Embracing disability: A Comic Relief
Rural Australia’s harshness is the stuff of legend, an environment where many a prospector, drover, missionary and misfit has found success in simple survival. For Laura Campbell, “a kid with a limp who was a bit overweight in a small country town”, salvation came with a laugh.
Campbell is 24 now and says she’s always had “different disability stuff going on”, initially rooted in a congenital hip disorder that’s about to be addressed by replacement surgery. Her daily grind was challenging enough even before the unrelated arrival, just before her 18th birthday, of the auto-immune disease Lupus. Its initial presentation was so uncommonly severe it almost killed her.
Comedy was her catharsis – and, she realised much later, a defence mechanism that she could use to make friends. “It became a tactic – when I was younger in country Australia, if I was making the joke I had the power, and someone wasn’t making the joke at me. If people were laughing with you, they weren’t making fun of you.”
At around 16 she had a lightning bolt moment watching an Adam Hills special on television. She was drawn to the Auslan interpreter who was helping the comedian’s work reach the living rooms of the hearing impaired. As Hills spoke about the funny moments that can come with having a prosthetic leg, Campbell realised she’d never seen a comic with a disability before – certainly not one who wore their impairment with such pride.
“He wasn’t the butt of the joke, he was educating the audience as to what it was like to have a prosthetic leg, but he also had this pride about him that I’d never witnessed. I remember thinking, ‘It’s okay to be proud of who I am and proud of my body.’ To be proud of the idea that I could tell jokes and tell my story, that I could teach people about my life in a way that was interesting and wasn’t molly-coddling them.”
At university Campbell encountered the disability movement, the body positive movement, people she related to whose ideas broadened her thinking. Through secondary school she’d morphed into “a big comedy nerd” who analysed the craft and its practitioners. Now it occurred to her that using comedy as a tool of defence was selling her talents short.
At her first gig, as part of a women’s gala, she fell back on her experiences with a hip that had slipped its moorings and made a new socket in her skin, and with the debilitating effects of Lupus. Out of an audience of “40-year-old public servants”, a man came forward and thanked her for a fascinating – and funny – real life education.
After her next gig she was approached by a woman in her 20s with Crohn’s Disease, who in a sentence laid bare the connective power of comedy. “It was so refreshing to see somebody like me up there, making jokes,” the woman told Campbell. “It made me feel like I wasn’t so alone.”
In April Campbell performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in ACT Like A Lady. The show’s title dipped a lid to the Canberra allegiance of the rotating cast (of which Campbell was the only member with a disability), while its content tackled a decree that’s been confounding women down the ages. From observing no disability whatsoever in comedy before her Adam Hills watershed, she’s emboldened by not only an increase in performers with a range of disabilities, but moreover by the way previously-taboo subjects are met head-on.
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