“Sometimes people have tried to blame things on me because it’s easier to blame someone who may be presumed to have a reputation,” comedian Robert White told me yesterday.
Today, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a research study by Oxford University and the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust which suggests that “an unusual personality structure could be the secret to making other people laugh”.
I do not know how much this research study cost, but I could have done it cheaper for them.
Yesterday at London’s Soho Theatre, I bought one drink and got 44 minutes of similar insight from Robert White who is – correct me if I am wrong – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit. He also won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality in 2010.
“In 2001, I was initially diagnosed as having Asperger Syndome by a psychologist when I went for depression,” Robert told me, “and it was like a light shining. It was like Wow! This is what my mind is thinking! and it cleared up so many things and, over the last few years, I’ve gradually got better.”
He has been performing comedy for ten years.
“Before comedy,” he told me, “I’d misunderstand things and, one time, that led to a practical joke that the police mis-translated as a crime and, as such, I got three months in Wandsworth Prison.”
“What was the practical joke?” I asked.
“Dressing up in a ballgown and walking down the street with a music stand. I was going to go into the shop where my ex-boyfriend worked and I was going to say to him: Music stand and deliver!
“But I didn’t do it. I stopped in the street, walked home and, as I did so, I walked in front of a police car and they asked me what I was doing and told me past intent to do something was the same as present intent to do something and, just because I’d rescinded and hadn’t done it, I was still culpable.”
“What’s illegal,” I asked, “about saying Music stand and deliver to someone while holding a music stand?”
“Well,” said Robert, “initially they were going to charge me with armed robbery but, on a plea bargain, they brought it down to attempting to threaten with an imitation firearm.”
“Ah! You didn’t mention the imitation firearm,” I pointed out.
“Well,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t. It was a music stand.”
“How was that an imitation firearm?” I asked.
“Because,” explained Robert, “in the police interview, I called it a gun because – for the joke – I was a comedy armed robber. I had originally been going to say Hand over the notes – you know – it was a music stand – Hand over the notes – but then I decided I was going to say Music stand and deliver.
“When I was in Wandsworth Prison, I was in the remand wing. One of the ways I deal with depression is to write music and they didn’t have paper or pen. So, by spreading toothpaste on a piece of newspaper and pulling my finger through it, I was writing a symphony.
“A guard came up to me and said What are you doing? and I said I’m writing a symphony and they put me in the mental wing of Wandsworth Prison, which is where all the hard nutters are. My solicitor came to me and said Either we can try and explain this in front of a jury or we can take a plea bargain. If you explain it in front of a jury, you may get seven years because they won’t understand you. A plea bargain? Three months.
“Incidents like that used to happen but comedy has cured me – well, not cured me, but it has resolved many, many issues.”
This year, Robert intends to return to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time since he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality in 2010. His new show will be about having Asperger Syndome.
“Last time I was at the Fringe,” he told me, “I won the Malcolm Hardee Award, I had one of the Top Ten jokes, I got loads of 4-star reviews and people were raving about me and I got one zero-star review which, at the time, I blamed on Asperger’s but the truth was it was a gig on the day of my father’s birthday a month after he died of cancer and I was feeling horrific.”
“This was the review on the Chortle website?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Robert. “Basically, I started, played the trumpet and – before I even said anything – I ran off, because my head was full of a million different things. Yes, it was wrong. Maybe other people would have cancelled the show.”
“And your new show is about having Asperger’s,” I asked.
“Yes. About fitting in. Most people might think I’m a bit odd. Before comedy, I’d fallen out with my family, I’d been in an abusive relationship, I couldn’t go into places on my own and I constantly got fired from jobs – 36 jobs in seven years. Everything from telesales through to being a music teacher.
“Once, I was at work and I was trying to do something clever with my pay and the manager said to me: Are you trying to be clever? and I said Yes and I got fired.
“Another time, there was this list of things you could not do at a call centre and it was such a specific list that I noticed it did not state that you couldn’t answer the phone wearing a Gareth Gates face mask. So I put on a Gareth Gates mask and got fired.
“Performing comedy makes me feel I fit in. The problem is that, because I don’t understand social relationships, sometimes I can go a bit wobbly.
“Once, when I was sent to my room as a kid and I thought that was wrong, I sat in my room for ages, then dressed up my large cuddly toy panda in my own clothes and chucked it out the window. So, when it went plunging past the window where my mum was having dinner, she thought I had committed suicide. Which was quite funny but also quite horrific.”
“When you say you might go a bit wobbly, does that affect your performance?” I asked.
“Not any more,” said Robert. “But, because my mind is built up of facts – that’s the way I see the world – if my mind is thinking quickly and lots of facts present themselves, they just over-take my head because there’s too much to think about.”
“So your brain seizes up?” I asked.
“Not any more,” said Robert. “Because now I have various ways of overcoming it. The way you compensate for not having instinctive understanding is learned responses: a sort of cognitive behavioural therapy. That’s happened before, therefore this will happen now.
“Before I go on stage, I write various things on my hand. I write CAN DIE on my hand, because you don’t want to get complacent because that’s the time when you do die. I write YOU’RE BEST THIS GIG which makes me focus on how I do at this one gig.
“So I have certain rules written down. One of the rules is KEEP ON. JUST DO. I’ve got the word SWEAR written on one finger because, in some gigs, the C word is not appropriate and I’ve got NO MENTAL written on my hand to tell me not to go mental.
“I have to input facts into my head before I start the gig. Then I’ve got facts about the audience. All these facts are building up in my head before I go on and that is how I build up a picture of the world.
“I’m also very good at improvisation. I can make up songs 1-5 minutes long about what’s happening in the moment. You can get riotous responses from making something that’s in the moment. I played the trumpet when I was a teenager, I was a jazz improviser, so I’ve got a memory for remembering little licks. I’ve got a mind that can remember little snippets, then repeat them in different orders as appropriate.
“My comedy over the last ten years has been filling-in the fuck-up of my life – the hole which the previous years have been. I feel I’ve now made a foundation and I’m building on that now. I still am autistic and occasionally my mind will be wobbly, but now I can deal with it much better. I think this year will be very positive. I’ve got my head together.”
In 2010, panel judge Kate Copstick interviewed Robert White after he won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, presented by Simon Munnery. There is a clip on YouTube.