Three stand-up comedians with sight loss had their own shows at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe
We've asked them what got them into comedy, is their sight loss part of their act, and what particular barriers they've encountered on the comedy circuit…
Jamie MacDonald's credits include his own Radio 4 series 'Life On The Blink' that's just been recommissioned, and an autobiographical BBC Sounds play 'Blind-sided'. He has just been nominated as Best Presenter in a Documentary in this year’s Grierson Trust Awards for his BBC 2 documentary 'Blind Ambition'. Jamie moved into comedy after losing his job in corporate finance ("for which I am truly and eternally sorry") after the credit crunch. Originally from Glasgow, he began to lose his own vision to a degenerative condition, retinal pigmentosa, in his teens.
Richard Wheatley from Wandsworth in London asked some comedians after attending how they got into it. "They told me about a course they did which I ended up doing, which led to the Edinburgh Fringe about nine months after, my first ever gig," he says. Blind since the age of five, he has a small amount of vision which he can use for mobility. It didn't stop him from getting a degree in theoretical physics, "but I've done nothing with it since," he says. Instead, he presents his own light-hearted topical news show as a journalist for Riverside Radio.
Tom Skelton, originally from Milton Keynes, was already doing comedy semi-professionally in Oxford, London and at the Edinburgh Fringe when he lost his sight to Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. "I continued doing improvised and sketch comedy after my sight loss, which was one of the most important things in helping me cope, I would say, as it was the only thing I could still do as well as before my sight loss." He won the Perth Fringe World Weekly Comedy Award in Australia in 2020. Away from the comedy circuit, Tom works as a campaigns officer for sight loss charity RNIB.
What is your sight loss condition?
Jamie - " I began to lose my sight to the degenerative condition retinal pigmentosa in my teens. I have very low vision now and use a stick. The New York Times ran a poll on what is the worst thing that can ever happen to you? And blind won, it knocked everything else out of the park. It thrashed all the other disabilities and being from Edinburgh. But I don't think it's the worst thing in the world. It's definitely a big part of my existence, but I can make decisions in my life that don't require me to necessarily dwell on blindness."
Tom - "My sight loss condition is Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. I was first diagnosed at the end of 2009 and it was a very rapid deterioration which left me with five per cent vision at the beginning of 2010."
Richard - "I've been blind since the age of five due to a brain tumour which caused hydrocephalus, destroying the nerve tissue. I have a small amount of vision in my left eye which I can use for mobility."
Is sight loss part of the act?
Jamie - "Comedy is holding a mirror up to society, and my mirror has the big face of a blind guy in it. This means my blindness does run through my comedy because that’s the way I see the world – not very well! I hope my comedy is accessible to all, however. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about people not being allowed to say anything anymore. I set out to entertain. The subjects I’m sending up are intended to be funny, not offensive. Should someone decide to get offended then, that really is their own problem and they are free to never come see me again."
Tom - "When I first started doing solo comedy shows, I steered well clear of mentioning or referencing my visual impairment. But this could lead to confusing moments for the audience if, for example, I dropped a prop on the stage and then couldn't locate it, even though it was right in front of me! But as I became more comfortable living with my sight loss, I started to feel comfortable about doing shows about it. And since I have explained it at the start of any performance, I feel much more comfortable relating to the audience."
Richard - "My material mostly revolves around me, so my visual impairment is integral to certain parts, tangential to other bits, and completely irrelevant in others. I also have a few jokes about maths which I throw in from time to time - imaginary numbers are all fun and games until somebody loses an 'i'."
Do you miss visual cues from your audiences?
Jamie - "I can get audio cues like laughter. The more of that the better! If it’s heckling, I don’t get much of that. There are acts that feed off shouting by the audience. I love it when people join in but I don’t really get people trying to disrupt me. While I’m up there I don’t think I’m missing out on much with regard to visual cues. I know from sighted acts that due to bright stage lights they can’t see much past the first couple of rows, anyway."
Tom - "I think that comedy is inherently good for a visually impaired performer, because the main reaction you are always aiming for is laughter. Feedback as to whether a joke has worked which will hopefully always be audible. However, the silent chucklers, smilers rather than laughers, and any other sort of inaudible enjoyment can certainly trigger a great deal of performance anxiety. A sighted comedian can see audience’s faces and make eye contact, which can help them alter or adapt the rhythm of their show."
Richard - "My favourite gigs are shows where I use as little of my prepared material as possible. I love talking to my audience, hearing their stories, making jokes about them and weaving a narrative from my audience members. This is probably the hardest part of being a blind comedian. Not being able to spot interesting people in an audience makes it challenging to integrate crowd work into a set."
How did you get into stand-up comedy?
Jamie - "I'd ended up in corporate finance down in London, for which I am truly and eternally sorry. I was never very good at it, and I never really liked it. And quite close to where we worked there was a club called The Comedy Café and I ended up there one night with some colleagues. And I thought, I like this. So I did a few wee open-mike nights at it and I was getting laughs and I thought, this is going very well. And then the credit crunch bit and a lot of people - including myself - were made redundant. It's the best sacking I've ever had!"
Richard - "I began performing stand-up after I was stood up on a date. She had a problem with her guide-dog just before we were going to a comedy gig and wasn’t able to make it. But, not wanting to waste the tickets, I went on my own anyway. After the gig I had no one to hang out with so I approached the comedians and asked them how they got into comedy. They told me about a course they did with a guy called Logan Murray. I looked him up and ended up doing that course, which led to the Edinburgh Fringe about nine months after, my first ever gig."
Tom - "I was a student when I lost my sight and was already doing comedy amateurishly and semi-professionally in Oxford and London, and at the Edinburgh Fringe. I continued doing improvised and sketch comedy after my sight loss, which was one of the most important things in helping me cope, I would say, as it was the only thing I could still do as well as before my sight loss."
Perceptions of bookers?
Jamie - "As with everything at the moment, folk are just much more aware of disabilities. The funniest thing I sometimes experience is promoters not realising how obstacle-strewn the green rooms are. Before I arrive they think it’s all clear, then I’ll walk in and they’ll start to notice everything. This sends them into an apology-heavy, panicked cleaning frenzy. But mostly everyone is great. If they’re not sure on how best to guide me or anything like that, I just tell them and we crack on. If you were to ask me to design the most hostile environment for a blind person, though, it would be a comedy club. Dark basements crammed full of tightly packed punters. Luckily, most folk that work in the comedy industry are lovely and I’ve rarely had any bother getting helped to and from the stage."
Tom - "Bookers sometimes seem to assume that I will turn up looking like their stereotype of a blind person. As I don’t have a guide dog or a cane, and even appear able to make eye contact, they can be baffled, and no longer offer extra help in terms of accessing the venue. This isn't always the case, of course. Many bookers are very aware of the questions they should ask and the assistance they could offer. But I must say I don’t often mention it for fear of putting some bookers off, or causing too much bother. I always have to make sure I know where the edge of the stage is and walk it a few times, for obvious reasons!"
Richard - "I’ve actually never really had a problem with people being willing to book disabled acts. The main challenge has been comperes who get overly concerned, interrupting me on stage to let me know I have one minute left, grabbing my arm to help me on or off stage."
Ambitions for future?
Jamie - "My ambitions are just to keep enjoying doing more and more new things. I recorded an episode of 'QI' in the spring that is coming out later this year. I just finished filming the second series of 'The Scotts' up in Glasgow. I’m currently writing the second series of my own Radio 4 show ‘Life on the Blink’. And, of course, I'm readying myself for the comic behemoth that is the Fringe. So, my ambition is to just stay busy."
Tom - "I love this show and I love performing it to live audiences. So I’d love to keep performing it beyond Edinburgh, telling my own story about sight loss, challenging perceptions of disability, and most importantly, making people laugh with me at my own experience of sight loss."
Richard - "I'd love to turn professional, but at the moment it feels much more like a hobby. Before the pandemic I was headlining on the open-mike circuit in London. From there, I might have pushed on to comedy clubs and worked my way up the ranks. But I wasn’t comfortable with zoom gigs so I’ve lost two years of progress. Maybe one day I’ll go back to seeing it as a professional career, but for the time being I’m happy just to have it as something I do for fun. But if someone offered me an opportunity to perform for a paying crowd, I'd bite their hand off every time!"
What were your comedy influences?
Jamie - "I’ve just always loved comedy in all its forms. Everything from the Carry On films to stand-ups like Jack Dee, Billy Connelly, Lee Evans and Eddie Izzard. All sounds a bit male, stale and pale, but that was what was about in the 80s and 90s. Now that everything is much more open, lovely and diverse, I love acts like Lost Voice guy, Zoe Lyons, Pippa Evans and Holly Walsh."
Tom - "Lots of comedians have influenced me in lots of different ways but I do particularly love Chris Morris, Monty Python, Steve Coogan, Julia Davis, Auntie Donna, Hans Teeuwen, and my grandpa and my wife!"
Richard - "I’ve always loved comedy. I pretty much grew up listening to nothing but classic comedy on BBC Radio 7 - 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue', 'Around the Horn', 'The Navy Lark', 'Hancock's Half Hour', et cetera."
Jamie - "I could tell you my favourite joke but it’s absolutely filthy and I know the readers of RNIB communications are an upstanding bunch so I don’t want to be cancelled by a sight charity!"
Tom - "The one that’s coming to mind right now, is my friend Chris Turner’s joke: ‘Never apologise, never explain… Sorry, that’s my motto’. That one always makes me laugh a lot!"
Richard - "My all-time favourite joke is did you know that Karl Marx only ever drank green tea because he believed all proper tea was theft…"