The Comedian’s Autistic Son
Like anyone else engaged in his peculiarly brutal trade, standup comedian John Williams is “used to dying on stage”. Over the years he has developed a thicker skin, but one gig – his worst ever – will never be forgotten. In fact the impact of an audience so utterly not amused inspired an entirely new show.
Four years ago John was booked for a corporate gig at a London comedy club. He decided to try some new material, inspired by family life. “The comedian before me talked about his family. Lots of standups talk about their kids. I wanted to talk about mine too.”
The audience stopped laughing when John mentioned that his son has autism. “The reaction was hideous,” he says. “One bloke came up at the end and asked if what I’d said was real. When I said it was he just shook his head and walked off. The attitude was, ‘We’ve come for a night out, we didn’t want this.’”
John concluded that he had perhaps been a bit naive, but also felt angry that his son’s disability seemed to render him unmentionable. There was no intention to shock. “I thought there must be a way to talk about my child without that response.”
The result was My Son’s Not Rainman, an hour-long show and accompanying blog, about his then 12-year-old son and their life together.
A success at the Edinburgh fringe 2013, My Son’s Not Rainman continues to tour Britain – “very slowly” as John, a single father, arranges his childcare. This month, John’s book of the same name, which is inspired by the success of the show and his blog, is published.
I had to lay the groundwork that all this comes from a place of love. People need to know that it’s OK to laugh
Although John has a significant following among other parents of children with autism and those working in the field (he has spoken at events with the National Autistic Society and in many special schools), he does not want to be portrayed as any sort of expert. “I can’t possibly be, given how the one condition affects so many people in such hugely different ways. All I can ever tell is our story.”
He hopes people will understand his son – and in turn others who are different – a little better, and he wants to dispel a few myths.
“The thing is that we only really celebrate disability when there’s a skill involved. Take the Paralympics, incredible as they are, they’re all about strength, courage and bravery. All I really wanted to do was to celebrate the smallness of it all, of just being in the world without justification. There’s joy in the little things … and humour and laughter.”
Clearly, life is not always easy, but John is not inviting pity. “Perhaps before they hear our story people assume our life is a misery. My point is that there is lots of joy. My son is brilliant. We make each other laugh, with or without his diagnosis. I want others to see that.
“I hate the idea that people will take what I’m saying as worthy or twee,” says John. Even more critical, though, is that it is never exploitative. “That is always in my mind, it’s my filter. What kind of dad would I be otherwise?”
In writing the show and then the book, working out what to include and exclude was difficult. “It felt right, but terrifying. I don’t believe jokes need a target, but comedy seems to have gone a bit that way,” says John. (Frankie Boyle famously achieved both a sell-out tour and widespread disgust with his jokes about autism.) “I’m not interested in offending anyone.
“I had to lay the groundwork that all this comes from a place of love, to make clear that I care for this boy more than anything in the world. Without that it would just be picking on a kid. That wouldn’t be funny. People need to know that it’s OK to laugh.”
John creates this starting point by guarding his son’s privacy, naming him simply The Boy – “It’s what he wanted to be called” – and deeming certain aspects of his life off limits, puberty for instance, and by including him in putting the show together. There are graphics sequences and voiceovers that father and son produce together. “He likes the idea of being the star of the show.” John is introduced in a recording by his son: “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome to the stage, my funny dad.” (He insists the adjective was inserted unexpectedly by The Boy.) “I wanted the audience to connect with him, and I love hearing his voice when I’m on stage,” says John.
He is conscious that he must not become complacent in protecting The Boy’s privacy. “He is getting older. He knows what I am doing and I read him all the blog posts, we have a chat about what the audience were like after each show and his input has been hugely important to the book. But I have to be confident it won’t embarrass or hurt him later.
Using comedy lets people get as far as seeing the child inside without being distracted by behaviour
“He will always be more than any of it. If he wakes up one day and says he doesn’t like it then it will all go.”
The Boy has seen bits of the show and heard the whole thing on the radio, but when he was asked if he’d like to sit through a whole show, his only comment was, “One hour. Boring.”
“It has improved the wider family’s relationships with The Boy. Using comedy lets people get as far as seeing the child inside without being distracted by behaviour.”
Challenging behaviour is something that John doesn’t shy away from, but the humour never comes at The Boy’s expense. “We are actually laughing at people’s perceptions of disabilities.” John recounts the change he and The Boy – who also has cerebral palsy – encounter when he occasionally uses a wheelchair.
“Suddenly I’m pushing round Mother Teresa,” says John.
A trip to play crazy golf saw them insistently ushered to the front of the queue by other families. The reaction when The Boy then rose from his chair to take a shot verged on disgust. “It was excruciating. I knew how it was going to go. Basically, people want full paralysis or nothing at all.”
As well as challenging attitudes, John’s work also proclaims the value of children with disabilities “just being themselves”. We should be able to celebrate people’s quirks and differences, without having to define them by labels, he says.
In a favourite reminiscence, he shares his experience of taking The Boy to the disco at a special school he attended in the past.
There are stereotypes – the child with ADHD energetically DJing, another with OCD checking hand hygiene in the toilet, someone else counting the sprinkles on the cupcakes – and one Edinburgh fringe reviewer considered the material “dodgy”. Yet, says John, parents and teachers of children with disabilities always tell him how much they love this story. It was also featured on Radio 4 as one of journalist Robert Peston’s Picks of the Year 2015. “It is all true. It was a room full of people who just didn’t give a shit what people thought. I’ve always been a bit of a try-hard people pleaser and for me to see these children simply doing precisely what they wanted at that precise moment was such an eye opener. If you have actually experienced that you see how magical it is.”
It is great to get letters saying I love your son. Having a child with a disability can be isolating
John considers himself a better father for doing the show and the blog. “It encourages me to let go a little, to see the funny side and also think more about why my son might do certain things.”
Naturally, says John, he also basks in the affection of audiences and blog followers – he’s had more than a million hits to date. “When you’ve spent your life with people constantly finding the negative and never looking past it to see just how brilliant he is inside, it is great to get letters saying I love your son. Having a child with a disability can be isolating. Having that recognition and understanding for both of us has been incredibly encouraging.”
His ultimate dream would be to perform together with his son. “He has a fantastic sense of humour. It’s my very favourite thing about him.”
A few years ago John was asked to play Father Christmas at the children’s respite centre where he used to work. He agreed – and then realised he would have to take The Boy along. An elf costume was cobbled together.
“He insisted on calling me daddy, giving his opinion on everyone’s Christmas wishlist and chucking a gift at them with the words, ‘It’s a selection box. They’re all the same.’
“We had a brilliant time.”