Last week I saw Francesca Martinez, an English comedian, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Her show, called "What the fuck is normal?" explores the themes of having a disability, the pressure to conform, and the need to familiarise difference, because everyone is different. No one is normal. She is a funny woman.
I left the show full of thoughts and happiness, and a lump in my throat. So much of what she spoke about resonated with me. Despite us being different, I could relate to her experiences of living life with such a visible difference. Francesca has Cerebral Palsy, which she's renamed 'wobbly'. The messages she gave in her show were applicable to everyone - it's ok to be different.
Francesca is an accomplished actor, comedian and writer. She manages to bring humour to her wobbliness so well. Stories about being considered too scary for talkshow panels and the condescending attitudes she's experienced are awful, but she tells them with such sunshine and humour. I loved her romantic stories too - she is a beautiful poet.
A few months ago a relative in England told me about her. I am
So glad he did. I really admire her acceptance of her wobbliness, and her encouragement for everyone to embrace their diversity.
Francesca has been kind enough to do an interview for me. Here it is, I just love what she has to say.
Tell me a little about you. Tell me your challenges and triumphs of living with Cerebral Palsy.
"I was a very happy and cheeky kid and my family made me feel very loved. I never felt abnormal and my childhood was great – I had lots of friends and I was always playing and performing. I really loved making people laugh!
When I went to high-school, my life changed dramatically because I felt judged on my appearance and my physical differences which, up until then, hadn’t been important to me. I became very ashamed of myself and very insecure, I remember not wanting to go out anywhere, not going out to parties, and not even going out to walk along the street as I hated people staring at me. I’ve been through those insecurities, and I had to go through a journey, and that’s kind of what my latest show is about. I think it’s a journey we all take to figure out how we are going to define ourselves. I remember a couple of thoughts that really changed my life – one was that I had never met a normal person before, so why would I ever want to be one? Two was that life is so, so short, and am I going to waste my life worrying about doing things differently, when in reality, the only normality is difference.
Those two things really helped me to see the world differently, and I really believe that those shifts of attitude can change your life. I am fascinated by the fact that abstract ideas can have that kind of impact, because my disability didn’t change, it didn’t get better in any way, but suddenly it ceased to be a problem for me. And I guess that is what is at the heart of my show. I’m very interested in exploring ideas that will have a real impact, If people leave your show perhaps either feeling better about something, or seeing something in a new way, then that’s fantastic."
Why do you use the term "wobbly"? - I like it.
"I’ve re-christened myself wobbly, because wobbly is a word I like, wobbly is cool, wobbly is not scary or off-putting. I think it’s really disempowering to grow up having this label slapped on you and I talk about in my show how much I hate the word “cerebral palsy”, how it makes people so nervous. It may sound really trivial – they’re words, they’re sounds – and in one way, I agree, but in another way, words really betray what we think of whatever they’re labelling, and it’s quite a big section in my show, I talk about the awful words given to disability, whereas there are other truly awful things that have quite nice names, like friendly fire. Why? Because those in power want them to sound acceptable.
I think the way we label things is a very political area, and being a baby and having terrible sounding names slapped on you, it’s quite hard to struggle free of them and feel like you’re not a faulty piece of equipment. It’s something I struggled with for years and it’s ironic that I’m still labelled a disabled comic because from the first show I ever did I was questioning how we label each other, and in my experience the only normality there is, is difference. So these labels that try and separate people I find divisive, and in the end it just makes us all feel that there’s a secret club that we’re all trying very hard to fit into, when actually that club doesn’t exist, and a real revelatory moment was when I realised that I’d never met a normal person before. That was really powerful because I thought, wow, they don’t exist."
Laughter is the best medicine. How does comedy help you?
"Comedy’s had an amazing effect on my life, because it’s made me feel happy in my own skin and it’s made me questions society’s attitudes towards disability and normality. It’s empowering to go on stage and talk about difficult experiences and turn them into something positive.. I feel that in a way everyone has got their own disability, whether it’s visible or not, and we’re no different to anyone else. My challenges are often physical, but every person on this planet has challenges, and often the invisible ones are worse. Look at Amy Winehouse, she died at such a young age, and externally she had everything going for her. But obviously her inner struggle was so difficult and a lot harder than, let’s say, what I have gone through. But the world we live in would classify me as having the worst circumstances. However, I would say, actually, I am very loved, I have a very caring family, and I feel I was given the right kind of tools to function with. Ultimately, I just wish that society would stop being so bloody superficial and stop being so obsessed with the physical spectrum, because in my experience there is no correlation between happiness and physical perfection!
As a creative person stand up is very fulfilling because you can take an idea you had while in your bedroom or on a train, and that night you can share it. It’s liberating. And it’s addictive. I love connecting with people, and being able to communicate something that you feel is not only entertaining but of some value to their lives. All my stuff is pretty personal, and my new show is the most personal yet. I love it when you come off stage and people come up to you, and they feel like they know you - and it’s that intimate thing that takes place on stage which I love."
Comedy is a leveller. Tell me how you performing comedy makes people more comfortable learning about and discussing disability, and even interacting with you.
"I think comedy is a unique art form in that it allows you to cut through the chit chat and to just address topics, but in a really lighthearted way. One of the things when I started that I was aware of, is that you hardly ever hear from anyone different making jokes and talking about their life as a person. It’s always quite serious, or quite sad, so I was really happy that I could stand up there and humanise a scary label. It’s interesting, because some critics when I started said, oh she’s funny, but her material needs to broaden out from that issue, and I’ve always felt, it’s not an issue, I do exactly what every other comedian does, I talk about my life. Full stop.
I’ve always felt very passionate that while difference isn’t really covered in the mainstream, I’m going to do my best to be honest about it and share my life. I think comedy is such a perfect way to do that, because it does dispel nerves and fears very quickly. I do feel [that disability] is still the last taboo because if you look at the representation in the media, it’s next to zero, and when it is covered it’s often in a serious or worthy way. I also think maybe it’s because [the subject of disability] conjures up feelings of pity, it makes people confront questions of mortality. I understand there are complex reactions but I also feel the very solution to those feelings is exposure and relationships with all kinds of ability, because ultimately we are all people and that often gets lost if your contact is limited. I can understand why it’s been a difficult area for humanity to come to terms with, but I also feel like we need to deal with it. The funny thing is, disability is normal, because it’s always
existed; there’s no point trying to cover it up or ignore it, it’s always going to be there."
Your comedy touring schedule is rigourous - you tour internationally. Does this have an effect on your disability?
"I have to pace myself and plan my schedule to allow rest time! Luckily, I love travelling and my boyfriend is wonderful at helping me to look after myself during the busy periods!"
What projects have you got coming up?
"I have a 40-date UK Tour which starts in May. I’m also developing a documentary idea called ‘WHAT THE **** IS NORMAL?!’ which we see me travel around searching for a ‘normal’ person. I’ve been working on a sitcom project for years too and hope to pitch it in Australia. Adam Hills is very keen to co-star so I hope to make that happen soon!"
Francesca is playing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Wed 18thto Sunday 22nd April at 6.30pm.