With Open All Hours returning for a Christmas special this year, Chris Douce asks if it’s offensive to make jokes about stammering.
As a teenager I hated watching Open All Hours, the sitcom starring Ronnie Barker as a stammering shopkeeper. Whenever it came on I retreated to my bedroom, not wanting to hear a word of it. My parents would chuckle at Arkwright’s antics, especially his futile attempts to woo the lovely Gladys. I was puzzled as to why they found it all so funny. In my hormone-filled state, I remember thinking, ‘is this what’s in store for me when I get older?’
For the last year, I’ve been doing stand-up comedy on the London open mic circuit. It was very interesting to read Mabel Slattery’s article (Speaking Out, Spring 2013) – I thought I was unique! But I’m glad I’m not. The more of us there are out there, trying to push boundaries, the better.
A big part of my comedy routine is about my stammer and how it has affected me. Ever since I started doing stand-up something has bugged me: the possibility that others who stammer might find my routines offensive in the same way that I found Arkwright offensive. I might be being overly sensitive, but I think it’s worth exploring. In comedy circles, the debate about what is offensive and what isn’t is a hackneyed topic, but I’m going to try to put my own spin on this eternal debate.
I make jokes about the challenges of ordering cigarettes and asking girls out. I also make jokes about how stupid I felt when a speech therapist suggested I try a new approach. The jokes are either about me, or on me. They’re not about stammering per se, but instead are about the ridiculous and very human situations that accompany stammering.
I have a confession: had I heard my own jokes five years ago, a big part of me would have believed them to be inappropriate. I would have been angry! I would have found them painful to hear. The difference between then and now is acceptance. Situations that were once tough and embarrassing have been transformed into ones I now consider stupid and ridiculous. So much so, that I’m now happy to share these stories with others. I’ve gone from trying to separate myself from my disability, to acknowledging the trouble it has given me.
None of the laughs I get are cheap; they come from hard-lived and won experience.
One of the biggest paradoxes of having a stammer is that if you disclose it, as I do in my set, it can sometimes positively affect fluency; the risk of dysfluency disappears. The moment I started giving it attention, my stammer transformed from what used to be a misbehaving child into something a lot more manageable. With an increase in fluency comes another fear - that I might be viewed as disrespecting stammerers to get cheap laughs. None of the laughs I get are cheap; they come from hard-lived and won experience. Along my journey I’ve had some interesting responses. One was, “What you do with your voice is very interesting.” (Should I have been flattered? I took it as a compliment). The most bamboozling response was from a promoter, who said, “You did well! My only feedback would be to smooth it out a bit…in terms of your speaking and delivery.” I was a bit taken aback until I realised he hadn’t been paying the blindest bit of attention to my set.
Can non-stammerers join in?
I once saw a comic tell a joke about his girlfriend who he said stammered. It was an interesting experience; I found it immediately offensive. I later realised why I was so offended. The joke was just stupid; it was about him laughing at the challenges that others face. The best jokes, in my opinion, are those that are obviously simple (with a quickfire set-up and punchline), and those where views and perspectives are shared. In my set I’m the butt of the joke, nobody else. After I saw this comic, I went over to him. “Nice set,” I said, “I didn’t like the joke about your girlfriend though.” He asked me to repeat myself (there was loud music and I was having a bad speech day). When I started again he realised what I was getting at. There is, of course, a risk that I might be accused of being ‘the comedy police’, but I make no apologies for being offended. Should a minority group be laughed at by others who don’t belong to that group? Instinctively I want to say no, but there are others who will likely cite the importance of free speech, and this is a perspective I totally respect.
These days I would be happy to go and see a comedian who stammers. I’ve gotten over my ‘I’m going to be offended’ barrier, in the sense that I can now listen to stories of people who stammer. I even sat down to watch an episode of Open All Hours recently. Interestingly, I loved it! I was surprised to see that Arkwright just got on with whatever nonsense he had to get on with; he pragmatically dealt with his stammer. But what about his challenge of wooing the lovely Gladys? Well, I neither live in the north of England, nor in the 1970's, so I’m pretty sure my future is going to be very different.
From Speaking out - Winter 2013 p.12