"Disabled people are never allowed to be human": Comedian with Cerebral Palsy Tim Renkow on getting to be a piece on sh*t on TV
“I’m sick of being the victim. I want to victimise.”
Tim Renkow is a stand-up comedian. He is also an American ex-pat in England, and the star and co-writer of the new BBC sitcom Jerk.
Oh, and he is also someone who suffers from cerebral palsy. But he doesn't want that to be the thing that defines him.
“My goal is to get people to just ignore disability,” says Renkow on location while filming in South London on a freezing November morning.
In traditional ‘stand-up-gets-a-sitcom’ style, Tim Renkow stars as a fictionalised version of himself in the new BBC Three comedy Jerk. The fictional Tim is a lazy, cynical slacker who knows that disability means he can get away with things others can't. He dodges work, annoys his friends, and Skypes his mum back home (played by The Sopranos' Lorraine Bracco). Renkow describes the character as “a lazy piece of shit,” and cites both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Spaced as major influences on the show.
Of course, what set Jerk apart from the thousands of other cringe comedies about awkward dudes, is that the lead character is disabled. It is the show’s USP, but at the same time, Renkow doesn’t want it to be the only thing the show is about.
“Often with disabled people [on TV], that’s what defines them,” says Renkow. “That’s why the character is such a lazy piece of shit - because every other sitcom character is. I feel like disabled people are never allowed to be human. So he is just a human, with a lot of flaws.”
Renkow was born in America, and at six months old he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that damages the parts of the brain that controls muscles. The condition severely affects his speech and movement.
At the age of 22, Renkow moved to London to study creative writing, and just stayed here ever since. “You just kind of get into a place, you get friends and you don’t want to leave. Also, for someone who can’t drive, the US is a nightmare place to live, and I’m too lazy to learn another language.”
It was also the point when he started doing stand-up. In his act now, he’s not afraid challenge people’s perception of disabled people, and use his disability to make people feel uncomfortable. (Sample line: “If I make you uncomfortable, don’t think of me as disabled, just think of me as a metaphor for Brexit”).
But it took him time to get there. “When I started stand up, I was super nice and cute. I did nice stuff about disability. Then I decided I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to go, shall we say, darker. I did that in New York, gigging every day for a year. And I died every day.
“But you need to do that. When you go darker, you can offend people. It’s about knowing how to say what you are trying to.”
He says there isn’t actually that much difference in the comedy climate between the two nations. “London is a lot like gigging in New York. The cities are more similar to each other, and in the country is more similar to the country. The cultural ups and downs of the US and the UK are pretty similar to each other.”
After making a one-off show for BBC Three in 2015, he ended up writing Jerk because “that’s kind of what you do” when you are an acclaimed comedian who’s reached a certain level.
And some of that darkness makes it into Jerk, but Renkow says it is always in service of challenging people’s perceptions. “There’s gonna be some moments that are definitely on the borderline of decency. That where I like to be. That’s what important to be talking about, when you get that edge. The goal is not to go over.”
As the interview ends, I ask Tim Renkow which disabled characters have really stood out to him. And he gives an unexpected answer.
“The depictions I love are actually Timmy and Jimmy in South Park,” he replies, referring to physically-impaired kids who on the surface at least, appear to be cheap stereotypes.
“I love them so much. Growing up when your name is Timmy, and South Park was on, was not a fun high school experience! But those characters were amazing to me. They have a depth you don’t usually get [with disabled characters].”
“Usually I watch a lot of crime dramas, and disable characters are just the victims. I’m sick of being the victim. I want to victimise.”
Jerk is available on BBC iPlayer as a 4-episode box set now, and starts on BBC One March 4th, 11pm.