Comedy and Autism: What it's like to be a stand-up on the spectrum
I’m Mark Grimshaw, and I’m an autistic comedian.
I’ll address the elephant in the room now, I’m aware nobody reading this has heard of me (I’m fairly sure my mum isn’t reading since she still isn’t entirely certain how to turn the Mac on). I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at the age of 17, after visiting a doctor due to a college tutor suggesting that she thought I might be autistic. She was right.
I’ve been asked by JOE to write an article about my experiences as an autistic comedian, so to begin I’ll give you a bit of background on my comedy career to this point.
I started performing in November 2015, and since then I’ve performed in comedy clubs, theatres, pubs, pizzerias and children’s play areas all over the UK. I came second in the Beat The Frog World Series (a yearly competition at Manchester’s Frog and Bucket Comedy Club) and the Harrogate Theatre Comedian of The Year in 2016, and was a finalist in the 2017 Hot Water Comedian of The Year, alongside a long list of other comedy competitions I didn’t win.
I’ve done split shows with other comics at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Leicester Comedy Festival and the Brighton Fringe Festival, and am currently working on my debut solo show to be performed later in 2018.
So, that’s my comedy experience, now onto the impact my autism has had on it. I’ve decided to present my experiences as FAQs. Some of the questions I address in this article are questions I have genuinely received from audience members after gigs. The rest are from fellow comics, comedy promoters, and audience members who commented questions on a Facebook post about this article after I’d ran out of genuine questions from audience members after gigs.
Are you really autistic?
Yes. I’d like to think if I was going to perform as a character act, I’d make a specific personality trait of the character something that I have more than 6 jokes about.
Was being autistic a factor in you going into stand up?
Being autistic wasn't a direct factor in me starting stand up, stand up was just something I'd always wanted to try (including before I was diagnosed, as I had quite a late diagnosis) but took a while to build up the courage to do.
I always planned on talking about my autism when I started, though, as I've not seen many autistic performers on the circuit that talk about it, so felt it was a topic that audiences very rarely hear about, and that, as a group of people, autistic people are quite underrepresented in the the arts and media.
With that being said, I also knew that I wouldn’t talk about my autism on stage if I didn’t write any jokes good enough to justify it being spoken about. I’m not here to educate people, I’m here to make people laugh.
How does your autism affect you when performing to an audience, in comparison to how it affects you in a social situation?
I find performance much easier than social situations, the main reason being that I’m more prepared for a performance. I’ve spent enough time writing, rewriting, performing and then rewriting the material again to know what I’m doing, and to feel comfortable with it.
With a social situation, I can’t exactly ask a mate if we can work on a script so I don’t feel too awkward making conversation at a house party. The other reason I feel more comfortable performing is because if you do come across as a bit “odd”, or “weird”, or “different” (as I spent my school years, prediagnosis, being called), nobody in the audience cares as long as you’re being funny. Off-stage, people are generally a lot less welcoming of people that are “different”.
How does your autism affect your preparation for a gig?
I don’t really know if it does, as I spend the time before a gig reading through what material I’m doing, working out what will go down best with any given crowd based on what’s happened so far during the night.
In all honesty, I find green rooms more stressful than the actual gigs, for many of the same reasons I explained above. I always worry about how I come across in green rooms, as I’m not great with social situations, and am really bad at filtering thoughts before saying them.
Green rooms are slightly worse though, because, it doesn’t matter how funny you are on stage, if word spreads around that you come across as an unpleasant person in the green room, that can be enough to stop people booking you, so I find myself constantly overthinking green room interactions.
How do you cope with the constant irregularity of working in comedy?
I struggle. Comedy is one of the few things I’ve found in life that I genuinely enjoy being a part of, and something that I actually feel capable of doing to a good standard (this is probably the most pretentious way anyone has ever explained that they think they’re funny).
Longer periods without gigs can be really detrimental to my mental health, as I spend the time worrying about the state of my career. When the gigs start again, though, it feels great. Likewise, if a gig goes badly (if the audience aren’t really on board with my act, or if I’m just not performing to the standard I know I should be), it feels awful, but there’s no better feeling than having a great gig and knowing you’ve given an audience a great night of entertainment.
The lows feel low, but the highs feel incredible. I wouldn’t be able to do something like comedy if I didn’t enjoy it, but, as it is, I genuinely don’t want to do anything else with my life.
Do you feel it's important to tell bookers and the audience you have autism?
No, I don’t think it’s important or necessary information. If I didn’t have any jokes about it, nobody would ever know (not for definite, anyway, some may just have the intuition of that college tutor who first suggested I might have it). It’s not at all relevant for bookers. All the gigs that I get are for the quality of my comedy, not because of my autism.
I’m not a massive fan of quotas. Diversity is very important, and it’s important that more varied voices are being heard in comedy, but quotas worry me as it makes it seem like an act is being booked because they “needed” one of a certain group rather than for their talent.
Has anyone ever claimed you to be ‘exploiting’ your autism, or be using it as a gimmick, in order to get the audience on side?
Yes, this is a genuine question I’ve been asked, and yes, I’ve had this accusation once, and have seen it said regularly about disabled performers (such as recent Britain’s Got Talent winner Lost Voice Guy). It really doesn’t make sense to me. Most comedians talk about their own life experiences, yet are never accused of exploiting their situations, yet for some reason this is an accusation regularly aimed at disabled comics. Writing a joke about your condition isn’t exploiting it.
With regards to the “getting the audience on side” claim, I admit that I do open with a joke about my autism because it gets the audience on side. Autism isn’t the reason it gets the audience on side though. It gets them on side because they learn something about me, and, most importantly, because it’s funny.
Thinking that just mentioning the condition would get the audience on side is insulting to both the performer and the audience. It’s insulting to the performer as it takes away from the effort they’ve put in to make jokes about their disability both relatable to the audience and funny.
It’s insulting to the audience as it suggests they’re easily pleased enough to like a performer just because they’re disabled. They’re audiences at a comedy show, not at a TED Talk. If the performer isn’t being funny, the audience won’t accept it, whether the performer is disabled or not.
If you’ve got any more questions about my autism specifically affects me and my comedy, please do feel free to tweet me, and I’ll try to give as good an answer as possible. Please do remember, though, that autism affects everyone who has it differently. Please don’t tweet me asking for specific advice on dealing with your autistic second cousin.
If you want to learn more about autism, you can visit the National Autistic Society for more resources.