As unlikely career choices go, Lee Ridley pretty much takes the prize. The 37 year old stand up comedian has cerebral palsy, is without speech, and uses a machine to talk on his behalf. As he himself puts it blithely in his routine, he's a stand up who struggles to stand up. His first gig, he tells us, was just for fun and to see if he could do it. That was 6 years ago and now comedy has become a full time career, with highlights that include supporting Ross Noble, multiple appearances in the Edinburgh Festival, a much lauded audition on hit TV show Britain's Got Talent, and now, a BBC Radio 4 sitcom. In conversation, Lee shares more details of his career up to now...
You’ve said that you first tried stand-up to see if you could do it. When did you first think to yourself “this has become something more than an experiment”?
“I think I pretty much knew straight away! After performing my first gig and getting the reaction that I did, I couldn’t sleep at all that night because I was on such a high. So, I think I knew then that the stand-up comedy bug had got me!”
People often say the key to a good joke is in the delivery. Is it more challenging to be funny with a speech machine? How do you cope with that?
“The main problem is trying to get it to say things correctly. For example, it can't say iPad, so I have to spell it a different way. I also have to put random punctuation in the middle of sentences, so that it breaks it up and makes it easier to understand. So, once I write my material I usually have to go through it again and check that it sounds ok. There have been times when I have had to change my jokes just because it doesn't sound right.”
What have your best and worst gigs been?
“My best gig was when I got to support Ross Noble at one of his shows. He’s my comedy idol and he actually asked me if I wanted to support him, so as you can imagine, that was a very big deal for me. To be asked by your hero to perform alongside him was just an incredible moment. In contrast, I once played to an audience of three in a strip club in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. So that was probably my worst gig.”
The term “inspiration porn” is often used nowadays to talk about the objectification of people who have a disability and your act often makes fun of stereotypes and popular misconceptions. Did you set out to make people think twice about their attitudes or is that just a bonus if they do?
“It was never intention, no. I never really thought of the wider impact that me getting up on stage would have. I was just doing it for a bit of a laugh. Now I’ve done it a while though, I can see that some people take more away from my act than just the comedy. And if it helps change attitudes, then that must be a good thing.”
Speaking of “inspiration porn”, I see it’s the title of your new show. What can you tell us about it?
“Yes, I’m really looking forward to performing my new show at the Gilded Balloon at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere all over the country too. Basically, it’s a show where I take the mickey out of all these inspiration memes that seem to be everywhere these days. I seem to have unwittingly become an unintentional inspiration porn star because of them. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be an inspiration because of these stupid memes and the show explains why I think they’re bo#/@cks.”
You usually start off your show by acknowledging you have a disability. Do you foresee a point in your career, as you become better known, when the audience is familiar with your disability and you won’t need to bring it up in your act? Or is it an intrinsic part of your self-deprecating humour?
“I think the main reason that I do it is because it helps deal with the elephant in the room early on. Some people aren’t quite sure how to take me when I come on stage. sometimes you can hear the gasp, come from the audience, when I walk on to the stage. I think that helps though, because they don't know what to expect. So when I hopefully make them laugh, I think they enjoy it more. But I think an early joke about my disability puts everyone at ease a bit more. Ideally, I’d like to see a day when I don’t have to do that, but I think that’s a problem with society as a whole, and we’re a long way off fixing that.”
What can you reveal about your Radio 4 series, “Ability”? How did this come about in the first place?
“Ability is about a disabled guy who can be a bit of a d#@k at times. So, obviously it's totally fictional and not based on myself at all! It follows the life of Matt (who uses a communication device to speak with.... again purely coincidental!). He has recently moved out of home to live with his best mate, Jess, and also has a very dodgy carer called Bob, who visits him every day. What possibly could go wrong?! The first episode was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 2 May. I had the time of my life recording it, so I hope the listeners love it as well.”
What has the response been since the 1st episode aired?
The response to Ability has been really good actually, so that’s a relief. It’s always hard to gauge whether other people will like it or not when you’re writing something, and usually I can try stuff out at my gigs almost straight away. But for my sitcom, I had to wait a few months for it to be broadcast, so that was a new experience for me. I’m just very happy that people enjoyed listening to it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Is the character of Bob, the slightly dodgy carer, based on a real person?
Not anyone in particular, no. He’s more a mix of a few different people who I have known in the past. I have had some questionable carers in my life, so he’s based on all of them really. Obviously I’ve used artistic licence to make him even worse though!
Without wanting to reveal any spoilers for those who haven’t listened to it yet, have you ever got a mate to pretend to be you on the phone to chat up a girl?
Thankfully it has never had to come to that for me. And, even if I did, I’m not sure which mates I could trust not to take the mick on the phone!
What else lies in store for the character of Matt? Again, without wanting to reveal too much.
Well, him and Bob are very bad influences on each other so, as you can imagine, this leads them into some very awkward situations. They try to make a bit of money by setting up a sex chat phone line, they have to go on the run from the police, and Matt sings a bit of Take That as well. And that’s all just in three episodes!
Did you genuinely audition for the X-Factor for a laugh or was that just a routine for Simon Mayo’s radio programme?
“I did go to an X Factor audition, but just as a joke. I wasn’t seriously expecting to get anywhere. It was just a bit of a laugh. It turned out to be great material though.”
What response have you had specifically from people who have a disability? Do they generally approve or has anyone challenged you on the nature of your humour?
“I have had nothing but positive reactions from the disabled community, I think they appreciate someone who can take the mick out of themselves more than most, because they know how it feels. So I think they quite like seeing someone with a similar viewpoint to them.”
You recently appeared on Britain’s got talent and got a great reaction from the audience. What’s the wider response been like and what can you tell us about being there? What’s the next stage?
“It’s been a pretty crazy time since the programme was shown! I’m drowning in phone notifications from people telling me how much they enjoyed my set, which is a nice feeling. The positive reaction has been breath-taking and I never expected to make such an impact. I just hope I make it through to the semi-final and hopefully experience it all again.”
What other projects do you have lined up? What would you like to do in the future? You’ve now got your own radio show, is TV next?
“I’ve got my Edinburgh Fringe show coming up which I’m really excited about. And, for now, I’m just enjoying my journey in comedy, and seeing where else it can take me. I can’t believe I’ve got away with doing this for a job for this long to be honest!”
You can find all the upcoming tour dates here to see Lee Ridley AKA The Lost Voice Guy live up and down the country. His BBC Radio 4 sitcom Ability continues this Wednesday at 11:30 am and if you missed the first episode you can listen to it on BBC iPlayer Radio.
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