly sinister side - I am a Cornish language speaker in case you were wondering), and I never want to become one of those comedians who only talks about their disability, because that’s not the kind of act I enjoy watching. I have met other stammering comedians and they all have different views on it. I’m definitely not saying my way is the only way it should be done, but it’s what works for me and I’ve realised that with stand-up you should never compare yourself to other comedians too much, because finding your own voice is the most important thing (not that I’ve found my voice yet for definite, that takes ages!) But knowing how I feel about my stammer while I’m up there certainly helps.
From the Spring 2013 edition of Speaking Out, p11