‘Let’s get that lady! The wheelchair user over there!
She looks funny!’
Royal Festival Hall, October 2014. The lady zips past in her wheelchair unaware that she is being scoped as Abnormally Funny People’s latest recruit. Sitting with co-founders Simon Minty and Steve Best in the vast foyer of London’s RFH, the pair banter affectionately about a friendship that started way back in high school in Epsom.
Steve: ‘I wouldn’t say it was rough but the first day I went to secondary school there was a fight between a kid and a teacher!’
Simon: ‘In 1980 my parents had to push quite hard to get me into a mainstream school because in those days they would push you into a special school. They realised that my difficulties were not cognitive but physical. The school tweaked a few things. I had big thick padded chairs. I had a taxi to and from school but I didn’t like any of those things because it meant I was away from everyone else and I wanted to be part of what everyone else was doing. They even put up a second handrail around the school for me! I think it must have had my name engraved underneath it! The handrails were great.’
Once school was over, Simon and Steve took to the open road and travelled to Spain in a VW camper van and, soon after, Steve took his first steps towards becoming a stand-up whilst Simon became more involved in corporate management and consultancy, eventually setting up his own business as a disability consultant. Cue a chat with a contact at Sky.
Simon: ‘Sky television those days didn’t make any TV themselves. They used to buy it all in and most of it was American. There was a contact there who said we’ve been doing a lot of employment stuff around disability but how do we go about getting it on screen and I’d always loved comedy. Nobody had done disability and comedy, and I thought well in order to do that we’d need Steve as he’s a stand up comedian. The idea was that we’d do the Edinburgh Show in 2005.‘
What resulted was Abnormally Funny People, a documentary which followed the trials and tribulations of a group of disabled stand-up comedians preparing, producing and eventually performing a ground-breaking show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005.
Steve: ‘The original members were Tanyalee Davis, Steve Day, Chris McCausland and Liz Carr. Myself and Simon produced and did stand-up too!’
Simon: ‘I did stand-up for about two years only as part of AFP. I used to get into such a stressed state doing it. I love being around it, and telling people how to do it. But it was hard to just purely do it. It did change my training and my public speaking, and people book me all the time as although I’m a serious public speaker I drop in a few gags. We did 26-27 nights at Edinburgh and for 23 of them I would be anxious and get worked up.’
With that Edinburgh Show in 2005, Abnormally Funny People was born, and Simon and Steve registered the name officially in 2006. In the eight years that have past the group has expanded to 14 regular acts, with at least another 10 that have done open spots. With a residency at the Soho Theatre, which saw the show run monthly on and off for almost 5 years, it is understandable that budding acts would have wanted to be involved.
Simon: ‘Sometimes people would come over and say I want to be part of your show…I’ve got epilepsy! They would just blurt out whatever they had and say does that count? I had people declaring their disabilities, thinking it would be an advantage to do so.’
One of the group’s highlights was a 2012 Paralympics Show.
Simon: ‘It was an absolute joy of a show. Standing room only three-deep at the back. Everything worked. We had an international line up. I thought I can stop now! It would almost be the perfect place to stop. My real sadness is that we have only done London and Edinburgh. We have been told we would storm Australia.’
In the time that AFP has been going, have they seen a change in attitudes towards people with disabilities? Have they seen a cultural shift?
Simon: ‘Yes, though we weren’t necessarily the first in that sense. Francesca Martinez was already out there. She was an actress first, and I was with her in Edinburgh. I took her to see Steve performing and she loved it and then started doing stand-up herself. So we are claiming her! Steve‘s been quite influential for a lot of stand-ups.’
Steve: ‘Can you leave that quote in please!’
Simon: ‘The Last Leg does a lot of disability and topical stuff, and Life’s Too Short. There are more disabled characters in shows. Compared to 10-15 years ago it has moved on hugely but in terms of disability-comedy, there is still a way to go. There is still a lower expectation: It could be worthy. It could be a bit shit, as well as are they good enough?’
Steve: ‘I think live audiences have stayed pretty much the same.’
Simon: ‘It is better and there is a maturity. It is still not perfect. I’d still say that out of 10, we are at a 3 or 4. The joy is, if you are an aspiring comedian and you have a disability then the world is looking a lot better that it did 15 years ago. I think promoters and clubs will accept disabled comedians now and will give anyone a try. If we are getting more of them then that’s great.’
Whilst AFP do not currently have residency this does not mean that the collective is any less busy. With a steady line in university shows and corporate events, add to that thoughts of returning to Edinburgh in 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary of that first visit. Indeed, the future is looking exciting. Not only that but at the time of our meeting, work was being done on a 5th episode of their new podcast!
Steve: ‘It is really good fun. It is something that both of us had done a bit of before, in terms of radio. I’ve enjoyed the idea of it. We were looking for sponsorship and, Simon - with his contacts – managed to get Barclays on board!’
Simon: ‘Because they are known for sponsoring disability comedy – a natural fit!’
Steve: ‘We had meetings in their boardroom at Canary Wharf. I’d never been in a board room before. Was it a board room? Everyone’s in suits and I’m sat there all scruffy. What is fantastic is that they are very hands-off. There is no editorial control. Even the positioning of their logo – they are not controlling the process at all.’
Simon: ‘In the latest show Jess Thom is our guest. She has Tourettes and has tics and occasional swear words. We sent it to them and said this is Jess and there are swear words and we are not going to edit them out because she is who she is. We just put a little warning at the beginning of the show and they didn’t come back and say we had to beep them out. They give us feedback but don’t tell us we have to change.’
And thousands are tuning in to the podcast already.
Simon: ‘For a standing start it is great, plus the word disability is in there, though we’re not looking purely at the numbers, we are just focussing on making the show better. I don’t want us to be in a ghetto. The real world is mixed up full of different people. Steve’s role can be really strong as he can address what non-disabled people are thinking.’
Steve: ‘As the podcast goes on I’m getting better at that and it has been a learning curve but that’s the joy of it.
Simon: ‘There are 10-11 million people in the UK who have a disability or long term health condition. I still think the word disability puts people off because of the stigma attached to it. I’d love to know how many disabled people listen to us and how many don’t but I would like as many people to listen to us as possible. To hear people talk about what you think inner-most but have not articulated yet is very strong and very positive.’
Take a look at the roll-call of acts that form Abnormally Funny People and you are met with an array of award-winning talent, many of whom are also instantly recognisable from TV and film appearances, long-running broadcasting duties, as well as their stand-up and performance credentials.
A return to Edinburgh a decade on with all that collective experience gained and the awards and accolades tucked under their individual belts would be a mouth-watering proposition, and the group’s pick-and-mix model means that you could essentially see the show a number of times throughout a festival run yet never see the same show twice.
Simon: ‘That’s a good line for the pitch Col. I’ll write that down!’
For further details about the group, to find out about shows and read quotes, and to listen to the brilliant podcast visit: www.abnormallyfunnypeople.com
Photography used with permission of Simon Minty and Steve Best