“Comedy should be about challenging ridiculous stereotypes. Especially when it comes to disability!” | Mark Burkwood on the creation of Laugh-Able

Tell us about your new show. What made you want to launch Laugh-Able?

I was inspired to start this night after seeing a few other nights start up that represents different types of minority groups, such as The LOL Word, which is a space for queer comics to perform, and of course Quantum Leopard, a night which has an incredible ethos of giving voices to those that are underrepresented and often the target of other “comedy” nights. I felt there was not a night that specifically gave disabled comedians a platform to perform.

Often open mic nights in London are not disabled friendly in terms of the venue space or just won’t put that many disabled comics on the bill. I’ve often been the “token” disabled comic, having a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome (a form of Autism). I have met so many talented disabled comics on the open mic scene and a few excellent pro comics with disabilities but I haven’t seen a bill with more than one or two of us on it. I wanted to put that right.

There are so many talented comics with various disabilities that deserve a regular opportunity to showcase their talents. These are just some of the reasons why I wanted to start this night!

Take us through the key values at the core of the show.

The key values at the core of the show are no punching down (no ableism, transphobia, homophobia, classism, sexism, racism) and to explore disability through comedy. If comedians want to interact with the audience they can do but with consent.

I’ve seen successful nights that have a green sticker system for audience that want to interact with the comedians and it works out wonderfully. The comics themselves can discuss whatever they want in line with the values and not necessarily about their disability if they don’t want to.

Often people judge disabled comedians on their appearances or on the diagnosis that was given to them. The main value overriding this night is no-one should be defined by a diagnosis and they should be given the space and be judged on talent alone!

Also I’d encourage any comic to challenge any misconceptions about disability. Often one of the best ways to do that is through humour. That’s what comedy should be about in my eyes, challenging ridiculous stereotypes. Especially when it comes to disability!

Your debut show is coming up in October. How are you feeling ahead of your first show?

Incredibly nervous but also very excited! I’ve been performing comedy for about 14 months and have mainly performed in the open mic circuit. I’ve never promoted my own night and have MC’D just twice at some very small charity events. A lot of the people in the community (local and comedy) have displayed a big interest in performing or coming to watch the night. I just hope it lives up to expectations!

You’ve got the wonderful Aaron Simmonds headlining. Why did you feel he was a good fit for your debut?

Aaron is an incredibly talented performer and has won numerous awards. I first saw him headline at the Quantum Leopard night I mentioned previously and he absolutely blew me away with his set! When I decided I wanted to put this night I spoke to the Quantum Leopard promoter James Ross who put me in touch with Aaron.

When I explained the idea of the night to Aaron he was incredibly keen to get involved. I thought who better to kick off the opening night then someone of Aaron’s immense talent, reputation and enthusiasm! I was lucky enough to witness his Edinburgh Hour this year “Disabled Coconut” which confirmed exactly why he would make the perfect headliner to the opening night

What do you hope people take away from Laugh-Able?

That there should be no barriers when it comes to disability and comedy and we can celebrate the talents of those who often get marginalised in a society that still discriminates.

What challenges have you faced working in comedy?

Being Autistic I often find last minute change difficult to handle, so for instance if a promoter has to change the line up at the last minute that will throw me a bit. However that is something I have got used to.

I also struggle to ad lib and improvise if my set isn’t going well. I used to just freeze when it happens but now I just ignore the silence and just persevere with my set.

Also comedy can often not just be about talent but about networking which can go a long way in progressing as an act. The socialising after gigs is something I make myself do but something I find incredibly challenging. I often worry about cancelling on gigs in case it upsets the MC or promoter, even if I really can’t perform that evening.

But I often find the best type of MC and promoter is one that is supportive of the acts and will offer progression for those with talents and its not based on how much you can suck up to them! I’ve seen MC’s put comics on mainly because of how friendly they are with each other and not really based on what they are like as a performer!

I also feel financially it’s incredibly difficult to be gigging regularly. The problem is, in order to progress you need to gig a lot

How do you hope to combat these through Laugh-Able?

As I mentioned before I really struggle with the dynamics of an open mic evening because of changes or the social norms when it comes to conversing with other acts and MCs and promoters.

But by setting up this night it will help me see what its like from a promoter or an MC’s point of view and what goes into running a night. I’ll hopefully enhance my skills as a comic because of the constant improv and ad libbing an MC will have to do on the night.

I’d like to eventually be able to offer all the acts I book a financial incentive for coming to my night because I know financial difficulties can be a big barrier.

How do you think that comedy as an industry can better address these issues?

I think more promoters need to be a bit more clear about what is expected at their nights. A lot are, but some are incredibly vague with expectations and rules.

I also feel that there should be more flexibility at some open mics. Like if at a bringer night your bringer fails to show and it’s not your fault you should in my view still be able to perform. Or if you cannot perform that evening because of an unforeseen event as long as you go out of way to find a replacement or give the MC as much notice as you can you should not be judged on that.

I think the industry also needs to be a bit less cliquey. It feels like progression a lot of the time is based on who you make connections with and not purely based on your talent, which it should be. Making connections requires very good social skills, which autistic people like myself find incredibly challenging.

I also feel more nights needs to offer financial incentives for acts who gig there regularly, not like a big income but maybe funding part of their travel or money for a drink, a good will gesture and token that shows you are appreciated. Some nights have gone a long way in addressing all these issues but there needs to be a more consistent approach across the board

What are your hopes for Laugh-Able in the future?

I’d love this to be a regular night with a regular crowd that offers progression and a platform to a variety of talented acts from a wide range of disabilities. I’d want the audience and acts alike to feel safe, comfortable and have a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I would love this to be a night that breaks down the barriers that come up for acts with disabilities.

The first ever Laugh-Able Comedy Night is on Friday 4th October at Redbridge Central Library.

Find out more about the show here.

Book your free ticket here.

You can keep up with other things Mark has going on by following him on Facebook and Twitter.