It’s a trait of the deeply lucky, and the deeply unlucky, to learn at a young age that laughing at misfortune is key to surviving it.
Much like a plucky young orphan Annie - but with muscular dystrophy in lieu of the comparable genetic anomaly that is being ginger - I faced adversity from a young age. Forced to wear deeply unfashionable leg braces, I grew up weak and lame* (*physically lame, I’m a deeply cool person with impeccable taste in music, please please believe me). I also grew up in Perth, which I consider a type of geographical disability.
You might imagine, then, that the acne-ridden realisation of being gay on top of already being disabled (and from Perth) would be adding insult to injury, that the world doubling down in its hostility towards me might have made me double down on my sad, cynical outlook.
Instead, I laughed. I laughed because it had become apparent I was at the centre of a cosmic joke. The absurd, lottery-like improbability with which misfortune compounded around me felt like Lady Luck herself had got plastered on daiquiris and said ‘You know what would be funny?’.
I was living in a world of conservatives telling me I shouldn’t have kids because I’ll pass on my “unsavoury genes”, but also that being gay is wrong because you can’t procreate that way / something about seat belts . A world where the money going towards curing my disability is comically neck-in-neck with the money going towards curing my “other disease”. A world where teachers, in an effort to stop kids saying ‘gay’ as an insult, suggested we use ‘lame’ instead - a word which hasn’t ever historically referred to any particular minority, probably.
Finding the absurdity, the comedy, in an ableist and homophobic world isn’t to dismiss the seriousness with which it can ruin your life. But comedy, at the very least, was a lens on the world that gave me back some of the power. For once, I was making the joke, not just being the joke. I began to lean in to what would become my favourite pastime - making straight, abled people uncomfortable by cracking jokes that their suburban sensibilities deemed taboo. Hopefully, through that discomfort, it helped them realise just how misguided those taboos were, but if not, who cares, at least I get to watch them squirm a little.
A few years ago, I started doing stand-up comedy. It felt like the natural extension of my personality, which many have described as “insufferable” and “too much”. Unfortunately, stand up is not yet a perfect, equitable slice of just how diverse our world is. Visiting a standard open mic, I can’t tell you which is more exhausting - climbing stairs that were built with able-bodied mountaineers in mind, or listening to a straight guy earnestly dissect Louis CK’s latest hour.
And it isn’t just stand-up. TV is filled to the brim with shows that use homosexuality or disability as a punchline - which is my thing! And I’ll give $50 to anyone that can link me to any Australian comedy podcast where they don’t say ‘re---rd’. It feels mind-boggling that comedy can make me feel awful about myself as easily as it can crack me up.
In May this year, I was approached to do five minutes at a new stand-up night called Lemon Comedy. At the time, I was particularly disenfranchised with the scene, and was instead throwing myself into writing mildly-humorous thinkpieces (like this one!). Had it been any other line-up show, I might have declined. But there was something about this particular night that drew me in - its ethos was in championing diversity, and better still, it was being held at a fully wheelchair-accessible queer bookshop. In the Venn diagram of my interests, the night could only be improved if it also somehow involved brandy custard and the collected discography of Kylie Minogue.
When I finally got on stage that night in May, I had never felt more comfortable cracking jokes about who I am, because I knew I was in front of an audience who weren’t holding my humanity in question. Later that night, agender comedian and Canadian headliner DeAnne Smith got on stage and plainly articulated exactly what I was feeling - “It’s a gay bookshop. We’re all safe here”.
I think the producers of Lemon Comedy must have noticed what this night meant to me, because when they had to move away from Melbourne, they asked me if I wanted to continue the night as host while they set up new Lemon Comedy nights in England and Canada. I accepted immediately.
And that’s where we are now. The entire country is discussing the legitimacy of queer people’s right to marriage (and, it feels, to exist). The slow rollout of the NDIS is already being plagued with complaints of inefficiency. The world feels like it is on fire. But I’m smiling, because I get to spend 2 hours laughing in a queer bookshop, alchemizing the bad, embarrassing and unfortunate moments of my life into something golden. Something that makes people laugh.
It’s not like I found a bunch other people who were exactly like me. I’m still the only one in the room with my particular disease, both my particular diseases. But what I did find was a much larger community, and one based around something much deeper. In that room, we were all in on the same secret. Walking on stage and laughing at our misfortune gives the power back to us, even if only for a tight five minutes.
Alistair Baldwin is a writer, comedian and “critic” based in Melbourne but loyal only to Perth. He is the host of Lemon Comedy.