Arts & Books: You can't laugh at that

Heard the one about the one-legged odd-job man... Radio 4 did and commissioned a new comedy series. But is disability all that funny?
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Those who like their minority issues to be given the kid-glove treatment by comedy, stop right here. "I've never gone on any disability marches, never listened to disabled politics, never watched disabled television." Ash Atalla is the co-producer of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, a new Radio 4 sketch series on the theme of disability. He was aware from the outset of the responsibility that this involved - pristine material like this comes along once in a lifetime. "I thought, `There's a gap in the market and there's a lot of material that nobody will have done'."

In most respects, Yes Sir, I Can Boogie locates itself firmly in the Radio 4 tradition of the late-night comedy sketch show: a quick-fire series of skits recorded before a studio audience. As usual with such shows, the emphasis is on breaking in new talent, the only "names" being Big Train's Kevin Eldon and Simon Greenal, the Geordie porter in I'm Alan Partridge.

As for the show, occasionally the material is a thinly veiled reprisal against the ignorant able-bodied. Much better are the gags that utilise "disability" as an inspiration for humour considerably more oblique than mere retribution: the doctor, for instance, who regrets to inform new parents that their newborn son is "going to grow up a bit of a tosser" or the limbless odd-job man who specialises in extremely odd jobs indeed - "I can undermine your cat if you want".

Inevitably, the quality is uneven but at no point do the show's writers and performers (roughly half of whom are disabled) deploy "disability" in the expectation of special consideration. Instead, Atalla and the head of BBC Comedy, Paul Jackson, saw a chance to transform a minority issue into a source of mainstream entertainment. What Goodness Gracious Me did for the British-Asian experience Atalla believes Yes Sir, I Can Boogie can do for disability. As for his wish that audiences don't cut the show any slack, Atalla is the first to concede that an obvious hook makes good business sense. "With the sketch-show market being as crowded as it is, I think it's easier to get new sketch shows off the ground if they've got an angle, like Smack the Pony, which was mostly written and performed by women." Having acknowledged the trailblazing role played by Meera Syal et al, Atalla nevertheless expresses surprise that nothing like Yes Sir, I Can Boogie has appeared before now. After all, the comedy boom of the past 10 years has mined just about every other possible seam in an attempt to sustain itself. None the less, Atalla is scathing about those who feel that minority issue shows deserve a mainstream slot by rights alone. "As an industry, comedy is crying out for new ideas and new talent," he says. "So, had the right person come along with the right material and an executive seen a potential hit show, it would have got backed. I think you have to lay some of the blame at disabled people who have made TV - has anyone ever pitched a [comedy] show before?"

Andrew Caspari, the show's commissioning editor at Radio 4, treads more carefully. "Maybe there was a lack of self-confidence that it was reasonable to portray disability in this way - we always had to be terribly serious about this particular aspect of the human condition." Though he claims that the show in no way speaks for the disabled community ("I don't even know if they'll like the show"), Atalla does admit that a certain righteous anger characterised the pilot, a confrontational approach he has since softened.

The result, as he puts it, is "a lot of sketches about unusual people who don't fit in". One of the most effective revolves around a man whose "disability" is an excruciatingly comic shyness. "Almost all comedy comes out of taking a small imperfection in somebody and exaggerating it," says Atalla.

For Caspari, the appearance of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie "is perhaps a sign that we've all grown up. We've realised that issues that affect disabled people are relevant to all of us, that comedy that affects disabled people should be funny to all of us."

`Yes Sir, I Can Boogie' starts on Radio 4 on Thursday at 11pm