Tag Archives: cognitive behavioural therapy

Joe Wells Doesn’t Want to Do Political Comedy Anymore – but still has views

Joe Wells is a political comedian. He has written for Have I Got News For You and performed as support act to Frankie Boyle and Alexei Sayle.

Joe Wells faces a bit of a career crisis…

His previous Edinburgh Fringe shows were Night of The Living Tories (2014), 10 Things I Hate About UKIP (2016) and I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative (2017).

But this August his show is entitled: Joe Wells Doesn’t Want to Do Political Comedy Anymore!

So that’s a bit of a career crisis.

Between the ages of 8 and 15, he suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He overcame it with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. When he was 15, he started writing about his experiences of OCD.

These writings went on to form the basis of his first book Touch and Go Joe.


JOHN: So… you have been doing previews of your new show before it hits Edinburgh…

JOE: Yes. In some of my previews, I’ve felt a bit self-conscious because, in part of the show, I am really quite earnest and I worry that is going to be a bit weird for the preview audiences. Though I know, in Edinburgh, they are going to be open to that. There is so much different stuff at the Edinburgh Fringe and people go there with such an open mind.

JOHN: Your show says what it’s about in the title: Joe Wells Doesn’t Want to Do Political Comedy Anymore! Anything else?

JOE: One of the things I would like the show to be is a sort of defence of Comedy because, from all sides, it feels like it’s trendy to slag off Comedy. From the Left, people are saying Comedy is bullying and horrible. From the Right, they say Comedy has become too PC and comedians are just saying what people want to hear. 

I don’t think either of those things is true.

Comedy is great because it puts viewpoints in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise hear those viewpoints. That is what the Left should be striving for: getting people to hear from voices they don’t often hear.

But the Left has become quite insular: Let’s just talk amongst ourselves.

JOHN: Maybe Comedy audiences tend to be Left-leaning.

JOE: I want there to be Right Wing people in my audience so I can put forward my ideas of how I want the world to be. Why wouldn’t I want that?

French National Assembly: the original Left and Right Wingers

JOHN: There is this idea that defining politics as Left or Right is wrong. It’s just an accident of history – the way they sat in the French National Assembly. Thinking about Left and Right is misleading – it’s not a straight line: it’s a circle. If you take Left and Right to their extreme extremes, they both end up in the same place. A more sensible division might be Authoritarian and Libertarian.

JOE: But then, again, that becomes full circle. I want us to have a Welfare State; I want us to have… things which some people would see as Authoritarian. I think… yeah… I dunno. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. The thing is comedians do not really know what they are talking about. I think that’s partly why I don’t want to do political stuff any more. I mean, I’m not a political theorist.

JOHN: But you do want to put your views out there, like all comedians… And all comedians are misfits. Different. If they were more like everyone else, then they wouldn’t be interesting to listen to. It’s because they can come up with a bizarre, unexpected angle – a different viewpoint on something. Michael McIntyre is arguably the most successful stand-up in Britain at the moment. And he is telling ordinary people about things they see every day – nothing new – but they haven’t seen those things from his viewpoint before.

JOE: I think he’s great, though I’m not queueing up to buy tickets. His routine about the bus stop is just a powerfully-written routine. Yes, to some extent, you have to be on the outside looking in.

JOHN: In a sense, if you do not have a character defect, maybe you cannot be a good comedian.

Joe Wells manages to fit into a bath…

JOE: I can’t think of many comedians who really properly ‘fit in’.

But, outside of comedy, I do know loads of people who I think do fit it. They know where they belong in things. Even though there are comedians who take their kids to school and lead a ‘normal’ life, they’re still a little bit… not so normal.

JOHN: Why did doing specifically political comedy attract you?

JOE: I talk about it in the show… I was an angry young man and a lot of that anger came from stuff that was not to do with politics. But at 18 or 19 I would go on protests – and shouting and being a political comedian and rallying against things was incredibly cathartic.

I am still a big Leftie and there’s still lots of injustices and things I want to change, but I’ve realised that the reason I fitted so neatly into being an angry political comedian was because I got to feel OK about being angry.

When we talk about mental health, people say: It’s OK to feel sad; it’s OK to feel this or that. But you rarely hear people say: It’s OK to feel really angry about things which aren’t anyone’s fault. I can feel angry about things that happened in the past and there’s rarely an individual I can blame for stuff that’s happened in the past. But I can still feel that anger. And it’s valid. It’s OK to feel really angry.

I have felt angry a lot of my life.

JOHN: Because…?

JOE: Well the show has a ‘reveal’ – about whether or not I am autistic. I was assessed for autism in February this year. The reveal is whether they said I am… or not.

“Why don’t these kids at school want to be my friends?” (Photograph by Ed Moore)

I did have those traits and I was different. I could not make friends and I didn’t fit in. I thought: Why can’t I fit in here at school? I feel I’m nice and I feel I’m a kind person. So why don’t these kids at school want to be my friends?

I think that informed a lot of my life growing up. I don’t have many male friends. Most of my good friends are women. I would go to parties and see all the men would talk together. They’ve got some jigsaw pieces where they fit together and it works. There was something that was not working with me.

I have always had a real chip on my shoulder about football. I hated football fans.

But then I realised what it is is that my dad used to take me to football and it was so noisy. I hated all that shouting and noise. I found it overwhelming and horrible and I felt angry with the people making that noise. And, in my head, I created a story about that – Football fans are horrible!

But now I know lots of people who are into football and that’s fine… It’s not football fans I hate – It’s that noise. But I felt the anger and had to come up with a reason for why I felt that anger.

People need a narrative around why they feel a certain way and, if there’s no narrative…

One of the things I talk about in the show is that, in Comedy, everyone has their say.

“They are different – you can’t compare a fish and a cat…” (Photograph by Hannah Reding via UnSplash)

There are problems with diversity in Comedy – of course there are – but, moreso than in any other industry or art form, there are people from COMPLETELY different backgrounds, COMPLETELY different world views, seeing things in COMPLETELY different ways.

I would argue that Comedy is more neurodiverse than any other…

JOHN: Neurodiverse? What does that mean?

JOE: People think differently. There’s a book NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. The basic idea is we have bio-diversity and different animals all play their role. You need all those animals. They are different – you can’t compare a fish and a cat – but they all co-exist and are necessary. Same with cultural diversity.

And we also have neuro-diversity. Some people are more on the autistic side; others are good at social things and are very good at connecting to people emotionally; it’s all part of diversity.

The old way of looking at things is that there is this ‘good way’ of being and thinking, but actually the best way is for everyone to think and view things differently.

A lot of comics think about things differently and come at things from different angles and that’s part of how you write comedy – looking at things in a different way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Psychology

Robert White: gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comic

Robert White, award-winning comedian with a record

Robert White sitting in a small room

“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”.

Well Hump-de-dinki-doo!

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.”

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

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.

Comedy makes Robert feel he fits in

“Comedy makes me feel I fit in” says a reflective Robert White

“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.

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully brighter future

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully even brighter future

“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.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology