So I chatted to comedy performers Pope Lonergan and Ben Targét…
“The two of you have this joint project,” I said. “Does it have a name?”
“At the moment,” Pope told me, “it just has the banner title of The Care Home Tour. One thing we are doing is a three-hour Alzheimer’s benefit Forgetting But Not Forgotten, organised with Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray in London on 2nd October. Lots of different comedians.”
“It’s a great line-up,” said Ben. “Richard Gadd, Lou Sanders, Robin Ince, Candy Gigi, lots more.”
“And,” said Pope, “we are doing two Work In Progress shows in the lead-up to that. We are doing those with Fight in the Dog, which is Liam Williams’ production company. The whole thing is being supported by NextUp and they’re partially funding it.”
“And these shows lead to?” I asked.
“A performance that is specifically tailored for an audience with dementia in a care home. I mean, anyone can enjoy it, but the feed line/punch line of a conventional joke is too complicated. They can’t follow the logic of it. Instead, they respond with a visceral, limbic response to visual comedy and physical comedy – the slapstick stuff.”
“What is limbic?” I asked.
“The limbic system,” Pope explained. “When we process music. It’s an emotional response, a visceral response; it’s like our primitive brain. It’s what develops early in children. There’s a correlation between child development and mental deterioration.”
“So the humour,” I said, “must not be too sophisticated.”
“A perfectly-structured joke is not gonna land,” said Pope.
“It’s got to be driven,” Ben added, “by the visual rather than by words. How the residents are stimulated is no longer through wordplay or story.”
“But they can,” I checked, “be stimulated through sound and music and audio effects?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Pope. “100%. Even when they have really advanced dementia, if you start singing something like Knees Up, Mother Brown, they all know the words.”
“Is there,” I asked, “a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Pope explained: “Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term. There’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s… My nan and David Baddiel’s dad both had Pick’s Disease – frontal lobe dementia – and that made my nan very libidinous. She was having sex with a lot of the men in the care home.”
“At what age?” I asked.
“About 85. She done well. Every time we went in, one of the carers would come over to my dad and say: Mark… A word? And my dad would come out pale, saying: Yer nan’s been at it again.”
“Is anyone going to be offended if I print that?” I asked.
“No, no,” said Pope. “Good on her, you know? People with dementia obviously have diminished responsibility. They don’t really know what they’re consenting to etc, so there’s a line. But we have a husband and wife in the home who have been married 60 years. We have caught them in flagrante having sex and some people have said: We need to stop them. But that was not policy. It was just some people projecting their own discomfort. They are a married couple. They are adults. They are married. Why on earth would you stop them?”
“At a certain age,” said Ben, “we stop seeing people as adults and they become infantilised in our eyes. I don’t know if we are trained to or whether it is innate.”
“And that’s where it’s tricky,” Ben added. “Infantilised means dehumanised. The efficacy of their brain is not what it used to be but they are still adult, complex human beings.”
“I can say,” I checked with Pope, “that you work in the care industry?”
“Of course you can,” he told me.
“I am always wary,” I explained, “about saying comedians have a ‘proper’ daytime job because punters want to think of them as full-time professional comics.”
“Most of us have proper jobs,” said Ben.
“But sometimes don’t want to admit to it,” I suggested.
“We should, though,” said Ben. “I think it makes us way cooler. You get far more respect from people if you are grounded in reality.”
“Yeah,” said Pope. “Some comics think they are de-legitimised by it – Oh, my God, I’m actually part of the real world! I actually have a real job!”
“So you work in a care home,” I said to Pope, “but Ben, how did you get involved in this?”
“I used to work in care homes as well,” he told me, “as a teenager – when I was about 16 or 17. And recently Josie Long introduced me to Pope because he was looking to work with people who do physical and visual comedy. So I am trying to assemble a troupe who are willing to embrace the project.
“We are building to this first gig on October 9th in the care home and we do think of it as like the first exploration vessel that’s been sent out. We are hoping to reassess afterwards and then, in the New Year, do more gigs across the country in care homes.”
“There are,” Pope said, “loads of comedians who have expressed an interest. Sara Pascoe used to do theatre productions for people with dementia in care homes.”
“And there’s David Baddiel,” Ben added. “And Adam Riches – who has a lot of experience in his family of dementia and caring for people. And Phil Nichol. I’m interested to see Phil because, every time I have seen him, he’s got naked on stage and yelled at the audience!”
“Then,” said Pope, “there’s John Kearns. And Deborah Frances-White has been very supportive: she was the one who got David Baddiel interested. And Josie Long has been vital in putting it all together.
“I had done some of Josie’s gigs at the Black Heart. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my experiences in the care home into my stand-up act.
“Josie said: I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience of working in the home to your act. I told her: The problem is there’s a bit of dualism there. The way they act is not like the normal way ‘we’ behave. So you love the residents, you’re compassionate, you really care for them, but there is also a day-to-day blackly comic streak that you can’t put on stage because it would just sound horrible: that you are laughing at vulnerable people.
“The first time I done it, it was a bit too nasty, really. I didn’t intend it to be like that, but I hadn’t honed the material and it just came across as a bit mean-spirited. Afterwards, this woman who was apparently a High Court judge was shouting at me about it. It’s sort-of a tight-rope walk.”
“Even more so,” I suggested, “when performing to people with dementia?”
“There are so many different types of dementia,” said Pope. “With some, the language centre (in the brain) has really diminished. Some have still got linguistic capacity – really good – they can process it. But still the normal, conventional joke is a bit too convoluted for them. So I always do things like shit gymnastics or shit karate. Anything that’s a minor spectacle they really respond to and laugh at.”
“Surreal,” I said, “rather than verbal.”
“Oh, absolutely,” said Pope. “Anything that is a minor spectacle and visual and silly. If you do wry observational comedy about Donald Trump, it won’t work.”
“Will seeing comedy,” I asked, “actually help them or is it just passing the time?”
“It is definitely better for their welfare,” said Pope, “in that there is a deficit in certain types of stimulation. When it comes to interaction, they don’t want to get up and be physically active, but they do want to be engrossed in something. They do want to sit there and watch something.
“We have told the comedians who are involved that they will have to re-calibrate their idea of what a successful gig is. There ain’t gonna be uproarious laughter. There ain’t gonna be the energy of a comedy club. But, even if the audience are not outwardly laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not stimulated and enjoying what they are watching. They always feel better after they have experienced some kind of entertainment.”