Stand-up’s a simple business – just a man or a woman with a microphone and something funny to say. Lee Ridley has both of those things; the thing he doesn’t have is a voice.
Ridley has cerebral palsy and cannot talk. At comedy gigs, he delivers his jokes via a text-to-speech app on his iPad.
“When I realised I’d never be able to talk again, I was speechless”, his tablet intones in the rather posh, stilted electronic voice Ridley uses to perform as Lost Voice Guy. He waits for the laughs to die down and then taps the screen again. “I started out in a disabled Steps tribute band. We were called Ramps.” It may not look or sound like conventional stand-up, but it is funny.
Ridley, 33, was diagnosed when he was six months old. A journalism graduate, he works in communications at Sunderland City Council and did his first gig in Newcastle in 2012 after he went to see his favourite comedian Ross Noble. The pair met after the show and bonded over impressions of Stephen Hawking. “It was my mate who suggested that comedy might be a good idea”, says Ridley. “I couldn’t see how it would work but I’d always enjoyed stand up though so the idea stuck in the back of my head. Eventually I decided to give it a try because I knew I’d regret if it I didn’t.”
He searched for the clearest voice he could find on his iPad and booked a gig at a friend’s local club. He used to use a different voice for telling jokes but is now so used to Lost Voice Guy, he says, he uses it as his “everyday voice” too. “It’s just a shame it isn’t Geordie.”
Aware that he is an unusual proposition for audiences, Ridley deliberately plays on his unique position as the world’s first comedian to use a communication aid. “I’m here to tick some boxes and make you all feel awkward,” is a typical introduction. Most audiences lap it up, but not all. When he auditioned for The X Factor in 2012 – a mischievous turn in which he typed the lyrics to R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” into the app, then stood back and mimed – he was met with blank faces.
“I play on my disability on purpose to take away some of the stigma and to show people that it’s alright to laugh. So I think that helps get people on my side. By the end, hopefully they just see another guy telling jokes.”
This week he made it to the finals of the BBC Radio New Comedy Award, beating 750 other entrants. Previous finalists include Alan Carr, Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Russell Howard and Rhod Gilbert. This year’s crop is an excitingly diverse bunch. As well as Ridley, there is Thomas Ward, a voiceover artist from London, Tom Little who works in a children’s home in Cumbria and Hari Sriskantha, a software developer from Barnet. The winner will be decided on Wednesday at the Comedy Store, with the final broadcast on Radio 2. The prize is £1000 and a chance at a BBC commission. If Lost Voice Guy wins, it will be quite the story: BBC Radio commissions comedian without a voice.Reuse content